Carlo Ancelotti and Chelsea’s tactical flexibility and attacking merits won them the Premier League title last season – and could well do again.
Manager: Carlo Ancelotti
Position Last Season: 1st
Transfers in: Yossi Benayoun (Liverpool, £5m), Matej Delac (Inter Zapresic, £2.7m), Tomas Kalac (Sigma Olomouc, undisclosed, loaned back) Ramires (expected to Benfica, £18m),
Transfers out: Michael Ballack (Bayer Leverkusen, free), Juliano Belletti (Fluminense, free), Ryan Bertrand (Nottingham Forest, loan), Ricardo Carvalho (expected to Real Madrid, £6m), Joe Cole (Liverpool, free), Deco (Fluminense, undisclosed), Scott Sinclair (Swansea City, £500,000-£1.2m), Miroslav Stoch (Fenerbahce, £4.95m), Rhys Taylor (Carlisle, loan)
In a way, it is difficult to see how Chelsea could improve on last season – at least in the Barclays Premier League.
The Blues accumulated 86 points in their title-winning season – admittedly less than they did in their previous triumphs in 2005 and 2006 – but last season’s Premier League was the most competitive in years, with many teams dropping points. They beat their arch rivals for the championship, Manchester United, both home and away.
Chelsea also scored a record number of goals in the league in the last season: 103 in 38 matches at an average of 2.71 per match. When they last won the title in 2006, they had a mean of 1.89 each game.
What is interesting about Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea team is that they are very flexible tactically.
They began last season with a narrow 4-4-2 diamond formation, with full backs Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa providing an excellent option out wide – not too dissimilar to how Luis Felipe Scolari began his Chelsea reign. When Bosingwa injured his knee in October though, Branislav Ivanovic could not offer quite the same attacking threat – though he remains a great defender.
Chelsea struggled for width in subsequent games, with Manchester United perhaps unlucky to lose at Stamford Bridge. Antonio Valencia pinned Ashley Cole back, while Giggs played on the left of central midfield for a numerical advantage. Ivanovic may have been left free, but Sir Alex Ferguson felt it was a sacrifice worth making as the Serbian got used to his new role on the right.
In the six games that followed, Chelsea only gained maximum points from two – tight 2-1 victories over Fulham and Portsmouth. In the remaining four, Everton, West Ham, Manchester City and Birmingham followed Man Utd’s asymmetrical template of playing a right winger high and wide against Ashley Cole and tucking their left midfielder into the centre. Chelsea dropped points and it looked ominous for the West London team as they would soon lose players to the African Cup Of Nations.
This is where Carlo Ancelotti particularly earned my respect as a manager in a superlative campaign.
Deprived of Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, Ancelotti shifted formation to the Christmas tree with Joe Cole and Florent Malouda behind Anelka. This trio shone in the 7-1 win over Aston Villa, as well as the 1-2 triumph over Manchester United at Old Trafford, which Chelsea were much more in control of.
The remainder of the season saw Ancelotti adapt Chelsea’s shape based on the opposition. He would revert to the diamond, the aforementioned Christmas tree – as well as 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, and the only thing for Chelsea fans to really rue in their best ever campaign was their UEFA Champions League exit to Jose Mourinho’s eventual tournament winners, Inter Milan.
This season, Chelsea have (nearly) added Brazilian midfielder Ramires to their ranks, as well as effectively swapped Yossi Benayoun with Liverpool for Joe Cole. Aside from that, Ancelotti has seen little reason so far to change a Premier League and FA Cup winning team.
More encouraging news for Chelsea fans is that for the first time in years there are good young players coming through. Jeffrey Bruma, Patrick Van Aanholt, Fabio Borini and Gael Kakuta could all be given a taste of first team football this season. With senior players Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Ballack, Joe Cole and Deco departing this summer, they may well be required.
With a year of Premier League experience under his belt, Ancelotti and his Chelsea side could well be an even more difficult opponent for Manchester United, Arsenal and any other challengers to overcome.