Chelsea's resplendent start to the season owes a debt of gratitude to Zinedine Zidane, the greatest player of his generation, and a lesson he taught manager Carlo Ancelotti a decade ago.
Chelsea have taken to the defence of their Premier League title with an indecent appetite for goals, 21 so far from just five games following Sunday's 4-0 victory over Blackpool. The rich vein of form being tapped in Chelsea's fluent, attacking play is the sum total of Ancelotti's 18 years of experience as a player and 15 as a coach. One of the most important lessons Ancelotti learnt was during his time at Juventus, when he was given the responsibility of teasing the best out of Zidane, a player Ancelotti describes as the finest he has ever had under his charge.
Ancelotti found that the only way he could do it was to ditch his preconceived ideas about tactics and systems, and adopt a more pragmatic formation that would provide Zidane with a stage on which to demonstrate the full extent of his genius.
"Before, when I started to train, I had an identity which I put on my teams," Ancelotti said. "I didn't look at the characteristics of my players. I wanted to play 4-4-2 for the first two years. After that, I changed my ideas. It changed at Juventus – Zidane didn't want to play on the left, but in the centre, so I changed my formation for my players. There is not a winning shape: you can play 4-4-2, 4-3-1-2. Now I look at the skills and characteristics of my players and put the right shape in the team for them."
Ancelotti has brought that flexibility to Chelsea. He started by imposing the diamond midfield formation that had brought him two Champions Leagues at Milan. It worked well and Chelsea led the division, but he recognised the potential for something more creative and realised a return to the 4-3-3 system, introduced by Jose Mourinho when he was manager five years earlier, might better suit the players.
Mourinho himself stumbled upon the formation during his first season in charge, as he too had begun his reign favouring a 4-4-2. The difference between Mourinho's 4-3-3 and Ancelotti's is that under the Italian the attacking trio have the licence to play with instinct and invention.
"We use possession more, and attack more," Ancelotti said. "When we attack, my idea is to give the players some information but they have to use their skill, mentality and personality. They have free play for the players in front. Defensively, it's different. They need discipline."
The system is only ever as good as its players, and in Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda, supported by the likes of Salomon Kalou and Daniel Sturridge, Chelsea have strikers of rare talent. The main three have been together for almost three years, and the more they play together the better they become.
More noticeable this season has been the way Drogba has become more mobile, possibly owing to his successful hernia surgery in the summer. The front three are becoming virtually interchangeable, which, when supported by midfielders such as Frank Lampard and defenders such as Ashley Cole, makes Chelsea so difficult to keep at bay. What is more, Chelsea do it all at high speed.
Drogba said: "Even if you need numbers to create confusion for the opponent you also need to do it at pace and with good movement. If you have numbers plus movement, and I mean movement together as a team, then it's easy because you are going to move the defence around that way. This means you then give more solutions to the man with the ball."
Drogba is the prime example of Chelsea's creativity. He has five League goals, but has set up six when he has left the centre-forward's role to adopt a different one.
Drogba said: "The fluidity comes because we know each other well. It helps if I can go to the wing to make space and I know that Nico [Anelka] or Flo [Malouda] will move up front."
Chelsea have no player in the same league as Zidane, but as a team they are playing with a wit and verve that is proving too much for every side they have encountered this season.Reuse content