The deciding strike in Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Aston Villa last weekend came from amongst the unlikeliest of sources. The stunning, 66th minute, left-footed volley, launched from just behind the penalty spot to bullet past Brad Guzan, accurately, powerfully and sublimely caressing his right-hand post in such an aesthetical manner that it wouldn’t look out of place on a Cristiano Ronaldo highlight reel, was produced by none other than right-back Branislav Ivanovic.
How could such a beautifully crafted, technically-demanding goal come from such a rugged and attritional defender? This wasn’t simply a swing-and-hope of the Phil-Jagielka-against-Liverpool-variety either. Ivanovic developed his own space inside the box, peeled back a few yards to gain that extra bit of leg power and waited for the cross before applying an expert, Goal-of-the-Month-contending finish; the Serbian had already envisaged it in his mind’s eye, he just needed to execute accordingly.
The 30 year-old has scored definitive goals for Chelsea before; last month he netted against Liverpool to secure Chelsea’s place in the Capital One Cup final, last season he claimed the only goal – a swerving effort from 18 yards – in the Blues’ highly entertaining 1-0 victory at Manchester City, and the year before that he bagged the winner in the Europa League final against Benfica.
This was different however. This was unusual for a defender – let alone one as predominantly physical as Branislav Ivanovic. As Jose Mourinho quipped post match, ‘every striker in the world would be proud to score that magnificent goal‘. He wasn’t exaggerating.
Yet, those who’ve watched the English table toppers closely this term wouldn’t have been all that surprised – at least, not as surprised as the Premier League’s wider audience. In truth, the Serbian international has shown miraculous improvements to the offensive and technical sides of his game all season – something which the Villa-busting-volley on Saturday paid specific homage to.
Statistics can often be misleading, but Ivanovic’s are incredibly revealing. His averages per match for chances created, 0.81 to 1.04, shots, 1.06 to 1.13, and successful dribbles, 0.53 to 0.92, have all increased from last season, exceed those of City’s Pablo Zabaleta, Southampton’s Nathainel Clyne and Arsenal’s Mathieu Debuchy, and are only a hair’s whisker behind England and Everton’s Leighton Baines – unequivocally the most effective attacking full-back in the division – as shown below.
The Villa strike isn’t a goal the Chelsea defender was capable of scoring when he first signed for the west Londoners in 2008 – or, for that matter, 18 months ago. But the Blues are an incredibly different animal to last season, with a higher defensive line, a less compact midfield and a more fluid, open attack, whilst the shifting demands on Premier League right-backs – particularly, an increased expectancy to contribute going forward – have completely transformed the role over the last seven years.
Ivanovic has adapted accordingly, particularly over the course of last summer, to keep up with vogue trends and Chelsea’s change of style – no easy feat for a juggernaught of a centre-back-cum-right-back now just two weeks shy of his 31st birthday. The supporting world-class industry of right-winger Willian has certainly played a part this term, giving Ivanovic the licence, and subsequently the confidence, to have more impact in attack, but that shouldn’t take away from the improvements he continues to show.
And it’s not just goals, or chances or dribbles; his passing has become more creative and incisive, his positioning considerably less conservative and his all-round game stemming from a front-footed, more ambitious mentality, rather than simply sitting narrowly alongside John Terry and Gary Cahill.
Consider the heat map below for example. The right is from Chelsea’s 2-1 win at the weekend, and the left is from the reverse fixture (at Stamford Bridge) last season. Attacking wise, there isn’t a huge difference, but most noticeable are Ivanovic’s touches along the byline and a lesser involvement around his own penalty box on the right, compared to the left, despite playing away from home.
That’s made Ivanovic an incredibly important outlet for Chelsea this season, regularly overlapping the inside-cutting Willian, but what I find most impressive is manner in which he’s enhanced his game to accommodate such demands. Last season the Serbian was amongst the Blues’ weakest links when given the ball in forward positions; now, only three Chelsea players have more assists than him in the Premier League, and he’s creating as many chances per match as the winger in front of him.
Indeed, the goal against Villa was something special, but to brand it coincidental, fortuitous or the result of the law of averages would be completely farcical. Rather, it’s the spectacular, deserved consequence of a lot of hard work.