Matt Oldfield

The diamond is sparkling at Stamford Bridge, and not just on the fingers of the Chelsea WAGs. New manager Carlo Ancelotti might not have drastically changed the personnel at his disposal, but he has introduced a new midfield set-up which is playing to the team’s central strengths and producing winning performances. The former AC Milan manager is still settling on his first choice midfield quartet but his first choice formation is decided: 4-1-2-1-2. And with five Premier League wins in five games, a 100% record, Chelsea seem to have found both their shape and their form.

Upon Jose Mourinho’s arrival in 2004, 4-3-3 became Chelsea’s trademark formation, to great success. A lone central striker, normally Didier Drogba, was supported by two dynamic and exciting wingers, initially Damien Duff and Arjen Robben, and the rest was history. However, all good things come to an end, especially when circumstances change. Suddenly, Chelsea had two big strikers in Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, a dearth of quality wide men and a wealth of central midfielders. So, how to solve a problem like the midfield? With a diamond, of course, which keeps Chelsea’s many star names happy and allows them to field all of their best players at the same time. Former coach Luiz Felipe Scolari persevered with 4-3-3 but on arriving in London this summer, Ancelotti, like Guus Hiddink before him, knew that things had to change. So how exactly does 4-1-2-1-2 work?

Well, it is actually rather simple, and incredibly effective when suitably applied. In Michael Essien, Chelsea have one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, who works tirelessly to protect the defence and regain possession when it is lost. Essien is therefore perfectly suited to his role at the base of the midfield diamond. In the Ghanaian’s absence, John Obi Mikel also fits the bill more than adequately.

There are then three world-class central midfielders to accommodate in Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and Deco. Neither Lampard nor Ballack seem comfortable spearheading the diamond but side by side in a slightly deeper, more traditional midfield role, they are brilliantly creative. And forgotten man Deco has played his best football for Chelsea at the top of the diamond, linking up beautifully with Drogba and Anelka against Sunderland and enjoying his increased freedom. Rejuvenated Frenchman Florent Malouda has also impressed in this attacking role and so undoubtedly will new signing Yuri Zhirkov and the baby-voiced assassin Joe Cole, when the pair return from injury. Up front, Anelka and Drogba are the first choice pairing, with Salomon Kalou and new signing Daniel Sturridge acting as more than adequate back-up. As a recipe for success, it all looks rather delicious.

But what about width? With four central midfielders on the pitch, the play can naturally get rather congested and narrow at times, as critics have already highlighted. A diamond midfield will always dominate possession but it does not always result in goals and goalscoring opportunities. At times against Sunderland in particular, Chelsea were frustrated by a lack of end product. However, the abundance of goals so far scored suggests the diamond is working just fine and as the players get more used to the system, things will only get slicker. The important thing here is that with Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa, Chelsea will always have attacking width. Both are more than happy to play like wing-backs, galloping forward in support of attacks, and Essien is more than capable of covering any foraging runs. And if the situation calls for extra width, Chelsea are able to revert back to their old formation, with Malouda, Joe Cole, Kalou and Zhirkov competing for the wide roles.

A problem could occur, however, when Ancelotti’s side come up against a side with good natural width. Cole and Bosingwa are both incredibly vulnerable to double-teaming from opposing full-back-winger combinations. With Manchester United, for example, Evra and Nani or Giggs would naturally target Bosingwa as Chelsea’s biggest defensive weakness. The Blues must be ready for such tactics from the top sides if they intend to rely on the diamond formation. Lampard and Ballack in particular must learn to help out the full-backs and not leave them exposed.

However, Ancelotti is undoubtedly aware of this and so far, his new diamond formation has been very effective in the Premier League. The Blues are very good in possession and the change of style has only increased the team’s share of the ball. Most importantly, 4-3-3 is now an effective alternative option, rather than simply their only option.

With things looking positive in attack, it is actually defensively that the Stamford Bridge side look more vulnerable. Against Burnley and Sunderland, Ancelotti’s defence was caught cold by sudden breaks in dominance. John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho must learn to maintain their concentration or Chelsea’s superior possession may count for nothing. However, this is only a minor problem, an adaptation issue, which seems to have been corrected by the Italian already.

So all in all, Chelsea have started the season very brightly and seem destined to challenge Manchester United on every front. Ashley Cole and Terry have signed new deals and as long as the players are not affected by recent off-field problems, the diamond will continue to sparkle and prove particularly priceless.

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