Chelsea’s new vice-captain spent, according to many viewers, something like the entirety of the 2014/15 season out of position. Branislav Ivanovic, for so many years a centre half masquerading as a defensive right back, has somehow evolved into what is perhaps best described as the offspring of Dani Alves and a sledgehammer. The sledgehammer probably had spikes.
Describing Ivanovic — or, at least, last year’s version of Ivanovic — as a right back misses the point entirely. With Eden Hazard occupying entire teams on his own on the left flank, and Willian coming in from the touchline, Chelsea’s lineup is naturally asymmetric, and Jose Mourinho tends to hold Cesar Azpilicueta back while sending Ivanovic bombing forward on the right as a wingback. That leads to some strange scenes at times (who remembers those screenshots of the Serbian lining up on halfway for a Chelsea kickoff?), but it can also be devastatingly effective.
For those used to attacking fullbacks who look to hug the lines and fire in crosses, there’s something more than a little bit unsettling about seeing Ivanovic steam not just up the pitch but right down on goal, seeking out opposition players simply to smash his way through them. Never has trundling seemed more ominous than when Ivanovic is on the attack, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s taken to his unorthodox role simply out of a desire to inspire the maximum amount of fear possible.
Getting beaten on the ground by, say, Willian and Eden Hazard is one thing. That’s what flair is supposed to do, and the only casualties from being pantsed by a tricky winger tends to be one’s pride. But getting beaten by Ivanovic is another matter entirely. He’s the closest you can come to being gored by an angry bull on a football pitch, and the psychological trauma of wrong-footed defenders seeing him charge at them will probably fund several therapists’ careers over the next few decades.
For a wide player who doesn’t really know how to cross, Ivanovic creates a surprising number of goals. Chelsea’s play is designed around him being the attacking outlet on the right, and when the Blues attackers manage to engage their opposition he’s frequently able to smash his way into dangerous positions. Ivanovic managed five goals and six assists last season, and he has the rare distinction of being a big defender as dangerous from open play as on set pieces.
Ivanovic’s deployment high up the pitch is no accident. He’s accused frequently — and there are few Chelsea players who draw the level of criticism that the Serbian does — of being out of position and/or a ‘liability’, but it’s difficult to imagine that his positioning is his own idea. When he first emerged as an option at fullback thanks to Jose Bosingwa’s 2009 injury, Ivanovic was inclined to stay at home and hide, his lack of technical ability hindering him going forward. It’s only under Mourinho’s tutelage (and, obviously, his encouragement*), that he’s emerged as a key pillar of the Blues arsenal.
*The alternative hypothesis is that Jose Mourinho tolerates his defenders taking unauthorised jaunts up the pitch.
There are downsides, of course. Ivanovic has never been a speedster, and committing him forward all the time leaves Chelsea vulnerable to the counterattack through the right channel. But this can be seen as a deliberate gamble rather than an inherent problem with Ivanovic. If asked to stay home and stifle the opposition — see, for example, Arsenal away last year — he’s more than happy to do that. Pushing him forward sacrifices defensive stability for attacking punch, but it’s important to note that it’s a considered choice from the manager rather than Ivanovic himself going rogue. He is doing, in other words, exactly what he’s asked.
Counterattacking worries aside, Ivanovic remains a resolute defender, able to pinch in as a third centre back on crosses and an enormous help on opposition set pieces. That flexibility is part of the reason he plays so often: when called for Ivanovic is as imperious a defensive right back as you could ask. His role as the most aggressively-positioned player on the team, however, means that he’s the first to suffer when Chelsea’s system breaks down, which opens him up to some fairly sharp words from supporters.
That criticism, while partially valid, has to be put into context. Unlike, say, Cesar Azpilicueta, who has the privilege of sitting behind Hazard, Ivanovic is responsible for an entire flank with some fairly limited support. It’s not surprising that he’s spread thin on occasion, and it’s testament to his ability on and off the ball that he’s asked to play this role at all. That he’s asked to be everywhere at one and only sometimes fails should be a mark in his favour rather than a stick to beat him with.
Fortunately for Ivanovic, the manager is firmly on his side. His importance to Mourinho’s planning has been demonstrated by his promotion to vice-captain, and while it’ll be very surprising if he manages to play almost every minute of Premier League football again this year, look for him to inflict far more than his fair share of carnage on opposing teams.
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