Tuesday’s game at the Stadium of Light witnessed Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan Christmas tree formation in its most blatant form yet. The largely ineffective Nicolas Anelka was dropped to the bench and with him went the second striker role. Instead, in came Salomon Kalou to drop back alongside the front of the diamond midfield and Christmas had well and truly come early for the Blues. Michael Ballack came in for John Obi Mikel, and Deco for Florent Malouda. In a 4-3-2-1 formation, Chelsea’s strengths in midfield came to the fore as Frank Lampard enjoyed a more productive night sitting more centrally than against Hull and Kalou and Deco were given licence to roam – to deadly effect.
Chelsea starting XI vs. Sunderland
17 Bosingwa – 2 Ivanovic – 26 Terry – 3 A. Cole
13 Ballack – 5 Essien – 8 Lampard
20 Deco – 21 Kalou
The failure to break down Sunderland’s central blockade to goal despite the unusually high percentage of the ball must have left the portly Ancelotti with food for thought going in at half-time. After all, he sat through the Hull game at the weekend wondering why all that possession wasn’t getting them anywhere. Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole were again the team’s attacking outlets down the wings, but too often were unavailable to provide that much-needed wide option. However, a swift reminder of the basics (and that perhaps width isn’t the only way to attack) during the break revitalised the performance and shot Chelsea back into the limelight as would-be champions, and just two games in.
Are we getting carried away so early in the season? Yes and no. Chelsea disappointed after a similarly blistering start last term and are very much aware of the marathon-not-sprint analogy. They are again the bookies’ favourites to win the title, which after two games is rather a nominal tag – after all, someone has to be favourites for the title each week and this is Chelsea playing without distraction. Will the same results and level of performance be as apparent come mid-March when they are involved in cup runs and European competition?
The point that has convinced this writer that perhaps Chelsea has turned a corner, even so early in the season, is the fact they have been able to win the two games – and with a performance in the second – using a different formation.
The team’s inability to work together at the club on anything other than a 4-3-3 has been a major stumbling block ever since Jose Mourinho left and it highlighted a tactical immaturity in west London. Mourinho brought the 4-3-3 when he arrived, along with the players, and hit the Premier League for two years with its effectiveness against every side. But then the league (and Manchester United) adapted and fought back – Mourinho didn’t have an answer and promptly left. Avram Grant took the reins and maintained the status quo. The tactics were left unchanged for the remainder of his time in charge – the guy was unpopular enough without trying to actually manage how the players played. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s arrival saw the Brazilian attempt to introduce a different training scheme and tactical approach to the team, only to be met with resistance by the players both on and off the pitch, ultimately costing him his job too.
The Hull and Sunderland games have witnessed some teething problems with the boys in Blue again trying to adapt to a new formation, but the marvellous display from Deco and similar performances from Lampard and Ballack show that now, perhaps, Chelsea has found a Coach that understands the players and is able to help them tactically – for want of a better phrase – grow up. The main rivals for the title are Manchester United for the simple fact that circa 2006-2009 they were the side capable of grinding out 1-0 results as well as 5-0 demolitions. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had a plan B when plan A failed – able to line up the side 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 and still see them collect three points. Liverpool’s inability to find plan B saw them throw away last year’s title with 0-0 draws against poor sides, whilst Arsenal also – wrongly or rightly – only know one way to play the game.
The past three 4-3-3 seasons have seen a steady decline in performance and results at Stamford Bridge (albeit briefly lifted by Guus Hiddink) and the team needs to find that plan B to give their title ambitions the best chance. Ancelotti’s tinkering with the tactics may provide Stamford Bridge with a plan B, and even a C and D. The Christmas tree isn’t without its faults – namely the lack of width going forward and similar lack of protection on the counter-attack. But should the team continue to adapt to the new line-up with that 4-3-3 still in reserve for emergencies, the only plans they’ll need to make will be how best to celebrate winning the title.
Chelsea Club Focus
Terry commits future to positive Blues set-up – July 29
Reading ask all the questions of Chelsea – August 5
Chelsea start as they mean to go on – August 12 Patience is a virtue – August 18
Christmas comes early for the Blues – August 21