Those that said that Didier Drogba’s departure to the Africa Cup of Nations would cause problems for Chelsea were right. For the wrong reasons, but they were right.
The Blues were barely inconvenienced by the Ivorian’s spell in Angola, winning all five games in his absence, rattling home 19 goals in the process. True, the fixture list fairy was kind to them, but Drogba’s departure effectively forced Carlo Ancelotti’s hand to switch from his trusted diamond formation. The tactical switch to the 4-3-3 provided his side with more width and penetration, a statement borne out by the fluent nature of their showings and shower of goals. Now Drogba’s back, and what to do?
Having already struck 19 times this season, Drogba was always going to go straight back into the Londoners starting XI in partnership with the previously excellent Nicolas Anelka. For the first half an hour or so of the visit to Hull, Chelsea reverted back to the wingless midfield quartet and looked disjointed. The Tigers were happy to follow the now familiar contingency plan against the diamond, by allowing Chelsea to pop the ball around harmlessly in midfield and funnel their attacks through the congestion zone of the middle of the pitch. The only width came from the forays of Branislav Ivanovic and Yuri Zhirkov, but that possession was gained in deep, harmless areas, and never in behind the home side’s back-line. Hull were rarely stretched.
Phil Brown’s relegation zone dwellers have not won in ten, yet started with enough energy to disrupt their more illustrious visitors, whilst also posing a threat themselves. However, Steven Mouyokolo’s opener after half an hour only prompted an increase in tempo and urgency from the league leaders, but more prominently, a slight tactical shift of stationing Florent Malouda and Anelka out wide to provide the necessary lateral danger to start causing problems. It’s a simple theorem that making the pitch as ‘big’ as possible, creates space. The sort of space the likes of Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and Deco can utilise. It was only when Chelsea expanded the play that they began to look effective, and over the course of the next hour, created enough chances to win the game. Taking the full share of the spoils would have been tough on a battling Hull, but in analysing where two points were missing, will Ancelotti dwell on the missed chances, or the wasted first third of the game? The Italian’s conundrum, which in truth has been rumbling on all season, is to how best to set out his side?
Ancelotti is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The diamond has always served him well, yet it appears to stifle his side, especially as teams have clocked on how to counter the formation. Chelsea have traditionally favoured the 4-3-3, first under Jose Mourinho, and during last season’s rebirth with Guus Hiddink. The return to the three pronged attack wouldn’t really be that hard to implement. Anelka didn’t relish the wide role when posted out there by Avram Grant, yet it didn’t stop him finishing as the Premier League’s top scorer in the last campaign. Also, Barcelona managed to pull it off to great success by using Thierry Henry as a floating advanced left striker. So, will Ancelotti stick with the unsparkling diamond, or accept that width works wonders?