Carlo Ancelotti may have been forgiven for not being as enthused by the signing of Fernando Torres as his colleagues at Chelsea, as the Spaniard’s arrival has created an unwanted dilemma that the Italian must solve.
Already facing the question of how to rebuild a team whose age appears to be finally catching up on them, he now has to do so whilst also adjusting the style and the formation of the team. Unless that is, Ancelotti decided to drop Drogba long term as he did on Monday and to continue to play Torres up front.
But if the Italian wants to pair the two players in the same side, he must solve a conundrum. Both Torres and Drogba like to operate in the same space, centrally, and are comfortably being tightly marked by opposing defenders. Whereas other players such as David Villa and previously Thierry Henry built careers as prolific forwards who would drift into wide positions and carry the ball back into the centre, the Chelsea duo prefer to receive the ball in central areas.
The lack of width this causes is easily placated by the use of two wingers in the classic 4-4-2 formation. However, this system would bring other issues for Chelsea. Firstly, Salomon Kalou appears the only player who could possibly play on the right wing for Chelsea, and if opting to position him here, it is a position that he is not used to playing, bringing as it does increased defensive duties. In the 4-5-1/4-3-3 system Chelsea have used previously under Ancelotti, the wide forwards have fewer responsibilities defensively. Further to that, it would mean either playing John Mikel Obi or Michael Essien as a defensive midfielder. Obi is a more natural player in this role, but he is also less mobile, and the major problem with this system is that it would mean that Chelsea could be exposed in the central midfield area that has been the main reason for their success over the years; the power of Essien combined with the stamina, work rate and technical efficiency of Lampard ahead of a more defensively minded midfielder overpowered teams in the past. Playing just two central players would take something away from Chelsea in this area, and possibly worsen their tactical dilemma. This is increasingly true when Chelsea play teams who have three central midfielders, as most top teams do in the modern day.
The obvious answer to that problem would be a diamond system, with Mikel behind Essien and Malouda or Ramires and Lampard at the tip of the diamond. This was the formation Ancelotti tested last season, which did not work because of Lampard’s inability to find space when playing in such an advanced central position behind two strikers, combined with the fact that he does not like receiving passes ahead of him. With Lampard on the way out, Chelsea could simply try playing someone like Malouda or Kalou in this role who do prefer having the ball played in front of them.
But there is another problem with this system. Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa, or whomever plays at right back, are relied upon to provide width in this system. Such a style has made Chelsea appear narrow on occasions when it has been deployed, such as against Liverpool two weeks ago. This was exacerbated on that day by Liverpool’s three man defence, which meant that the two wing backs Kenny Dalglish employed could track and prevent Cole and Bosingwa from getting into advanced positions, whilst three centre backs closed off the space in which Drogba and Torres could operate, whilst allowing for an extra man to cover midfield runners.
But in Liverpool’s system lies the answer to Chelsea’s conundrum. To attack a team set up like Liverpool effectively, they needed genuine attacking players rather than full backs to provide width; Kalou and Malouda ideally. They also needed a central attacking midfielder playing in a free role to occupy the third Liverpool centre back and pull him out of position. In that situation, there would be space for another midfield runner to take advantage of.
The formation Chelsea could use therefore, is a system used in Argentina by most of their teams; the 3-4-1-2. Facing only one central striker with two wingers such as Liverpool means there is no need for more than three dedicated defensive players. Rather than full backs, this could comprise a dominating centre back such as John Terry or Alex allied with David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic, who can operate to the left and right of three central defenders. With a defensive midfielder to provide additional cover for midfielder runners from the opposition, this would mean that the second central midfield player would be the spare man in the Chelsea system. If that second player is Lampard, then Chelsea could exploit his talents as their most creative and intelligent player at exploiting space, as he would be able to take advantage of increased space made ahead of him by the use of genuine wingers, two strikers and a playmaker to negate the effects of the opposition having six defensively minded players. Though Chelsea would only have six attacking minded players, a team who take the initiative and are designed to create space and draw their opponents out of position can take advantage of spaces created even if they have the same number of attacking players as their opponents have defensive. For Chelsea, this could be the only way of reconciling Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba as a front two.