It looks like Rafa is making tactical adjustments in this photo, but we all know he isn't - Jamie McDonald
Graham argued this morning that Chelsea need to buy a midfielder to take the next step, so I'm going to present my counterargument
Earlier today, Graham made an excellent point about Chelsea's midfield needing to be addressed. The midfields that Chelsea have deployed this season have been essentially useless in allowing Chelsea to control games, largely due to the personnel we have being a poor fit for the system we employ. While purchasing some midfielders better suited to this system would almost certainly improve our performances, I think there's a cheaper and easier solution that wouldn't cost Chelsea a cent.
Chelsea ran into trouble under AVB last season largely due to the 4-3-3 system that he was using. The high pressure/high defensive line tactics didn't suit either of our center forwards, and our center backs were about as poorly suited to the system as could be imagined. While AVB eventually switched to a 4-2-3-1 system, Chelsea never really took off until Roberto Di Matteo took over and moved the defensive line much deeper*.
*AVB did that on occasion as well, most notably in the must win CL game against Valencia and that excellent stretch in that same time frame. He just didn't stick to it.
The downfall of Di Matteo this season may actually have come from the summer purchases, as Chelsea made some moves that allowed Di Matteo to employ a more attacking system. Unfortunately for Di Matteo though, the issues in the defensive line still remained the same. While Chelsea all of a sudden had enough midfielders and fullback depth to employ a high pressure system, the center backs and (alleged) center forwards were still not going to suit a high line. An adjustment would need to be made to the formation we used last season, but the manager would need to be creative.
That adjustment happened under Di Matteo, but he struggled to find a system that best suited the collection of talent at hand. A managerial change later, and we're still playing the same 4-2-3-1 and suffering from the exact same issues. Should we really be surprised?
As Graham outlined earlier, Chelsea currently have six (five after Romeu's injury) players competing for a pair of pivot places. Three are clearly better suited as part of a three man midfield (Ramires, Frank Lampard, and Oscar), and I'd argue that the injured Romeu is as well. David Luiz is a center back that can provide cover in a pinch, and I'd suspect that he as well would be better used in the midfield with less positional responsibility at this point. That leaves just John Obi Mikel that is possibly best suited for the formation we are using now, and he's proven over the course of his career that he's more than capable as a lone holder.
There's a cheap* and easy solution to our midfield woes that not enough people seem to be talking about. Just stop playing a 4-2-3-1, and put in place a solution that best utilizes the talent we have at hand. That's what we employ a manger for in the first place, and it seems like something that should be obvious.
*And by cheap, I mean free
I know Rafa hasn't had a pre-season to work with these players, and with the fixture congestion we've had it's got to be difficult to make major changes due to the lack of training sessions. The reality of the matter is that most of our younger players actually have more experience in other systems than they do in a 4-2-3-1. The adjustment should be a fairly simple one to make, especially as the performances we've been seeing in the 4-2-3-1 have been mostly poor anyway.
It's hard to say at this point exactly how tight things are with FFP, and if buying a temporary upgrade is going to prevent us from adding a potentially world class part down the road I'm fully supportive of riding out the remainder of this season with what we already have in place. That's no excuse not to best use the parts we have though, as the primary responsibility of a manager should be to get the best performances he can out of the talent at his disposal.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, Rafa Benitez is probably not going to attempt that. Rafa has been married to the same basic formation since he began managing in Spain, and his history suggests that he won't make any major changes. Rafa has always hit the market to buy players for his system, preferring that avenue of change over simply adapting his basic tactics to the players already at his disposal already. That's why he'll never be as good a manger as Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson, two managers who have constantly adapted their formations to suit the core of players they already had.
Adding a central midfielder would be a very good thing for Chelsea, but regardless of that fact they should be looking to play a system that maximizes the talent they have available. They could improve greatly by adding options to the talent pool Rafa has to select, but they could probably improve just as much by having someone else deploy that talent*.
*I say this not out of a general dislike for Rafa Benitez (which I have), but because a 15-year sample should be adequate to deduce that a formation change is unlikely with the current manager.
If we have money to spend on a midfielder and the guy we want is available in January, by all means, we should go for it. I have no problems waiting until the summer to buy though, as odds are we'll have an easier time getting a true impact talent with which to upgrade our roster for the long term. We should be able to improve anyway, simply by changing the shape and responsibilities of the midfield that we employ. Not buying players because of FFP is acceptable, failing to change the current shape that we use in order to maximize our talent is not.