When Carlo Ancelotti arrived at Chelsea in summer 2009, he started off playing 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond. That paired Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba as strike partners, with Frank Lampard tucked behind. It rapidly became apparent that Lampard is far better played with the ball in front of him than playing with his back to goal.
He prefers to come from deep, using his tremendous stamina to work box-to-box, scoring his goals -- of which there have been an extraordinary number -- by making late runs. He is not an enganche, not somebody who can link midfield and attack by receiving the ball in tight situations creating space with a trick and then picking the ideal pass. So Ancelotti reverted to the 4-3-3 Jose Mourinho enshrined at Stamford Bridge -- even though that entailed Anelka having to take up a right-sided position in which he is clearly a little uncomfortable -- and was rewarded for his pragmatism with a league and cup double.
The problem, though, was that it was success achieved with the Mourinho paradigm: his way of playing and, to a large extent, his players. Perhaps subsequent coaches and, more importantly, Roman Abramovich, can ignore the fact that reflected in each piece of silverware is Mourinho's ghost, but the reliance on his personnel also created a practical problem: the squad is growing old together. It desperately needed rejuvenation and, while the signing of David Luiz, the 23-year-old Brazilian defender, is a step toward that, paying £50 million ($80M) for a 26-year-old forward with a long history of muscular injuries may not be.
Fernando Torres, on form, is a superb player, probably the best all-around center forward in the world. He is quick, powerful, intelligent, technically sound and imaginative. He is probably the heir to Andriy Shevchenko in being the heir to Marco van Basten. And at Stamford Bridge, the comparison immediately rings alarm bells.
After successive title successes, it had seemed Mourinho was making Chelsea an unstoppable, relentless force. Then Abramovich bought Shevchenko and Michael Ballack in the summer of 2006. Ballack could be accommodated into the 4-3-3, although he never had the freedom to score the goals for Chelsea he had in Germany; Shevchenko could not. Abramovich, though, wanted to see all his purchases in use at once, preferably playing a brand of football more akin to the
Ancelotti faces a similar problem to that Mourinho faced in 2006. In Torres and Drogba he has two center forwards who, 18 months ago, could legitimately have been regarded as the best in the world -- which is not, of course, the same as being the best strike pairing in the world. They are probably a little too similar to form a great partnership, and there is a danger, particularly in the early weeks of their relationship, that they will find themselves making the same runs. Both are probably better as a lone forward.
It may be that Abramovich sees Torres as a long term replacement for Drogba, who turns 33 in March, and that Chelsea will stick with the 4-3-3. But the suspicion is that he wants to see them playing together. The stereotype of the nouveaux riches is that they lack taste, that rather than carefully creating a coordinated look for their home they just buy lots of expensive stuff and slap it all together: oligarchs and soccer clubs often seem the same.
If Drogba and Torres are to play together, they surely cannot do so in a 4-3-3. Torres may -- just about -- have the pace and wit to play wide, but if he got as grouchy as he seemingly did because Liverpool were pumping long balls at him under Roy Hodgson, he is hardly going to relish a peripheral role (those seeking reasons for his disaffection at Liverpool, incidentally, may like to compare footage of the celebrations of Liverpool goals over the past year or so and ask what suddenly happened to the relationship between Torres and Steven Gerrard at the beginning of this season; Torres's reaction to Gerrard's equalizer against Sunderland earlier this season is particularly frosty).
But if Torres and Drogba are to play as a front two, what does that do to the midfield (not to mention Anelka, who presumably becomes merely a reserve)? Chelsea probably are better placed to introduce a diamond than they were last season for two reasons: Jose Bosingwa and Ramires. Bosingwa had started the season well when he suffered cruciate damage in November 2009 and was out for a year. Without him, Chelsea lacked a quick and naturally attacking right back, which meant that, until the switch back to 4-3-3, the team became predictable, with Ashley Cole's forays on the left providing its only real width. Ramires, meanwhile, has had an indifferent start to life in England, but the shuttling role on the right of midfield is ideally suited to him, and he played variations of that position both for Brazil and Benfica last season.
The problem, though, remains who plays at the diamond's point. Lampard has already proved unsuited to the role and it is hard to believe Florent Malouda will be much better. What is needed is somebody with imagination and deftness, a player who can receive the ball to feet under pressure and create an opening. Both Lampard and Malouda rely more on their physical attributes. Yossi Benayoun, when he returns to fitness, may be a short-term answer, but he seems a prosaic figure to build a team around.
So maybe the solution is to play a different form of 4-4-2. A flat four in midfield, though, seems impossible for, although Malouda or Yury Zhirkov could operate as the left-sided player, there is nobody to operate on the right. Perhaps Michael Essien could fill in there, but it seems an odd use of his attributes, and he is no great crasser of a ball. Besides which, playing Lampard alongside either Mikel John Obi or Ramires is likely to hamper Lampard's forward bursts, just as he has always been restricted when playing in a 4-4-2 for England.
The best solution is probably a 4-1-3-2 -- a flattened diamond -- with Essien or Mikel holding and Malouda, Lampard and Ramires providing support to Torres and Drogba from midfield. It's a system with balance, although it's hard not to feel that, for all the energy and power in that midfield, there is little in the way of flair. Perhaps that can, at last, persuade the specter of Mourinho to abandon his seat in the dugout, but if Abramovich is looking to create the style of Barcelona in west London, signing Torres probably wasn't the best place to start.