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For all his chopping and changing the Portuguese boss is still trying to find his perfect first team. We attempt to establish the strongest Blues line-up ahead of a crucial period

DEBATE
By Chris Myson

Since the start of his tenure in the summer, one of the biggest issues for Chelsea boss Andre-Villas Boas has been his inability to establish a clear preferred first team.

What started with a pre-season debate over whether Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres deserved to start in attack became a selection saga when Frank Lampard was dropped and brought back early in the season, and the Portuguese manager’s indecision has now spread to all areas of his squad.

Indeed, as he approaches his 22nd game in charge of the Blues, Villas-Boas is yet to name an unchanged starting XI. Given the poor results of late, fans and observers have called for certain out-of-favour players to be given a chance ahead of his regular picks, but even they haven’t produce when handed the opportunity.

Then, a young Chelsea side including the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Josh McEachran – starlets who represent the other alternatives – were comfortably beaten at home to Liverpool in the League Cup. So, despite all the chopping and changing, it appears the Chelsea boss is still trying to nail down a winning formula.

But he is running out of time to come up with a solution ahead of potentially season-defining games against Newcastle United, Valencia and Manchester City. While reinforcements look likely to come in during the January transfer window, the damage could already be done when it comes to challenging for major honours by the time that opportunity arrives.

Here, Goal.com analyse each area of the Chelsea squad and the options Villas-Boas has at his disposal, before putting forward a suggestion for the best XI the Blues can currently put out with consideration given to quality, form and suitability to the team’s style.

The formation

During the Roman Abramovich era, Chelsea’s success has been built upon the cornerstone of their 4-3-3 formation, with two wide players supporting a lone striker – a role performed with aplomb by Drogba over the years.

The other formation applied by the Blues has been the diamond midfield, which allows two central strikers to be paired together at the expense of less width due to the lack of wingers. This was a regular sight in the impressive early days of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign and also in the less successful dying embers of his regime, when he struggled to pair Drogba with his new £50 million team-mate.

In the League Cup defeat to Liverpool, Villas-Boas reverted to a diamond system to try and revive his side’s fortunes, with Lukaku joining Torres in attack and McEachran playing ‘in the hole’. It is a system the Blues can easily play, and may arguably better suit the likes of Daniel Sturridge, allowing him to play in his preferred role as a striker rather than out wide. In truth, the flexibility of some of the club’s key attacking players, like Juan Mata or Sturridge, means both are viable options if Villas-Boas wants to make alterations from match to match or even during a game.  

The core of Chelsea’s set-up with four defenders, a holding midfielder and two central men in the middle of the park, remains unchanged with either system, but to get the best out of the Blues' attacking players and to provide a new approach and fresh impetus, a diamond midfield may be the best route to go.

The goalkeeper


Ross Turnbull may have saved Andy Carroll’s penalty in midweek but in truth he is a long way away from challenging to be Chelsea’s No.1 goalkeeper. Henrique Hilario provides experience and cover – nothing more, nothing less.

Thibaut Courtois is a shot stopper with a big future ahead of him, but the Blues clearly see him as a man for the years ahead rather than the present after they instantly loaned him out to Atletico Madrid having secured his services in the summer.

All that means Petr Cech has to be the man in between the sticks in west London. Despite the fact he is currently enduring an indifferent spell of form and has not been at the same levels he initially showed in the Premier League for quite some time now, the Czech remains by far their best option.

Villas-Boas will be hoping that the 29-year-old, who is now enjoying his eighth season with the club, can get back to his best to play his part in halting the alarmingly high number of goals being conceded this season.

The defence


John Terry and Ashley Cole are Chelsea’s most senior defenders and the manager would be unwise to cast them to one side when he needs them most. Cole is a consistent performer for club and country, while it would be typical of the captain to produce some top performances when the critics are circling, even if his physical prowess does seem to be fading.

Alex was strangely marginalised for much of the early season, but his chance may now have gone after bad performances against Bayer Leverkusen and Liverpool. Branislav Ivanovic is a good option at either right-back or in the centre, but too often this season he has been underwhelming.

It may be time to keep the faith with David Luiz, who is capable of producing either brilliance or calamity at any given moment. Despite his erratic tendencies, there could be a top defender waiting to emerge once the rough edges have been polished.

Jose Bosingwa, when on form, can provide the perfect blend of defensive solidity and attacking thrust down the right, but he has been inconsistent since returning from long-term injury. Villas-Boas will hope his compatriot can return to the great displays of his early days at Stamford Bridge. Ryan Bertrand and Paulo Ferreira provide cover in the full-back areas.

The midfield


In holding midfield, John Obi Mikel continues to be the Blues’ preferred selection but in too many big games in recent years he has not performed up to the standard expected of a regular in a title-challenging side. While he has some talent, the 24-year-old lacks the core positional and tackling skills required to be considered an automatic selection.

The best man for the role, Michael Essien, is currently out with another long-term injury and Luiz remains only a wildcard option for the position. Oriol Romeu, the summer signing from Barcelona, has made an impressive start at Stamford Bridge when given the opportunity, showing remarkable composure, positional sense and ability to begin passing moves from deep.

While it may be not be ideal to be play the starlet regularly, it is a risk Villas-Boas has to take due to the club’s poor form and one that may pay dividends in the long-term as he looks to bring youth into an ageing side.

Ramires’ energy and box-to-box ability makes him a sure-fire pick in central midfield as he continues to grow into Premier League life, while Lampard’s experience, commitment and ability to pop up with vital goals makes him the ideal partner over Raul Meireles, who has quality but is perhaps a luxury Chelsea cannot currently afford.

Florent Malouda’s powers seem to be fading and McEachran may be best served by a loan move so he can develop with first-team football, meaning Mata is the definite selection in attacking midfield.  While he can also play out wide, a central role gives the impressive Spaniard maximum opportunity to influence the game and pull the strings.

The attack


The future of Drogba may be very much up in the air, but as things stand Chelsea need proven players to stand up and be counted during these vital fixtures, and the Ivorian is certainly that.

While the powerful striker may not be the player of years gone by, he still provides a real threat and a focal point in attack. The goal against Leverkusen could be a positive towards some form.

Undoubtedly, the Blues’ star in attack this season has been Sturridge, even though he has been played out wide – a position he openly admits he would prefer not to be playing in. With his pace and finishing ability, the chance to play alongside Drogba centrally - with the playmaking skills of Mata in behind - could mean even more goals are on the horizon.

All that means Torres has to settle for a place out of the team and fight his way back into the starting XI. The Spaniard has had more than enough chances to recapture some form in a blue shirt and Villas-Boas cannot afford to wait any longer. Nicolas Anelka seems destined for the exit door, while Lukaku will have to be patient for his chance due to the form of Sturridge.

Suggested current best Chelsea XI

GOALKEEPER


Cech


RIGHT-BACK
CENTRE-BACK
CENTRE-BACK
LEFT-BACK

Bosingwa

Terry

Luiz

Cole

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD

Romeu

CENTRE MIDFIELD
CENTRE MIDFIELD

Ramires

Lampard

ATTACKING MIDFIELD

Mata

CENTRE FORWARD
CENTRE FORWARD

Drogba

Sturridge

HAVE YOUR SAY

Do you agree with our suggested best Chelsea starting XI? If not, who should be there instead and which players should get the chop? What areas to Chelsea need to strengthen most in January and is Villas-Boas capable of turning things around? Let us know your views on the debate by posting a comment below or by engaging with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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