Ancelotti may have stumbled upon a solution to salvage Chelsea’s season. Rarely do we see Chelsea not play a system of 4-3-3, the formation that Jose Mourinho introduced to a naïve England in 2004 – befuddling the land so ingrained in the practice of 4-4-2.
But a return to retro may just be the way to arrest an alarming side from hitting rock bottom. Everton and Copenhagen have been the two guinea pigs to mixed results, and now we have the conundrum ahead of a crucial Manchester clash on Tuesday – can 4-4-2 really solve Chelsea’s problems?
England is still the land of the 4-4-2, with roughly half of the teams still playing with two up top. This creates individual battles in every position, as both sides are matched in all areas of the field. Therefore, the “better” side wins. Chelsea, is largely, stocked better across the pitch in all positions in terms of quality, and, Spurs and Manchester United aside, you would struggle to find a team playing 4-4-2 that has players who would start for Chelsea, and so, unless you have an immediate tactical change from the opposition, you run the risk of Chelsea setting up an early lead.
The current squad, and more relevantly, is very much running by the theme of “universality”. As the modern game develops, there is more and more of a demand for completion. Ramires started as a right back at Cruzeiro, and morphed into the midfielder we see today, and January signing David Luiz has the technical ability to play anywhere across the back four, as demonstrated against Fulham. This theme of “total” players serves Chelsea well when playing a 4-4-2, as it gives Ancelotti the flexibility of switching formations within games to effect a tactical difference, if needed. While many may bemoan Ancelotti’s tactical rigidity, it’s worth noting he effectively swapped Joe Cole for Benayoun, as the Israeli “He is an intelligent player, tactically he knows everything very well. I tried to put him as a right midfielder in this pre-season and he can also play in his usual position as a winger. I think for us he is a good player to play because tactically he is very intelligent.” Indeed, flexible, intelligent players can benefit from a 4-4-2, as they have the nous to switch to a more dominant set-up.
Another point to elaborate on him. By adopting a 4-4-2, Chelsea would then have the “ability” to play either a 4-1-2-1-2, a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2. All of these formations add different elements to a team’s play, all diverse enough to spread across multiple in-game scenarios.
Chelsea, as noted here on multiple occasions, play narrow through the park, playing to the strengths as any team would of the key players. Malouda likes to cut inside and drift centrally, higher up the pitch, and Ramires plays tucked in next to Essien, probably because of his natural shuttling position. As a result Chelsea’s game play was quite narrow for a 4-4-2, somewhat unsurprisingly. As mentioned above, when you have 1v1 situations across the pitch, two naturally wide players on the opposition’s wings could wreck havoc for Chelsea’s defence. For example, our upcoming tie against Manchester United will see Nani, who is renowned for his space and certainly unsettle the defence if Giggs can produce any lofted through balls, like he did against Manchester City for United’s opening goal.
Just one game
I think it’s important that I stop here with the analysis. Ancelotti has only just started playing the 4-4-2 in manifest against Everton and Chelsea. In the FA Cup we did not score until the 104th minute of extra time, and in Denmark we had an opposition that looked laboured, rusty and out of touch, unsurprisingly that Copenhagen have not played a competitive match in 2011. However they still managed just one shot on target less than the victors, and had 53% of the possession. While of course it cannot be argued that what you actually do with the ball is less important, it’s important to remember that a tiring squad cannot be as effective on the counter as they were at the start of a campaign.
While there are positives to take from our European clash, such as Torres’ encouraging improvements and a more rounded, efficient team performance, fans must remember the weaknesses of a somewhat outdated system (not to say it cannot be effective) and that there are bigger tests to come than a disappointing Copenhagen side.