Rafael Benítez runs through the options and offers a pointer to the future for the Stamford Bridge engine room
Chelsea's trip to Teesside was always going to be akin to a cup of tea leaves, in so far as anyone would look a fool or a knave if they tried to read too much into it. Still, even after factoring in caveats about the quality of opponents who are struggling in the Championship and the slew of fringe player fielded by Rafael Benítez, clues could still be detected as to Chelsea's readiness to fulfil their ever-decreasing ambitions for this season.
The first thing to note, given the rumblings of discontent from Chelsea in the buildup, was that the visitors began briskly unlike in Sunday's flop at Manchester City. Not that we were expecting them to trudge about holding picket signs following the "frank exchange of views" between the manager and players at training on Monday but such vibrancy was encouraging, all the same. It was hardly enough to prove Benítez's claim that there is no schism at the club, merely a manager who chops and changes his lineup with the cheery understanding of his players, but it did suggest that any divisions are not so deep as to sabotage the club's campaign. It remains to be seen whether the performance and win at Middlesbrough has merely delayed that denouement.
Similarly, it will be interesting to see whether John Terry's reinstatement to the centre of defence means he is being gradually reintegrated into the team following injury or, more likely, whether the manager sees him as a player for games of lesser importance and, therefore, one who will be back on the bench for Saturday's Premier League contest with West Bromwich Albion, which in light of the ferocity of the battle for Champions League qualification, has surely become a greater priority than an FA Cup tie. Branislav Ivanovic played alongside Terry at the Riverside but the way that Paulo Ferreira floundered suggests that the Serb will soon revert to the right-back berth.
Benítez's decision to give 18-year-old Nathan Ake a full debut at Middlesbrough presumably indicated that he sees defensive midfield as the most problematic area of the team and the youngster put in an accomplished performance, showing a dynamism, intelligence and a progressive range of passing that suggests he could be worthy of deployment against higher calibre opposition.
At the very least, Ake's display should help coax Mikel John Obi out of the cosy shell that the Nigerian lapses into too often. Alongside Ake, Ramires excelled. The Brazilian's shot for Chelsea's opening goal at the Riverside, crowning a display of typically strong running and passing, may convince the manager to try him at the base of the midfield quintet again, instead of Frank Lampard, who struggled against City and does not look as comfortable as, say, Liverpool's Steven Gerrard or Manchester United's Ryan Giggs when converted into a deep-lying midfielder.
If David Luiz is going to take Terry's place in the defence for the big games, then Ramires and Ake have given cause to believe they could be viable alternatives if Mikel and Lampard continue to be easily bypassed by high-grade opponents . It was noticeable that Chelsea became ragged when the Ake-Ramires partnership was broken up by second-half substitutions.
Solving the defensive midfield conundrum could, in turn, give Benítez the courage to roll out his big guns more regularly. Talk of the Tricky Trio was all the rage earlier this season but in his 27 matches in charge Benítez has only been able to persuade himself to field Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata together from the start six times. Usually it has been Oscar who has been omitted, which has been a shame, depriving us of the sort of interplay that he and Hazard conjured for Victor Moses's victory-sealing goal against Middlesbrough. Mind you, Moses's display of skill, incision and speed showed that if the Tricky Trio are to be kept apart, then it should only be to include Moses. With a sharper striker, a couple of Moses's crosses might have resulted in Middlesbrough copping a more severe beating.
For all the imbalance in Chelsea's midfield, their most glaring failing has been up front and it could be argued that is where the most instructive occurrence in this match took place: in the 51st minute Fernando Torres at last helped Chelsea open the scoring – by trying to get out of the way.
With Demba Ba starting to look so hapless in front of goal, there is a case for Chelsea emulating Spain and dispensing with an orthodox striker to start Oscar, Mata, Hazard and Moses together.