Chelsea’s 4-1 victory over West Ham on Saturday was a game of two halves. A below-par first half from Ancelotti’s men saw most of Chelsea’s players put in undistinguished performances. The second half was an altogether different game, with Chelsea finally converting their dominance of possession into chances and goals.
Florent Malouda, however, stood apart from this otherwise schizophrenic performance, consistently causing West Ham problems down the left flank from the first minute. The Frenchman’s showing caused quite a bit of fuss in both the stands and the media but, in truth, no-one should have been surprised. On the one hand, Malouda ‘has previous’ when it comes to good form. On the other, more crucial, hand his performance – and the results of that performance - was testament to what he and Chelsea can achieve when a capable player gets chalk on his boots.
Malouda had stagnated under both Mourinho and Scolari to the point where Chelsea paying £13m for his services looked like money thrown away. Under Hiddink he vastly improved however, and his very respectable return of 11 goals last season was only one part of a vastly improved contribution to the team under the Dutchman. Back in May last year I wrote a piece praising Malouda’s improvement, and suggested it was largely down to a shift in attitude that saw him take more responsibility on the pitch. You can read that post here.
In the early months of Ancelotti’s tenure it looked like that improvement may have been a false dawn and the old, less effective Malouda was back. Frustration from the stands – and probably from the management, too - grew.
For the first half of the season however, the Frenchman was locked into playing a narrow and often withdrawn role in Ancelotti’s famous midfield diamond, rarely playing as a traditional, out-and-out winger. Whenever Chelsea’s creativity as a whole was stunted by crowded midfields and narrow back fours, Malouda was arguably the greatest individual victim of the formation’s attacking flaws.
The impact of the changed formation on Malouda’s contribution to the game is marked. The images below (courtesy of the Guardian’s chalkboards) show Chelsea’s Premier League games against West Ham this season. On the left, Malouda’s passes during the dour December 1-1 in which Chelsea’s diamond looked incapable of breaking down a disciplined Hammers’ defence - in the end, Chelsea were lucky to take a point. On the right, his passes during Saturday’s routing of the same opposition.
The difference is clear – not only was Malouda far more involved on Saturday, but he was far more involved in wider and more advanced positions. How many crosses – or even attacking passes - did he deliver into the box during the December game? None. By spreading the play wider on Saturday, Malouda was given the space to either run at the full back or whip dangerous crosses into the box from the final third. He looked a different player, and the team benefitted from more space and better service.
The benefits of playing Malouda, probably Chelsea’s only senior naturally wide attacking player (an indictment on our transfer policy, if you ask me), haven’t been lost on Ancelotti who has played the Frenchman in the last nine consecutive Premier League matches. And Malouda’s stats are starting to profit from that run in the team. In scoring nine goals, he has only been bettered by Drogba, Anelka and Lampard (and if it weren’t for penalties he would have the same number as the Englishman). Along with Drogba he has made eleven assists this season, just one less than Lampard.
On average, Malouda has scored a goal every 2.5 games this season in the league, and made an assist every 2.8. Adding assists and goals together, he has contributed a goal every 1.3 games. Lampard – who receives universal praise from Chelsea fans every game – has contributed a goal every 1.2 games, and that includes scoring six penalties.
Malouda is on course for his best season to date in a Chelsea shirt and, if Ancelotti continues to instruct him to play wide, he can play a pivotal role in Chelsea’s stuttering push for silverware. Being the only player likely to be capable of recreating anything like the magic of Robben or Duff on the wing, Malouda may just have made himself invaluable to his manager.