“It is that shape, with a holder and a playmaker flanked by two shuttling players – carilleros, as they are known in Argentina, the only country, seemingly, to give the role a specific name – that really forms the basis of the modern conception of the diamond.” – Jonathan Wilson on The Guardian.
In two games after the signing of Fernando Torres, Chelsea has started in two different formations altogether. Against Liverpool, Carlo Ancelotti lined the players at his disposal in a 4-3-1-2 diamond formation, while the West London Derby on Monday night witnessed a more familiar 4-3-3 shape. The system was changed from one having two strikers and a narrow midfield as its principle attributes to a one having wide forwards supporting a lone central striker. Unfortunately, neither could produce a desired result.
In the world of Chelsea FC, the only difference in the two formations was the positioning of the men comprising its forward line. Without delving into the trivial matter of whether Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres can play together or not, let’s look at the common factor which failed to thrive in either of the two systems – The Central Midfield.
The midfielders at Carlo’s disposal are Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Ramires, Joshua McEachran, while Yuri Zhirkov and Yossi Benayoun remain sidelined due to injury. Lampard, who has been the mainstay of the Chelsea midfield for best part of the decade, selects himself; while, Carlo has chosen two out of Mikel, Essien and Ramires for the remaining positions. So the midfield diamond looks like this –
While talking about this system, we cannot help but compare this combination with arguably the most successfully deployed diamond ever. Moreover, as the manager is also a common link between the two, the comparison becomes even more inevitable. In this unsettled phase, as Chelsea tries to find the best possible team/combination, we have to fall back on Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan team for guidance. In the 2003 Champions League winning season, Milan operated with Rui Costa, Seedorf, Gattuso and Pirlo playing in the following shape –
The uniqueness about this midfield was the presence of three players – Rui Costa, Seedorf and Pirlo – who were attacking midfielders or at some point in their career were considered to be one. Costa played in the hole behind Inzaghi and Shevchenko; Pirlo sat deep, free from the interference of the opposition’s defensive mid and utilized his passing range to full effect, while Seedorf kept the show running with his eye for decisive passes and Gattuso ran his heart out to cover for his attack-minded counterparts.
It’s a well know fact that the major drawback of the diamond formation is the over-reliance on fullbacks for width; when the fullbacks are neutralized, the diamond fails to sparkle. However, Milan overcame this limitation by virtue of the sheer creativity in the centre of the park. There were so many outlets for a killer pass to unlock the defence that the opposition was never able to stifle the team completely, even after denying them width.
Carlo Ancelotti was the man running the show from the sidelines then, and he is the orchestrator at Stamford Bridge now. Although the subsequent section may be dismissed by a few as a disciple’s attempt to educate his master, one couldn’t be farther from the truth. For observers, it is highly intriguing to see a master tactician trying to use the Milan blueprint in West London with completely different ilk of players. He of all people would know that the 4-3-1-2 worked at San Siro because of the midfield’s creativity. Over the course of his stay at Milan, Carlo did tweak the system but that was for mainly two reasons – the emergence of Kaka who subsequently played off the solitary striker and in the aftermath of the Istanbul disaster to add more steel into the midfield. However, in Chelsea’s case, he first has to make the formation work.
Ancelotti’s present combination in the Chelsea midfield is simply not suited to excel in this formation. What makes matters worse is that the form of Lampard, Essien and Mikel has taken a hit. Against Liverpool, Lampard missed 12 out of 56 passes and against Fulham, he missed 20 out of 75 passes that he attempted and does not look comfortable carrying the burden of being the most creative or perhaps the only creative player of the midfield trio. Here’s a look at all the passes that he attempted during the course of the last two games.
Essien of old was a tireless engine capable of doing almost anything on the pitch – from man-marking a player out of the game to instilling fear into the heart of defenders by his rampaging runs. Unfortunately, he has failed to do so after returning from the last injury layoff. Mikel’s passing statistics were nothing short of fabulous, at the start of the season. The signing of Ramires had a positive effect on him and he rose to the occasion. Not only was he able to deliver accurate short passes but also occasionally spread the ball higher up the pitch by perfectly measured long balls. As injuries started to engulf the Chelsea squad, the Nigerian’s game started going downhill, only to get injured later-on. Today, he lacks confidence and thus has been inconsistent.
So here’s the million dollar question – how can the diamond cutter, the man himself, Carlo Ancelotti make the Chelsea midfield tick?
The answer is right before him. It lies in one of his past creations – in the AC Milan team of 2003. There are four roles and he just needs to find the best match for each one from the present Chelsea squad. In the hole, as witnessed in the game against Sunderland, Nicolas Anelka can do a more than satisfactory job, provided he gets support from the men behind him. Presently, he is the best possible choice for that position and Carlo knows that. It’s the other three positions where the problem lies.
The base of the diamond, or the position just in front of the back-four, is not usually that of a traditional central defensive midfielder in a 4-3-1-2 formation. Rather, it’s meant for a deep-lying playmaker. After signing a young and talented but unproven trequartista (traditional attacking midfielder) from rival Internazionale, Ancelotti saw something in the lad and took a tactical gamble – he played him at the base of the diamond to dictate play and use his superior passing skills to spray passes from a deeper position. That talented youngster was none other than Andrea Pirlo, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
At Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti has played the highly-rated 17-year old Joshua McEachran in a holding role in a 4-3-3 formation but not in a diamond. The Oxford-born attacking midfielder, as thechels.net beautifully describes, is preferred in a withdrawn role so that the youngster can operate with plenty of space, away from the opposition’s defensive midfielder/defenders, and has more passing options in front of him. Although, it may put too much pressure too soon on Joshua, nonetheless he remains Ancelotti’s best bet if the 4-3-1-2 has to work for Chelsea FC. Moreover, if an 18-year old Jack Wilshere can start in the Arsenal midfield day-in day-out and perform admirably, so can a boy just an year younger to him. McEachran is creative, has good passing range, and most importantly has faith in his abilities. Moreover, his presence can take some creative-pressure off Lampard’s shoulders, who can play in the Seedorf-role on the left side of midfield and make his trademark forays into the opposition box from deep. Lampard’s work-ethics are unquestionable and despite his poor form, his commitment hasn’t wavered. Presently, both Englishmen need each other to thrive, and Chelsea needs them to galvanize the team.
This doesn’t mean there’s no space in the team for Mikel, while playing in a 4-3-1-2 formation. When Carlo had taken over the reigns of the club, he said “I have a lot of trust in Mikel, I think he can be the playmaker of this team. He is a young player, but has great quality, both technical and tactical. For the present and for the future he is a very important player for us.” However, in the present scenario, he is not in form and Chelsea lack a certain creativity from the middle – something which becomes even more important for creating chances and scoring goals when the full-backs are pushed back. Carlo can start with Joshua in the deep-lying role from the start, get an early goal or two, and then substitute him for Mikel to defend the lead in the second half.
Gennaro Ivan “Rino” Gattuso, as his name suggests, was an unforgiving monster who allowed Milan to field three attack-minded midfielders in the same team. He did the work of three defensive midfielders and tirelessly toiled for the team’s cause. An in-form Michael Essien would have picked himself for the role, no questions asked. However, he has been struggling and may take some time before we witness the beast ravage his opponents again. Till then, the ever-improving Ramires can by deployed on the right side of the diamond. He may not be physically as intimidating, but his opponents would vouch for his relentless pursuits. He makes up for his slender frame by his sheer pace and stamina.
There’s another thing which can by tried. A flatter (stretched) diamond with the player in the hole, playing deeper and the two midfielders, on the left and the right, playing a bit wider. This way, when Anelka drops deep, the defensive midfielder marking him will be forced to follow him, thus vacating the space up front and giving Drogba and Torres more room to exploit the centre-backs. At the Stadium of Light, the Frenchman played way deeper and sometimes even started the moves from the half-line. However, against Liverpool, he played just behind the strikers and Lucas alongwith the centre-backs, didn’t allow any kind of movement whatsoever. Also while defending, by playing wider, Lampard and Ramires would be able to help Cole and Ivanovic respectively in countering the double threat posed by the opposition’s wider players and fullbacks.
Ergo, for the diamond to shine, for the Milan blueprint to work, this could be the formation and the personnel that Chelsea Football Club can deploy. It’s certain to raise a few eyebrows; however, what remains to be seen is whether the most important and notorious eyebrow in West London rises in acknowledgment.
What gives the Chelsea supporters immense joy is that the key to solving this tactical conundrum and opening the locked door probably lies with a 17-year old boy who has been with the club ever since he was eight. Carlo once trusted an Italian boy and world football was blessed with a deep-lying playmaker of unmatched quality. Today, the 51-year old manager has that opportunity yet again.
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