Nicolas Anelka as a trequartista?
It was assumed that Fernando Torres’ arrival would mean a place on the bench for Nicolas Anelka, but Tuesday’s 4-2 victory over Sunderland showed that Carlo Ancelotti might have a different role in mind for the Frenchman.
So far this season, Chelsea have generally lined up in a 4-3-3 shape, with Anelka and Florent Malouda either side of Didier Drogba. In the long term, Torres might not be competing with Anelka and Drogba, who will be 32 and 33 respectively by the end of this campaign, but for the final months of the season, Ancelotti has somewhat of a selection dilemma, with three top-class strikers.
It’s difficult to see how Ancelotti could not play with two central strikers, likely to be a Drogba-Torres combination. Rather than turning to a standard 4-4-2 shape, something Ancelotti has never been a fan of, it’s likely he’ll revert to a diamond, similar to the 4-3-1-2 he favoured at Milan, and the same shape he started his tenure at Chelsea with.
That diamond is often remembered as being unsuccessful, and the move from the diamond to more of a 4-3-3 shape towards the end of the campaign was certainly crucial in launching Chelsea towards the title at a time when they seemed to be hitting a brick wall. For the first three months of the season, however, the diamond worked well. Chelsea simply came across injury problems that prevented them playing the diamond effectively.
Last season’s problems
First, when you play a diamond, width from full-back is essential. Chelsea had that from left-back through Ashley Cole, but Jose Bosingwa’s injury meant a lack of a similar option on the right. Paulo Ferreira and Juliano Belletti didn’t quite have the legs, Branislav Ivanovic was a centre-back shoved out to the right and not good enough on the ball. Sir Alex Ferguson exposed the problems there when he went to Stamford Bridge and dominated the game (despite United managing to lose 1-0) – he played Antonio Valencia high up the pitch on the right, Wayne Rooney upfront and an off-centre diamond in midfield, effectively letting Ivanovic have the ball. He didn’t hurt United, and Chelsea barely threatened in open play. Bosingwa’s return to fitness solves that problem.
Second, Ancelotti tried to play either Michael Ballack or Deco on the right of the diamond. Again, neither had the energy required to play that role, and after Michael Essien became injured in early December, Chelsea’s diamond was too static. Now, with Ramires – a player signed on the strength of his performances playing as a ’shuttler’ on the side of a diamond for Benfica and Brazil – Chelsea don’t have that issue either. In short, a diamond is now an option again.
A diamond was on Tuesday with Torres not yet available, but rather than playing Anelka and Drogba upfront, Ancelotti used Anelka in a deeper role, behind Drogba and Saloman Kalou. By all accounts, Anelka had an excellent game there. “Nicolas Anelka played very well”, said Ancelotti. “He used his ability in behind Didier Drogba. His performance was fantastic tonight.” His passing and tackling chalkboards are both very impressive.
Interestingly, there is relatively little difference between the positions Anelka took up in the trequartista role, and the positions he took up when playing on the right of a front three, suggesting he could adapt to the new role easily.
False nine becomes a number ten?
It is also worth considering that for last season’s trip to Old Trafford, Ancelotti preferred Anelka over Drogba for his link-up play. There, Anelka essentially played a false nine role – as Robin van Persie has for Arsenal, as Carlos Tevez has for Manchester City, as Wayne Rooney has for Manchester United. But interestingly, van Persie, Tevez and Rooney are naturally ‘withdrawn’ forwards (“number tens”) – Anelka was perhaps the first false nine who played that role despite being a recognised ‘out-and-out’ striker (a “number nine”), suggesting that his game has changed as he’s got older.
He wouldn’t be the first pacey striker to turn into a link player towards the end of his career – Michael Owen played behind the front two towards the end of his stay at Newcastle, and played the same role for Manchester United last weekend quite well, because he is now a more intelligent forward than he is a clinical forward. Thierry Henry often spoke of the idea that as he lost his pace, he would drop deeper and use his vision to become more like his old teammate Dennis Bergkamp. Henry’s alarmingly sudden drop in ability meant this didn’t happen on a permanent basis, but Barcelona’s game against Valencia last season – when he came on in a link role and turned a 0-1 into a 3-1 – showed he definitely had the characteristics to play there.
A lot depends on how attack-minded Ancelotti wants to be. A front three of Anelka, Drogba and Torres is very offensive, but then let’s remember that Ancelotti was happy to go to Anfield last season with a front six of Drogba, Anelka, Malouda, Kalou, Lampard and Ballack. When the time is right, he’s quite capable of going gung ho, and therefore Anelka-Drogba-Torres is an option for the remainder of this season.