Jamie Priest considers the options.
Unquestionably the most significant moment of what was the most eventful January ‘Transfer Deadline Day’ in recent history was Fernando Torres finalising his £50million pound move from Liverpool to Chelsea – a new British transfer record.
The immediate reaction of all Chelsea fans was inevitably that of incredible excitement, at the prospect of seeing one of the world’s best forwards in a Blue shirt, yet there is also widespread discussion as to how best to incorporate Torres into the Chelsea side, notably how to get the best out of both Torres and current front man Didier Drogba.
It’s unthinkable that the most expensive player in British transfer history won’t be regular for Chelsea, and it is equally unlikely that Torres will be forced to play out wide – in either of the positions currently occupied by Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka – and so being asked to drop deep and help out defensively. It’s fair to assume that Chelsea haven’t spent £50 million on one of the best finishers in the world, only to ‘waste’ those goalscoring talents out on the wing. So, unless Ancelotti is prepared to bench Drogba, a leading character in the dressing room, a change in formation will be required.
A possible solution to Ancelotti’s expensive problem is a return to the 4-4-2 diamond formation he used at Milan, and for half of his first season at Chelsea. Ancelotti is clearly fond of the system, and, on the face of it, it seems an ideal way to allow Drogba and Torres to play together. The most notable flaw in the formation is the lack of natural width from midfield (Jonathan Wilson explores the formation in far greater detail here) yet, in Ashley Cole and José Bosingwa, Chelsea are blessed with two of the most potent attacking full backs in the league, if not the world. Bosingwa’s form this season has been far from exceptional, so his place in the side – especially after the signing of David Luiz, potentially forcing Branislav Ivanovic out to right back – isn’t guaranteed, but a return to a diamond midfield would considerably strengthen his claim for regular starts. In fact, the knee injury that ended his season last year also contributed to the eventual scrapping of the formation, as, whilst he is superior defensively, Ivanovic doesn’t compare when comes to attacking down the right.
Although even if Ivanovic is chosen at right back, summer signing Ramires should be able to provide width on the right, as his incredible work-rate and speed allows him to fulfil roles both on the wing and in the middle of midfield, as explained in Zonal Marking’s analysis of Dunga’s Brazil side prior to the World Cup this summer:
The role of Ramires is also interesting. He effectively plays the same role he does for Benfica, shuttling from a central midfield position when defending, to a right-wing position when in possession. This requires a tremendous amount of energy, but the fact that he and Maicon (the right-back) possess both stamina and speed, means that those two can effectively cover three positions (right-back, right central midfield and right-wing) by themselves.
As well as the injury to Bosingwa, another factor in the abandoning of ‘the diamond’ was Frank Lampard failure to properly adapt to it. Asked to play in the most advanced role of the midfield four, Lampard’s form was nowhere near the levels that Chelsea fans are so accustomed to seeing from him, although his goalscoring record was propped up by the 12 penalties Chelsea were awarded last season.
Having moved Lampard back to a deeper role, Ancelotti then pinned his hopes on Joe Cole for the role that Kaka – and before him Manuel Rui Costa – had thrived in at Milan, but he too failed to adapt, leaving Ancelotti with little choice but to scrap the formation. Although he too had unsuccesful games playing the role, of all the players currently on Chelsea’s books, Florent Malouda appears to be the best suited to succeeding at the tip of the diamond, at least on the evidence of the Chelsea’s start to the current season. With Cole bombing forward from left back, almost playing as a left winger at times, Malouda was given the licence to roam inside and to influence the game significantly – he scored 6 goals in his first four league starts of the season. Since then, as injuries in the middle of midfield piled up, Malouda has often been asked to fulfil a deeper role in the midfield, usually covering for Lampard or Essien, and his form has suffered as a result of it. A return to a role which allows him freedom to join the forwards, presumably Drogba and Torres, could see him replicate that early season form. The average position map, shown below and provided by ESPN, from Chelsea 6-0 thrashing of West Brom – a game where he scored twice – illustrates how Malouda (number 15) was not only the most advanced Chelsea player, but he also played very centrally. Malouda has also registered more ‘key passes’ – 72 – than any other player in the league highlighting the merits of having him as the side’s primary playmaker. (Stewart Downing is a distant second with 56 key passes completed).
Recent weeks have given clear indication Didier Drogba still hasn’t recovered from the bout of malaria he contracted in October. Famed for his pace and power, both attributes have been significantly lacking recently – notably in the home game with Blackburn – so a slightly deeper role in the side, with Torres spearheading the attack, could be the answer to getting the best out of Drogba again.
Drogba and Torres undoubtedly have the quality to form a prolific partnership upfront, however, if the diamond formation is chosen by Ancelotti, how the entire side adapts to change in formation will determine whether or not Chelsea’s marquee signing can reinvigorate their season and spur them onto to challenge both for the league title and in Europe.