Who is your favourite, current Chelsea player: Terry, Lampard, Drogba or Joe Cole, possibly? Chelsea have plenty of imposing characters, world class players in almost every position but I’m betting that fewer than 2% of people reading this will have said Michael Ballack.
Since Michael joined Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea on a free transfer in 2006 there seems to have been a certain indifference to the big German. You could put it down to an outdated anti-German mentality – the war was, after all, sixty years ago and everyone else seems to have moved on. But there is something else, it is infuriatingly difficult to pin down. Each of Ballack’s seasons at the Bridge have been curtailed through injuries to knees, calves and feet, but each time he came back and finished the season, as others around him tired, driving play forward through midfield. Yet those performances brought an acceptance of his place in the squad, admiration rather than love.
As Michael Ballack sits with an injured ankle watching Germany play Finland on television this Wednesday he can reflect on the way he has forced his way into the team and finally started to impose his personality on the side. And yet, there always seems to be an ‘and yet’ in Ballack’s career, his influence has been most noted in his absence.
The defeat at Wigan was the first league game Michael missed completely and it showed, throughout the match Chelsea’s midfield was slow to close down Wigan’s passing and lacked its usual punch going forward. A lot has been written about how ineffective Frank Lampard’s play has been since he moved to the tip of the diamond, less about how much better balanced and perceptive Chelsea’s midfield is when both Lampard and Ballack play on the left and right of the formation at home. Away from home the pattern is slightly altered; Ballack partners either Obi John or Essien in a deeper holding role. It is an innovation for which Ancelotti has received scant praise. At home we allow the full-backs to bomb on and look to attack through the middle, just as Scolari’s side played at its best. Away from home Carlo, despite the personal loathing between the two, apes Mourinho’s solidity and caution.
Ballack’s influence on how well we play was evident even in the first game of the season when Hull City came to town and were eventually, very eventually, seen off by Didier’s cross-come-lob. That afternoon while Chelsea hummed along going forward and Hull counter attacked with relative ease as the diamond formation acted like a sieve for simple through balls. Michael Ballack came on at half-time, replacing Obi John and the problems disappeared. Hull found no space to attack and Chelsea pressed relentlessly until the winner arrived three minutes into injury time.
It was the same in Nicosia, Chelsea could not stop Apoel passing the ball through midfield. In the second-half the problem became more obvious, coverage was reactive and slow, while Michael Ballack watched the game on television. It was said at the time that a better side than Apoel would have punished such poor closing down.
Many fans cannot accept, perhaps, that Michael is actually working hard for the team. He has a languid running style that disguises the huge amount work he gets through. Prozone stats you have to pay for with money this website doesn’t have, so all we can say is that years on the pitch have gifted him a knack of positioning and an awareness of the shortest distance to effectively close an opponent down. Ballack’s style is very simple, almost every pass is a quick, one or two-touch, lay off but he is always looking to drive play forward. Against Fulham at the Cottage in August he found two beautifully sharp first-time passes to take out our neighbour’s midfield; first to Anelka who fed Drogba 0-1, the second, cushioned on to Didier, who fed Nicolas 0-2. He is canny in the energy he expends, he makes his fair share of tackles, creates chances and grew up in the DDR, what is not to like?
His finishing is the only aspect of his game that has suffered since his move from Germany. At Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern München in his last five years in the Bundesliga Ballack scored an average of 13 goals a season, with us the mean is just 8. That said he already has three this season so perhaps he is on a roll.
In contrast, Frank Lampard has been having a hard time of it of late. Everyone has now noticed his lack of goals and the commonest reason sited is his elevation to the head of the diamond. A ‘bad time’ to Frank Lampard is a relative term; his team are top of the table and playing well. Expectations of Frank are so high the anything less than perfection is marked. Ballack’s role, in contrast, has been less high profile. When he played in Germany the public expectation of him was on a par with England’s of Beckham or, latterly, Wayne Rooney. A merciless public profile obviously has its effect on an individual and Ballack’s choice to swap Munich for West London was in part to get away from the glare.
Ballack’s lack of love from Chelsea fans could be down to something as simple as his captaincy of our old international rivals Germany. Michael may miss the Finland game but while at Chelsea he has captained Germany 33 times since 2006. That should be a source of great pride for Chelsea fans, as should the memories of England Germany games since Ballack started playing, he was there at the Olympiastadion in 2001, he knows what a 1-5 thrashing feels like.
Ultimately, Michael Ballack doesn’t care whether we love him or not. Ballack came to Chelsea to win medals in our colours, if that pleases us along the way all the better. He holds a unique and unenviable record in football of twice finishing runner up in four major championships in a season. In 2002, Bayer Leverkusen finished second in the Bundesliga, the German cup and the European Cup final. His Germany side went on to lose the World Cup final. Then in 2008 he contrived to do it again, finishing second in the Carling Cup, Premiership and European Cup before Germany lost the Euro 08 final to Spain. He has enough winners’ medals to refute the charge of Jonah but when he comes second he really knows how to do it.
Michael Ballack is one of the best midfielders ever to play at this club, so if you can’t show him love remember how much respect is due. Perhaps we will only really miss him when he is gone and there is a chance he will be gone soon after his recent announcement that he might retire after next summer’s World Cup.
Oh and, by the way, my favourite player is Ricardo Carvalho, great defender and scorer of the World’s Most Perfect Goal in April 2006 as we won the title by beating United at home. Total football.