By Kieran Lovelock
With Chelsea romping emphatically to a 6-0 win away to Wigan this weekend, and with Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City having already dropped points questions are being asked as to whether or not anyone can beat Carlo Ancelotti’s men this season.
It is undoubted that Chelsea currently have an aura about them similar to that of the Arsenal team that went unbeaten in the 2003/04 season. So why is this? What has changed from two seasons ago when they finished third?
The main question that must be asked is to what Carlo Ancelotti has done in order to turn a team that was renowned for their ability to consistently grind out 1-0 home wins into one that can score goals from all areas of the pitch on a regular basis.
The answer surely lies partly in the way that the Italian has changed the system around from a 4-3-3/4-5-1 to a 4-1-2-1-2 in turn giving his team more flexibility and more dynamism in their attacking play. By making these adjustments he has provided the midfield and the defense with two targets to aim at up front, rather than just the one that Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant favored to deploy.
In Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka Chelsea have two center forwards who are similar in their style of play. However, neither Avram Grant nor Luiz Felipe Scolari could work out a way to play them up front together, instead preferring to use Anelka in a slightly wider role. But Ancelotti has worked out a system to get them both playing up front in their favored position and it has proved decisive.
What this means is that Anelka no longer has to worry about taking up his position in a 4-5-1 formation when Chelsea lose possession, instead all he has to be focused on is closing down space amongst opposition defenders and then getting into an advanced position to receive the ball again once the players behind him get it back. This in turn benefits Didier Drogba who no longer needs to wait for support to arrive from midfield as Anelka is already there looking to run off Drogba when the Ivorian gets the ball. What this also does is put less strain on the likes of Frank Lampard allowing him to make smarter runs rather than just getting forward for the sake of it.
But despite recent adjustments the main key to Chelsea’s current success is that the fulcrum of their team (Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba) has now been together for up to six years. They are all therefore fully familiar with each other’s games whereas the likes of Arsenal haven’t had such solidarity due to their chopping and changing of center backs as well as rarely having their best strikers fit for sustained periods of time. The fact that Chelsea seem to play in such harmony, whereas Arsenal struggle for consistency, is therefore no coincidence and all the while they continue to play and train together the Chelsea players will only complement each other further.
But despite going on this record breaking run what must be remembered is that Chelsea’s real test has yet to come. Time will only tell whether or not they will end up in a similar vein as the Arsenal invincibles. Chelsea still have areas that need improving, for example they have no out and out wide men in their squad therefore making their style of play rather predictable and less exciting against teams that stifle the pace and power of Lampard and Drogba. This was seen in the Champions League last season when they were knocked out by Inter Milan who managed to stop them playing through the middle with any kind of effectiveness. At a time when Chelsea simply had to change their style of play in getting the ball out wide to make something happen they just simply didn’t have the resources.
History also shows us that Chelsea are hugely dependent on John Terry and Petr Cech staying fit. Every dominant team of the past 40 years has had players that they simply couldn’t afford to lose and Chelsea are no different. In the19 70’s Leeds had John Giles and Billy Bremner, in the 1980’s Liverpool had Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen, in the 1990’s Manchester United had Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel and in the 2000’s Arsenal had Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry. It is just a fact of sport that certain teams need certain players to play in order for them to operate at their peak level.
But if Chelsea can keep their captain and their goalkeeper fit, and if they can manage to weather the inevitable storm that comes about when teams begin stifling their strengths, then they will be very difficult to beat indeed.