West Ham will hold on tightly to Declan Rice. Chelsea can afford to wait on him, but they cannot afford to end the window without a defensive midfielder.
Who was the last no asterisks, full time defensive midfielder at Chelsea? Nemanja Matic as he left to reunite with Jose Mourinho against Antonio Conte’s wishes? Nearly everyone else has those asterisks so that would make for three full seasons since the Blues last had a true defensive midfielder.
Ironically, that was the case before Matic too. John Obi Mikel could play the role, but it was clear that Chelsea was missing that player in the double pivot. Many talk about the signings of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa winning the title, but the signing of Matic that came the window before was just as important.
Fast forward to today and the Blues find themselves in a similar situation. That is why the Blues have been pushing hard for Declan Rice. West Ham is holding on tightly, however, and Chelsea may struggle to get him this window. The Blues can afford to wait on him specifically, but they cannot afford to wait on a new defensive midfielder if they want to improve on the coming season.
The main issue for Chelsea is going to be balance. The only way to play the likes of Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Timo Werner, and Mason Mount together is with a smart defensively minded midfielder behind them. Right now, that is just N’Golo Kante. Kante is not a defensive midfielder per se, but he is the only player on the Blues roster truly capable of the role.
Without Kante last season, especially after Frank Lampard began to use dual eights, the teams entire shape had to change to accommodate his loss. That is why 3-4-3 returned towards the end of the season. It is also why 4-2-3-1 was used earlier in the season as opposed to the dual eights post Covid; Jorginho simply left too many gaps playing alone in the pivot to make him a viable option for Lampard.
There were reports that Rice was a target for centerback, not defensive midfield, but those have all but died down since the signing of Thiago Silva. Whether it was a smokescreen or not remains to be seen, but it is clear that after a few seasons in midfield that Rice is probably best suited there. He would surely not replace Kante in the starting XI but he would give the Blues a fall back option should Kante become injured or need a rest.
Rice not being a clear starter is a big reason why the price has to be right and why Chelsea can wait on him. West Ham will likely face a relegation battle again this season. They may be lucky to reach November with a single point given their schedule. They are also cash strapped and Rice is arguably their most valuable asset. If Rice doesn’t go this summer, he will surely go next and likely at a cheaper price.
There is also the matter of Ethan Ampadu. While it remains to be seen how Chris Wilder and Sheffield United will use him, he shares the same sort of skill set as Rice. Should he have a breakout season in midfield (or even in their back three), that could give the Blues pause in their pursuit of Rice next summer should they fail this window.
But waiting on Rice or seeing how Ampadu develops does not give Chelsea the defensive midfielder they need this season. Chelsea reinforced the attack to overcome the opponents that sat in against them. They reinforced the back line with the guile of Thiago Silva. Edouard Mendy is expected to join and create competition between the sticks any moment now. The press should be improved, the scoring easier, and the defense more organized with a better keeper behind them. But the Blues will still need to close that gap between midfield and defense and right now Kante stands alone in that defense.
If Chelsea fails in their pursuit of Rice, they will still need a defensive midfielder this window. Otherwise they will be overly reliant on Kante for another season and the Frenchman will need his days off after injury issues and pure wear and tear. If Kante is absent, the whole set up has to change to cope. If the Blues really want to improve in the coming season, they still need to plug that hole in midfield like they had to back when Matic joined.