There was a time when Chelsea appeared to be a winning machine. Under Jose Mourinho and his 4-3-3 system, the sight of Chelsea on your club’s fixture list was an ominous sight. Whilst today under Carlo Ancelotti the club arguably plays slightly more attractive football, there is a feeling amongst clubs that you can now get at Chelsea. Defensively they lack the steeliness that Mourinho enforced, and Petr Cech is certainly not the same player since his collision with Stephen Hunt. However, another difference between Chelsea past and Chelsea present is the teams width, or lack their of.
Jose Mourinho and Phil Scolari signed Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa respectively for Chelsea, in a bid to provide width, whilst the midfield narrowed into a diamond. Utilising full-backs in an attacking sense is a fashionable tactic, enforced by a number of clubs. Barcelona for example use Dani Alves to great effect on their right hand side. However, Barcelona also utilise Messi, Pedro and Thierry Henry in wide attacking positions, whilst at Manchester United, Park Ji-Sung, Cristiano Ronaldo, Giggs, Antonio Valencia, Nani and even Wayne Rooney have all provided width for their team over the years. Is it a coincidence that Chelsea’s three year stint without a title has coincided with the club selling off their wingers?
Arguably, Chelsea’s problems began at the beginning of Jose Mourinho’s last full season in charge. That season, the Portuguese reportedly had Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack forced upon him. With the Ukrainian and German joining the ranks at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho could no longer deploy the 4-3-3 system that had been so effective in his first two seasons. Didier Drogba had to play, but so too did Shevchenko. Further, Ballack’s arrival in midfield meant that a 4-3-3 would be impossible, as Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele were all labelled ‘untouchable’, and yet a place had to be found for Ballack, the clubs highest earner.
The likes of Ballack and Shevchenko signalled the end for Damien Duff, Arjen Robben, Shaun Wright-Phillips and now apparently Joe Cole. Chelsea lack the pace offered by Robben, Wright-Phillips and Duff in years previous, and so can no longer counter-attack on teams, or stretch opposition fullbacks . In fact, the width provided to Manchester City by Craig Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips against Chelsea a few weeks ago was almost reminiscent of how Mourinho used attacking wide men to attack from the flanks, but offer support to full backs. The space Bellamy and Barry had on Chelsea’s right hand side for the second and third goals for example, showed how narrow and isolated Chelsea’s full-backs can at times be. Whilst Chelsea appeared to run out of ideas in the game as Manchester City absorbed the pressure, and then countered.
Chelsea may well win the league, FA Cup, or even the Champions League this season. However, at present it would be surprising to see the West Londoners achieve such feats. The club has several players approaching the twilight of their careers, and come the summer, Chelsea should take the opportunity to begin restructuring their squad. At the moment it is heavy in central midfielders, offering all power, but little pace. Abramovich and Ancelotti should bring back the Chelsea wide boy, and with a bit of luck, might just take the Premier League title back to Stamford Bridge at the same time.