The emergence of Branislav Ivanovic as a major influence in the Chelsea defence may have caught many by surprise. After Carlo Ancelotti was forced to rotate personnel in the hope of filling the void left courtesy of a knee injury to Jose Bosingwa, the Serbian – who joined Chelsea initially as a centre-half – was next in line.
Having joined the club in January 2008, he had to wait until October of that year for his first Premier League appearance. Featuring only 16 times in the 2008/09 Premier League season ensured Ivanovic was determined to grab hold of the opportunity of minutes on the pitch afforded to him by Bosingwa’s absence. The start of the Serbian’s tenure at right-back mirrored what was to be expected when shifting an uncompromising central defender into an area where they would receive more of the ball, and often expected to generate attacking moves. Cumbersome and rigid, the 26-year-old’s limitations stood out but were masked as the Blues’ superiority swept teams aside.
However the unforgiving nature of Chelsea’s play encouraged Ivanovic to be more active. Wave after wave of attack on the opposition’s penalty area incited the man put at right-back to merely ‘do a job’ into surpassing any expectations put on him, excelling as a foil to Ashley Cole, who was rampant on the left flank. The turning point in Ivanovic’s approach came within a week in December. Having created two goals against Everton, he was brought down following a foray into the area, enabling Frank Lampard to convert the penalty and record a priceless win. From there on he has evolved into a competent attacking right-back highlighted by his surging run and assist for Solomon Kalou in the Champions League tie away to Inter.
Ivanovic has proven to be aerially adept in both boxes – just ask Liverpool fans. A brace of headers at Anfield in the Champions League continue to build his rapport with the Stamford Bridge faithful whilst Liverpool’s European dreams crumbled. The Serbian’s dominance at right-back last season earned him a place in the PFA Premier League Team of the Season, a clear indication of his progress.
For all his sturdy defensive work last season, Ivanovic’s fling with the Chelsea right-back slot could be on the rocks. He has played there just twice so far in the league this campaign – with one of those outings as a 60th minute substitute as his side held a 3-0 lead over West Bromwich Albion – preference going to natural right-back Paulo Ferreira. He featured in the position in Chelsea’s opening Champions League group victory MSK Zilina on Wednesday but in the wake of Ricardo Carvalho’s re-acquaintance with Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, Ivanovic’s presence is required in the middle of defence, allowing him to establish himself alongside captain John Terry. Whilst Ivanovic is still an infant in terms of central defenders, another year learning under Ancelotti is likely to reap a second season decorated with success.