Since the season began – and Chelsea made such a good start to their Premier League campaign – much has been made of the potential impact of this month’s African Cup of Nations on Ancelotti’s title hopes. The loss of the influential Drogba and Essien, who have scored 23 goals and made 8 assists for Chelsea so far this season between them, would surely spell disaster for Chelsea’s title charge. On top of that, the loss of key squad players Mikel and Kalou would – supposedly - weaken the Chelsea challenge further.
Those players are a significant loss - it’s unlikely that any side in the world could lose £74m of talent and not be affected. More significant of course, could be the news emerging over the last couple of days that Michael Essien has once again suffered a knee ligament injury while on international duty with Ghana and will not only miss the entire African Cup of Nations but very likely a minimum of 2-4 weeks for Chelsea.
In the midst of the prophecies of African Cup of Nations doom that have circled Stamford Bridge over the past weeks and months however, I’m hopeful that the competition could well be the best thing that’s happened to Chelsea all season, for one key reason.
Whilst giving Ancelotti credit for a fine start to his managerial career at Chelsea, I have also repeated my belief on this blog that a narrowly-executed 4-4-2 diamond isn’t doing Chelsea enough favours. Against well-organised, stubborn sides defending deep and narrow, Chelsea’s diamond has too often struggled to create clear-cut chances. Having to thread delicate passes through such defences – and especially when the Chelsea squad hasn’t been set up to play this way – is operating with too great a margin for error.
When the team isn’t 100% on song, the diamond doesn’t give Chelsea enough of a chance – just as against West Ham and Birmingham recently.
In my opinion, adding greater pace and trickery in wide areas – whether through a change of formation or encouraging players either side of the diamond to get chalk on their boots – will unlock better attacking performances against more defensively savvy sides. It’s not rocket science…
But, in taking Chelsea’s (and arguably the Premier League’s) most influential player – Didier Drogba - away for a month, the African Cup of Nations will force Ancelotti to view his side’s options differently. Without Drogba’s presence upfront, it seemed the Italian acknowledged the need to pose opponents a different threat immediately, and reverted to the familiar 4-3-3 against Sunderland.
Admittedly it’s only on the evidence of just one game, but the change has already been devastating. In the final third Chelsea played with far more width than in previous games and, coupled with the now-expected strong showing from central midfield, a depleted Sunderland side just couldn’t live with it. Take a look at the two pitch views here: the left shows the passes Chelsea made during the 1-1 draw with West Ham, the right shows the passes made during Saturday’s 7-2 thumping of Sunderland. These images were made using Guardian interactive chalkboards.
Not only does the sheer number of passes completed in the Sunderland game (159 more than against the Hammers) demonstrate the value of spreading the play, the image also shows how Chelsea’s wider formation allowed far more attacking play in wide areas of the final third (particularly down the right). For me, it’s no coincidence either that Frank scored two goals – only his fourth and fifth goals from open play this season – under this system. With Sunderland’s defence stretched to try and hold Chelsea’s wide players, he was afforded far more time and space to ghost into the box.
Hopefully the evidence of the attacking display against Sunderland will be enough to convince Ancelotti that a width-less attack doesn’t always cut it in the Premier League (I can’t believe it’s the best system anywhere, to be honest). It may well take an African tournament and the loss of some of Chelsea’s most influential players to make him realise, but if Ancelotti gives Chelsea flying wings it should pay dividends in the long run.