Is Nicolas Anelka a diamond geezer?

Chelsea seem to have overcome teething problems against Hull and are now moving up through the gears as the west London club’s players come to terms with Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond formation. The Italian has forced his AC Milan tactics on Chelsea and, despite some initial problems, it now seems to be working nicely. The potentially tricky away game at Fulham turned out to be a thoroughly efficient performance with the Cottagers never really threatening.

The midfield controlled the ball excellently, with John Obi Mikel particularly impressive – a far cry from the first match against Hull when he looked completely out of his depth. Both goals came from the midfield suddenly upping the tempo and the excellent understanding of Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba – the two forwards have now clicked in a way that will worry all other managers in the top flight. However with Ancelotti sticking so firmly to his guns when it comes to his formation, can Anelka actually keep a place in the team when he appears to be the wrong kind of player for that position. Looking back to AC Milan’s final game of last season against Fiorentina, they lined up in this formation:

1 Dida

15 Zambrotta – 19 Favalli – 3 Maldini – 18 Jankulovski

21 Pirlo

5 Flamini – 8 Gattuso

10 Seedorf

22 Kaka – 9 Inzaghi

The way that Milan played under Ancelotti is, of course, very similar to how Chelsea have been playing this season and in the above formation every Milan player can be substituted for Chelsea players of a similar style. With the exception of one – Nicolas Anelka. He is deployed in the Kaka role as a deep-lying striker who must link the play and, with no disrespect to Anelka, he is no Kaka. As any fan of Arsenal, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester City, PSG, Bolton, Fenerbache and Chelsea will attest, Anelka’s game is about pace, getting in behind the defence and deadly finishing. He has not received many plaudits for his exciting link-up play, and has certainly never been compared to Kaka. They are both undeniably quality players, just in very different ways. Ancelotti has come to Stamford Bridge to get Chelsea playing in his style, and that is not to have two out-and-out strikers up front. When Joe Cole returns from injury, he would arguably link the play up more effectively than Anelka, as he seems to fit the Kaka role better than anybody else at the club.

Chelsea’s pursuit of Andrea Pirlo this summer could also suggest that Ancelotti is going to force his views onto the Chelsea players, and if they cannot adapt he will bring in players that he knows can pull it off effectively. While Anelka may not be the greatest link-up player to grace the Premier League, one thing that he does have in his favour is that on his day he can score goals against any team. If his partnership with Drogba continues to blossom as it did against Fulham, then Ancelotti will be posed with an interesting dilemma – to change the way he wants his teams to play football, or leave out a form player who does not quite fit his philosophy. It will certainly not be a straightforward decision – there are as many advocates of playing a formation to suit your players as there are of playing the most effective formation, regardless of your players.

Ancelotti has made his teams play in this style for much of his career and to change now could be difficult for him. But football never stops evolving – teams need to change with the times and with the kinds of players that come through. As the old-fashioned players who would sooner kick a shin than a ball were replaced by finesse players, the traditional two solid banks of four has been replaced with flowing variations of 4-3-3, 4-5-1 and 3-5-2 – with players swapping positions and using skill rather than brute force to outwit the opposition. So, in a game that fully embraces the Darwinian ideals, will it be Ancelotti or Anelka who is forced to adapt in order to survive?

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