Before Tuesday night’s League Cup outing, Oriol Romeu had not featured in a Chelsea shirt since April, when he was in the team which played away to Arsenal.
He was absent from the club’s pre-season stateside and the only real indication he still existed before this midweek was a token place amongst the substitutes in the odd game so far this season.
Yet on the day after celebrating his 21st birthday, the Spaniard offered a timely reminder of his presence and his capabilities as a solid performance against Wolves will certainly have given Roberto Di Matteo food for thought in midfield.
The visitors were as poor a team that have come to Stamford Bridge in many a year and the match was effectively over after just three minutes, so a contest it was not, but there was still ample time for strategies to be developed, styles to be honed, and minutes to be played for.
Appearing slightly leaner than when we last saw him (not that he was ever particularly portly) and with oodles more confidence about him, he enjoyed the freedom of the time and space on offer to dictate the way Chelsea went about their play.
He has often been a tidy organiser; positionally capable with fine awareness and a propensity to get the ball and play it simple.
Tuesday’s outing remains a small sample in isolation but he was in pro-active form, seeking long, raking passes out to the flanks and keen to bring the ball forward in the transition from defence to attack.
His relationship with compatriots Cesar Azpilicueta and Juan Mata may also be something to watch in the coming weeks and months. The trio have played together at junior level for Spain but this was a first club match with each in the line-up, yet their footballing education and understanding of the roles each undertake was such that it appeared to have been carefully honed over many years of hard work.
To cap things off, he scored a penalty as something of a birthday present. Whether he was instructed to take it or not, the decisiveness with which he strode forward and the expertise in the finish from 12 yards was demonstrative of his night’s work.
Last season, Romeu played 24 times in all competitions. He started well, typically protected by a midfield built in front of him, allowing him to play in front of the back four and do little else; a low-risk model which asked him to do the basics and not a lot more.
He’s clearly capable of upping his productivity and exerting a greater influence on affairs, and so it begs the question; will he get to?
Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel are doubtless the first choice pairing in the central midfield area but whilst both are fine footballers, neither are currently suited to playing their current roles.
As the season goes along, they’ll become more effective through familiarity, but thus far there have been more than a few hiccups involving the duo and the centre-backs behind them.
Romeu may be a better fit, he may not be, but his thoughts on playing as part of a ‘double pivot’ (a term I personally could never get along with, but so be it for this purpose) are rather interesting:
“I think, when you play 4-2-3-1, there is always one of the two in the middle who can play more advanced and go forward more than the other one, like Lamps or Oscar. The other player has to stay more and keep the balance of the midfield.
However, I think the balance is more important than the formation itself. When the team plays well, the formation is a little thing. Sometimes, people like to say, if you don’t play well, the formation is not good. However, I think the key is the mentality of the players – if they believe in the way their team is playing, it doesn’t matter.
If you believe in the formation, it doesn’t matter, because the players are always going to move around the pitch and that means sometimes you are in a 4-2-3-1 but, other times, you are in a 3-4-3 or something different. It changes all the time in the game.
If you rotate your positions all the time, then your opponent doesn’t have a marker and he doesn’t know where or when to press. I think that makes it more difficult for them, because they are doubting themselves a little bit.”
(Interview with the official Chelsea FC Matchday Programme)
Romeu is a well-schooled footballer – not just a midfielder – with the requisite tactical knowledge to go alongside his technical assets. With a year under his belt in the English game and an increasingly mature approach, he should see an upturn in his playing time in the hectic schedule until the new year, and who knows, he could well establish himself as the solution in a troubled area of the pitch for the new-look Blues.