By Alex Hess
Now that the initial uproar over Rafael Benitez's appointment as Chelsea manager has subsided, much is beginning to be made of the adjustments which the Spaniard has started to implement upon his new side.
Though such discussions have mainly centred around Benitez's tasks of plugging Chelsea's porous defence and reforming the club's morose No.9, one major alteration already employed by the manager has been largely overlooked: the reintroduction to the side of Oriol Romeu.
Despite his prominence in first-team affairs under Andre Villas-Boas, Romeu was conspicuous by his absence during Roberto Di Matteo’s time at the helm. This season, before Di Matteo’s dismissal, the 21-year-old had started only two of Chelsea's 18 league and Champions League fixtures, completing neither. Last campaign, following the promotion of the Italian, told a similar story: two starts in all competitions.
Since Chelsea's latest manager took over, though, the midfielder has already figured in three of the team's four fixtures, coming on for John Obi Mikel against Manchester City, before replacing the Nigerian outright for the meetings with Fulham and Nordsjaelland - the latter a bona fide must-win, whoever the opponent.
Compared to 360 minutes in 40 competitive games under Di Matteo (not including League Cup fixtures), Romeu has already enjoyed 191 first-team minutes in four matches under Benitez.
Given that the centre of midfield is a vital area of any team – and not least in a Benitez one – the interruption to the recent Mikel-Ramires status quo represents a serious move on the new manager's part. Having not yet shared a pitch with Mikel under his new boss, Romeu seems to have displaced the Nigerian at the forefront of Benitez's plans.
Of course, Frank Lampard is soon due to return from his recent lay-off, but, even if the increasingly fragile 34-year-old was not expected to depart Stamford Bridge at the season’s end, the long-term future of Chelsea’s midfield would not lie with its senior citizen.
Despite signing a new long-term deal with Chelsea only this week, it would seem as though Mikel's ponderousness on the ball has consigned him to a second-choice berth for the time being, while Romeu's speed of foot and mind renders him a better-suited partner for the tireless Ramires in the side’s engine room – a partnership that will only be consolidated following the news of Mikel’s impending three-game ban.
Though he lacks the sheer height of the Nigerian – something that could explain his sole exclusion so far, when his side met Sam Allardyce's West Ham – Romeu boasts a far greater comfort on the ball, and, with his broad six-foot frame, is certainly no pushover himself.
With the Blues' new-look line-up now seeing Romeu and Ramires occupying the centre of the park, the obvious comparison to be made is with the partnership of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in Benitez's Liverpool side.
The delegation of 'destroyer' and 'distributor' duties within the Ramires-Romeu pairing is less black and white than with Alonso and Mascherano – Ramires is certainly no slouch in possession, while Romeu offers a muscular, competitive midfield presence – but the early signs point toward the Spaniard being handed the primary task of acting as his side's deep-lying passer, with the Brazilian’s Mascherano-esque mobility vindicating his likely employment as a defensive shield.
As one half of the 'double-pivot' in Benitez’s customary 4-2-3-1 set-up, Romeu's task is a simple but highly specialised one: to receive and dispense possession with minimal fuss and maximum efficiency.
Alonso, of course, was and remains a modern-day master of the position, rarely taking more than two or three touches to control the ball, asses his options, and release, setting in motion many a swift attack with his understated promptings from deep.
Though it would be foolish to expect Romeu to hit such heights, he will be called on to provide a similar function. More than any other player, the manager will look to his compatriot to provide the brains of his side.
Given Romeu's footballing upbringing, it something that he should be well-suited to. He was schooled at Barcelona's famous La Masia academy, an institution that constantly teaches its players to think, think, think; pass, pass, pass, and which has produced a glittering string of ball-playing midfielders that range from today's fleet-footed gems, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, to the apparent apple of Roman Abramovich’s eye, Pep Guardiola himself.
Romeu, in the summer of 2011, was deemed surplus to requirements at Camp Nou (they are somewhat well-stocked in central midfield), but was rated highly enough by the Catalan professors of possession for them to insist on a buy-back clause in the deal that took him to Chelsea.
Make no doubt about it, the boy has talent. What he has not had is a prolonged run in the Chelsea side – at least, not in a Chelsea side playing with anything approaching a healthy balance. But if there is one thing that his new boss is likely to instil, it is balance, and if Benitez’s early selections are indeed a sign of things to come, Romeu is unlikely to be given a finer opportunity to flourish in English football.
And so, back to what is inescapably one of Benitez's foremost duties: resurrecting Fernando Torres. A telling statistic from the striker's time at Liverpool is that 69% of his goals for the club resulted from passes that had pierced the opposition's defence. Many of these were made by a rampant Steven Gerrard, but plenty also came from the boots and brain of Alonso.
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Torres’s inspired form on Merseyside under Benitez was as much the result of his team’s tactics as anything else, and the quintessential cog in that set-up was its midfield passer – as demonstrated by the team’s swift demise once Alonso had departed for Madrid, a year after his attempted sale to Juventus.
Romeu is no Alonso – few footballers are – but he could well hold as much influence as any Chelsea player upon whether the side adapt successfully to their new manager's methods, or perish alongside him. Having found himself dusting off his No.6 shirt since Benitez's arrival, the midfielder is likely to be one of the few faces at Stamford Bridge actually smiling at the new appointment.
Saturday's trip up north to face a dismal Sunderland side should, in theory, provide the perfect opportunity for all three Spaniards to begin to prove their worth at Chelsea: Romeu and Torres on the pitch, Benitez off of it. All have the pedigree, but all have so far failed in winning over the Stamford Bridge faithful.
One thing is certain: Benitez and Romeu are well-suited for one another. Benitez is not one to embark on a beautiful friendship with any of his players (just ask Alonso) but if either he or Romeu are to survive in their current jobs beyond the next few months, their recent introduction may need to be the beginning of a bountiful one.