There have been times this season when Carlo Ancelotti has come into criticism from the media and Chelsea fans, me included. He was at least partly culpable for the tame defeat to Inter and, if we’re honest, some of his tactics and substitutions have bewildered.
But just as blame, in sensible measures, should be apportioned when things go wrong, credit should be doled out following success. As with all teams, Chelsea’s successes and failures so far this season have been fuelled by the actions of the players, the manager and the people behind the scenes, but Ancelotti certainly played his full part in Saturday’s crucial victory.
Just 48 hours before kick-off, I posed a question to followers of this blog on facebook: given the choice, would you start with Drogba against Man Utd? Most said they would. After all, how could you leave out the player who had scored 24 goals and torn the likes of Arsenal apart? Despite the media hyperbole surrounding the Englishman, many would still argue that Drogba has had a better season than Wayne Rooney.
Those fans – and I think I was one of them – were falling back to the trusted default position. Despite the great showing without Drogba against Villa the previous weekend and the Man Utd defence’s apparent weakness in the face of fast, mobile forwards, the urge to turn back to the Ivorian was preferential to most. Ancelotti saw it differently, and again started with Drogba on the bench, and surely not because of injury.
The Italian nonetheless fielded a very attacking starting XI. When Man United came to Stamford Bridge back in November, they played with three deep-lying, ‘holding’ midfielders. Albeit under different circumstances, Chelsea started with an attacking 4-3-3 at Old Trafford, and took the game to the Champions in the first half. The plan paid off with a goal that showed off all that Chelsea’s brand of football can, at its very best, be: strength combined with audacity. Boring, boring Chelsea?
It was a must-win game, and Ancelotti went armed with a must-win strategy. Just as his inactivity and futile substitutions against Inter and Blackburn sent negative messages to his team psychologically, so his starting XI on Saturday sent a message. Chelsea’s players, from Cech to Anelka, must have felt empowered, able and trusted to take on the champions in their own back yard and win.
The in-game tactics were spot on, too. The formation was fluid, looking a threatening 4-3-3 in attack and a stable 4-2-3-1 when Utd had the ball. Chelsea dropped deep as Utd’s pressure grew in the second half and, whilst it might have increased the tension for Chelsea fans, it was largely successful in shutting a Rooney-deprived Utd attack out. United fashioned few – if any – clear cut chances.
Ancelotti’s substitutions worked perfectly. Just as United were taking the initiative and Chelsea were struggling to break out of their own half, Drogba and Kalou provided new and viable attacking options to keep the Utd defence occupied occasionally. The introduction of Ballack was just as vital too: Deco was increasingly a marginal figure, and the German added more bite in midfield, not to mention a calm head in the closing stages to either keep the ball or draw a foul.
In a closely fought match (Man Utd had 52% of possession and had ten shots on goal to Chelsea’s eight) between two relatively evenly matched sides, Ancelotti himself was decisive on the day.
Once a match starts, players win or lose them, not managers, but this isn’t evidence that managers shouldn’t bear the brunt of criticism when things go wrong. They are – or should be – the pivotal person at the club, forming the foundation for how a team sets up ahead of kick-off. More than that, they have the opportunity to do any number of things during a game to help their players get a result. Great managers – the Mourinhos, Fergusons, Hiddinks and Wengers of this world – each have a unique mastery of both of these elements. In a game where at the top even the smallest margins can determine success or failure, the gap caused by having or not having one of these managers can be cavernous.
There remain question marks over Ancelotti, but his performance on Saturday went some way to dispelling them. The season is a long way from being over, and the Premier League nowhere near won. But regardless of how the season finishes, Ancelotti has raised hopes that he can stay at Chelsea for the long term. As the league’s top clubs pick themselves up after a strange and, in many cases, below par season, Chelsea fans can look forward hopefully to the Italian being given the opportunity to sculpt a new side of his own.
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