Ancelotti owes Chelsea's great start to Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane
Chelsea's excellent start to the season owes a debt of gratitude to Zinedine Zidane, 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 at the moment by Chelsea's fluent attacking play is the sum total of Ancelotti's 17 years of experience as a player and 15 as a coach. One of the most important lessons Ancelotti learned was during his time at Juventus, when he was given the responsibility of teasing the best out of Zidane, a player that 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. I changed characteristics. There is not a winning shape: you can play 4-4-2, 4-3-1-2. There is no shape guaranteed to win.
“Now I look at the skills and characteristics of my players and put the right shape in the team for these players.”
Ancelotti has brought that flexibility with him to Chelsea. He started out by imposing the diamond midfield formation that had brought him two Champions League crowns 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 that had been introduced by Jose Mourinho five years earlier might better suit the players at the club.
It is worth pointing out that Mourinho himself stumbled upon the formation during his first season in charge, as he too had begun his reign favouring a 4-4-2 system.
The great difference between Mourinho's 4-3-3 and Ancelotti's is that under the Italian the attacking trio have been given the licence to play off the cuff, to play with instinct and invention, to create the kind of unpredictable football against which it is nigh on impossible to defend.
“We use possession more and more attacking play. In the past, Chelsea played a different way,” 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.”
Chelsea have no player in quite the same league as Zidane, but as a team they are playing with a collective wit and verve that is proving too much for every team they have encountered so far this season. This weekend's trip to Manchester City, followed by a home game with Arsenal, are very different propositions, and Chelsea may well adapt their tactics accordingly.
However, the spontaneity and relish with which they have begun the season suggests they will be itching to score a hatful past their more illustrious opponents too.