Pre-match press conferences are frequently lifeless affairs. Without the fusion of a recent controversy or over-hyped talking point, they often take the form of players and managers flat-batting inquisitive questions posted by optimistic hacks. Friday afternoon at Chelsea’s Cobham training complex was no different. Starry-eyed from the Blues 100% record after just six games, questions were put to Carlo Ancelotti as to whether his side could go the whole campaign undefeated, “There are too many good teams in the Premier League to remain unbeaten all season so now it is important to maintain this level for as long as we can.” was Ancelotti’s auto-pilot retort.
Whether Wigan Athletic were at the forefront of Ancelotti’s synopsis of a ‘good team’ will never be known, but it was they who abruptly ended the league leaders unbeaten start to the season at the DW Stadium on Saturday afternoon. And deservedly so.
Had Petr Cech not been sent off after conceding the penalty, which put Wigan 2-1 up, Chelsea may have gone on to win the game. Already against Hull, Sunderland and Stoke they have responded to losing the opening goal to record victories. The Cech red card may provide Chelsea with some protection from criticism, but look closely, and there are questions to be raised.
Ancelotti and his men received early plaudits for the way the new ‘diamond’ formation worked, but the system was easily stifled by the vigour and effort of a zestful Wigan outfit. Chelsea’s early games took on a recurring theme of plenty of possession, marauding full-backs and creativity through central midfield. Certainly against Sunderland, Fulham and Burnley, the Italian’s wingless wonders made light of their lack of width by creating a deluge of chances and winning handsomely. Since then, the control and movement of the ball and subsequent creativity has been stymied, and through no real master plan from the opposition.
A constant bone of contention for the top clubs is the spoiling tactics of those pesky little sides who come, flood the midfield and make it hard work for the silky style merchants to waltz through them unopposed. Chelsea’s problem is they pack the midfield of their own accord, congesting play, denying themselves space, allowing teams such as Wigan to chase and close easily. If the raids of Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa are monitored, Chelsea is left with few options other than to hustle through a traffic jam of midfielders towards goal. The absence of any genuine wide threat means the opposition full-backs can tuck in to support the centre-backs, doubling up on the potentially lethal double act of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka.
All of which means the ‘diamond’ is potentially hampering Chelsea’s attacking threat, reducing the space and effectiveness of some very dangerous players. It’s a notion, which will not be lost on managers preparing teams to face the Blues. It is a problem they must overcome, especially at Stamford Bridge. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s reign as Chelsea boss was punctuated by a succession of home draws, culminating in a goalless draw with Hull, which eventually brought his demise. Scolari bemoaned the lack of a ‘special’ player – after missing out on Robinho – to provide the spark to unhinge resolute defences. Despite their impressive start to the campaign, Ancelotti has pretty much the same hand to deal from, with the addition of the talented but unproven Daniel Sturridge and Yuri Zhirkov, solid, but special?
The real conundrum for Ancelotti lies in does he pick players to fit into a formation, or pick a formation to suit his players? Should the ‘diamond’ resemble a cheap diamante, where and how can he change? He has wide players at his disposal, albeit none of world class pedigree. Florent Malouda – inconsistent, Salomon Kalou – infuriating, Joe Cole – injured. By simply employing two wide men to provide width would force change elsewhere. If he wants to keep Drogba and Anelka in tandem, a traditional 4-4-2 would be required, meaning a surplus of highly paid international central midfielders – presumably Deco, Michael Ballack and John Obi Mikel – not getting a game. If he wanted the security of three central midfielders, a quasi 4-3-3 with a lone striker could be used, but once again, would that be at the behest of a Drogba-Anelka combo, or by deploying the Frenchman as a makeshift wide-man?
Decisions, decisions for the £6.5m-a-year Italian boss to get right, with no transfer window to look forward to either. For now there will be no panicking amongst the ranks following a defeat which can be passed off as a bad day at the office, but it remains to be seen whether Chelsea’s diamond will result in the sparkle of silverware.