Ancelotti Right to Dump Chelsea’s 4-3-3 for Diamond Formation that Could Bring Richer Rewards
BLOG EXCLUSIVE: (Crikey, that sounds a bit pretentious, doesn’t it?) Ancelotti has arrived at Chelsea to quite a fanfare, and has wasted no time in stamping his authority on the club. The 4-3-3 tactic is out, replaced by Ancelotti’s preferred diamond formation. Will this be the change Chelsea need to get back to football’s summit?
Chelsea’s friendly with Inter Milan last Wednesday, in the unfamiliar surroundings of California’s Rose Bowl stadium, represented the second opportunity for new manager Carlo Ancelotti to assess the quality of the squad at his disposal. For the interested onlookers, it was also a second opportunity to see how the Italian might chance things tactically for the Blues.
While Ancelotti’s four predecessors have all tended to stick with variations on a 4-3-3 formation that took Chelsea to the semi-finals of the Champions League five times in the last six years, the signs so far suggest the former AC Milan boss will buck the trend and introduce the 4-4-2 ‘diamond’ formation that lead the Italian to two Champions League titles at the San Siro.
Ancelotti first unveiled his ‘Blue diamond’ formation as Chelsea took on the Seattle Sounders the previous Saturday, and saw his side grab a fairly comfortable 2-0 win, one that was repeated four days later against the slighter sterner test of Inter.
Even at this early stage of the season, it seems the new formation might be agreeable to the type of players at Chelsea’s disposal, and could just enable Chelsea to become even more successful than they have managed in recent years.
Ancelotti’s diamond sees one midfielder in a deep-lying role, tasked with winning and distributing possession. With Milan, this role was generally filled by Andrea Pirlo. Against Seattle, Ancelotti employed Deco in the position — an intriguing prospect ahead of the new season. Against Inter, it was John Obi Mikel who performed the role, a player Ancelotti has already praised for his all-round abilities. The Nigerian looks likely to start the new season in the role, but many fans will want to see how Deco’s vision and skill might impact on the position.
Elsewhere in the formation, Frank Lampard is certain to take up the attacking role behind the strikers, especially as his new manager has already drawn parallels between him and Kaka. Just as the 4-3-3 of previous years was tailored to Lampard’s benefit, the new role should allow the England international to continue to exploit his phenomenal shooting threat.
The diamond is completed by two further midfielders who, while also providing an element of width to the side, are generally tasked with covering all areas of the pitch in support of whichever fellow midfielder is nearest the ball. At the San Siro, Ancelotti knew he could rely on Gennaro Gattuso to help Pirlo with uncompromising style, and at Stamford Bridge it appears almost certain that Michael Essien will be asked to fill the role with similar conviction.
Clarence Seedorf’s position, one granted slightly more creative license, will likely be taken by Michael Ballack, as long as Ancelotti feels comfortable that the German’s game is not too similar to Lampard’s for the two to co-exist. Florent Malouda, who has started both friendlies so far, might be another contender for the position as he offers a little more natural width.
The main point of interest, particularly among the English media, about Ancelotti’s proposed 4-4-2 is that it will entail Chelsea employing two main strikers — something that they haven’t done on regular basis since Jose Mourinho came to the club back in 2004.
While the prospect of Didier Drogba lining up against reigning Premier League top scorer Nicolas Anelka is one that will excite fans, Ancelotti resisted such a move in the club’s first two friendly, preferring to partner Drogba with fellow Ivorian Salomon Kalou, and Anelka with summer signing Daniel Sturridge.
Ancelotti is clearly looking at playing one target man up front, with another second striker working off him. With Drogba undoubtedly earmarked as leader of the line — other than his first season at the club Chelsea have always looked more imposing when the 31-year-old is happy and on form — Ancelotti will surely hand Anelka the supporting role once the mercurial Frenchman proves he is prepared to put in the required work-rate (or an alternative is signed). Against the Rossoneri, where the two main strikers did link up, the partnership looked promising.
With John Terry’s departure publicly, albeit belatedly, denied by the player himself, the Blues will maintain the same back four that served them well last season. Ricardo Carvalho might yet leave the club, but if he does Alex is capable of stepping up into the first-team, as he did during much of last season.
But while the defence will remain relatively unchanged, Ancelotti’s formation will cause problems for many of the club’s midfielders. Predominately wide players like Malouda, and even new signing Yuri Zhirkov, seem to be slightly square pegs to the round holes of the Italian’s lineup, while Michael Ballack will wonder if his power and presence will be sacrificed for the guile and creativity of Joe Cole (a player more akin to Seedorf) when the Englishman returns to full fitness.
Ancelotti, might feel that such problems will be a price worth paying if it enables his key players — Essien, Lampard, Drogba — to remain in roles that suit their game best. After all, when all three are performing well, Chelsea are a very difficult side to beat.
Or perhaps the Italian will opt to adapt his trusted formation, pushing the two central midfielders out to the wings in order to create positions that could accommodate Malouda, Joe Cole, or £18 million Zhirkov (who, in fairness, could also play at full-back). This was the formation the Italian used against his former club in a friendly on Saturday, with Beletti on the right and Zhirkov (or scored a goal and earned man-of-the-match honours) on the left, providing some width but also defensive nous to the diamond.
But such a lineup only leaves one spot left at the base of midfield for either Essien or Mikel — forcing Ancelotti into a choice between dispensing of the Pirlo role, or leaving out Chelsea’s only world-class defensively-minded midfielder. Against AC, it was Mikel who got the nod. But could Essien feasibly be left out on the biggest stages?
Ancelotti might decide to put just one midfielder out wide — for example, Zhirkov on the left — and give his side some width by instructing his support striker to work predominantly from the other side. This would preserve Essien’s place in the team (a must) and also keep Mikel or Deco at the base of midfield. It is an option that might be worth exploring, especially if Ancelotti believes his roaming full-backs will need more help against opposition wingers.
With three more friendlies and a Community Shield clash with Manchester United still to come before the season kicks off in earnest, Ancelotti has plenty of time to tinker with his formation until he is happy and his players are comfortable. In that time he might even identify areas of the squad where additions would be most effective, and persuade Roman Abramovich to get his chequebook out once more.
For example, Atletico Madrid’s Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero, a player coveted by Chelsea earlier in the summer, would seem a perfect fit as Drogba’s support striker. If the Argentinian proves too expensive, Chelsea might visit the sales at Real Madrid, be it for Gonzalo Higuain — a fan favourite at the Bernabeu but perhaps expendable — or a creative dynamo like Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder. Ancelotti might even advise the club to head for his native Italy, and encourage bids for Napoli’s talented midfielder Marek Hamsik, Gaetano D’Agostino of Udinese, or even Livorno’s pint-sized attacker Alessandro Diamanti. Any one of those players would seem to suit Chelsea’s new system.
While Abramovich may have tightened his belt in recent years, surely the new manager can persuade the Russian to finance the purchase of one more player, especially if he also ships out some of the deadwood in a squad that could be trimmed.
Whatever Ancelotti decides to do, he has already demonstrated that he is confident and self-assured enough to stamp his own formation, and authority, on his new club. After all, it has brought him European and domestic titles in the past, achievements that attracted Abramovich in the first place. Lest it be forgotten, the main criticism of Ancelotti’s last season at Milan was not that the tactics were outdated, but rather that the squad was too old to be effective. The average age of the Italian’s prospective team at Chelsea would be just 28 — an enviable blend of youth, athleticism, and experience.
Having seen variations on a 4-3-3 serve their side so well in the recent past, Chelsea fans might understandably be loath to see it depart. But perhaps its time has passed, and it will be the diamond formation that leads Chelsea back to where the fans feel the club belongs, at the top of the Premier League.
And if Ancelotti gets it working perfectly, then there is no reason why the club can’t win a Champions League title that has so far proved frustratingly elusive.
—————————- Cech ————————————-
Bosingwa —– Terry ———– Carvalho/Alex ——- Cole
————————— Mikel ————————————-
—- Malouda/Cole/Ballack ——- Essien/Zhirkov ————
—————————- Lampard ——————————-
—————- Drogba ——————— <- Anelka -> ——–