Jose's hardest call? Dropping Ivanovic may be necessary – but it won't come easy
It took just five seconds of the new Premier League season to plunge Branislav Ivanovic into the crisis that threatens his future at Chelsea.
Swansea City kicked off at Stamford Bridge and, with three sharp passes, immediately worked the ball out to Jefferson Montero on the left flank.
His first touch calmly drew in a charging Ivanovic, another effortlessly knocked the ball past the confounded Serb and down the line. The resulting cross was wayward but the tone had been emphatically set.
Montero tormented Ivanovic for 71 minutes until his withdrawal, most memorably surging past his man to provide the floating delivery that led to Andre Ayew’s first-half equaliser in a 2-2 draw. For Jose Mourinho, seething over Thibaut Courtois’ red card and pondering how to guide his physically undercooked squad to vital early-season points, the form of his usually reliable right-back was deeply concerning.
Consistency to crisis
The ensuing weeks have pushed Ivanovic right to the top of Mourinho’s agenda. Personal humiliation against Raheem Sterling and Aleksandar Kolarov was mitigated by collective failings as Manchester City routed Chelsea in all areas at the Etihad Stadium, but the Serb’s inability to lay a glove on West Brom’s Callum McManaman or Crystal Palace duo Bakary Sako and Yannick Bolasie was damning.
The Serb’s inability to lay a glove on West Brom’s Callum McManaman or Crystal Palace duo Bakary Sako and Yannick Bolasie was damning
After the Palace loss Mourinho admitted he blamed himself for leaving one unidentified player on the field for the entire 96 minutes. “When I made the third change I realised that I needed a fourth and I don't have a fourth,” he told reporters. While there were other viable candidates, including Cesc Fabregas, most assumed the mystery man was Ivanovic.
If it was, you can be sure that Mourinho took no pleasure in condemning his most prized soldier. Ivanovic has started 78 of a possible 80 Premier League matches since the Special One’s return to Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2013 – more than any other Chelsea player. Last season he would have played every minute of the league campaign but for a late red card picked up against Manchester United.
His remarkable durability and consistency were rewarded with the vice-captaincy last summer. Any relegation to the bench now would be a massive call, even if Cesar Azpilicueta is a more natural fit at right-back and summer signing Baba Rahman must be the long-term option on the left.
No Chelsea player has covered himself in glory with his defensive contributions this season, yet one man has still managed to distinguish himself as the undisputed weakest link
The fact that Everton await on Saturday is particularly poignant, and not simply because John Stones will have the perfect chance to show exactly why Chelsea made him their top summer transfer target. Last season’s clashes between the two sides highlighted so much of why Mourinho adores Ivanovic. At Goodison Park the Serb powered upfield to score Chelsea’s second in what proved to be a nine-goal thriller. In the return at Stamford Bridge he produced a display of unbridled tenacity and aggression that helped ensure a vital clean sheet, but boiled over when he headbutted James McCarthy. Mourinho cut short a post-match BBC interview when quizzed about the incident, proving again that he fights hardest for those who fight for him.
But now Ivanovic is giving his manager problems that can’t be solved by walking away. No Chelsea player has covered himself in glory with his defensive contributions this season, yet one man has still managed to distinguish himself as the undisputed weakest link in a backline that has shipped nine goals in four games.
Ivanovic’s numbers for successful tackles, interceptions, aerial duels won and crosses blocked all bear comparison with 2014/15, but one particular Opta finding stands out: opponents dribbled past the Serb just 16 times in 38 Premier League games last season; he has already been left in the dust eight times this term.
Wingers are toying with him, beating him for pace, skill or both whenever a one-on-one situation presents itself. The kind explanation is that Ivanovic has had the misfortune to be matched with a series of the Premier League’s quicker, slicker widemen at a time when he is still searching for his best physical level.
He might also be unsettled by the fact that, with less than a year to run on his current contract, no extension has yet been agreed. A more brutal possibility is that, at 31, the athletic limitations that made Ivanovic’s initial transformation into a marauding right-back so remarkable are now taking their toll, raising serious questions about his long-term viability in the position – particularly ahead of the improved Azpilicueta.
He has fought for recognition ever since arriving at Stamford Bridge in January 2008, waiting eight months to make his debut and gradually changing his game to become indispensable
Picking Ivanovic at right-back has always been a trade-off. Despite his best efforts, he remains a poor crosser – last season 18% of his deliveries from open positions found a team-mate; this term it’s down to 10%. Most opponents happily stand off him when Chelsea attack, while some actively try to funnel the ball towards him. In defence, his lack of pace is a big reason why Willian’s work rate on the right flank has always been so valued. But more than 300 Chelsea appearances suggest that the positives of Ivanovic at right-back traditionally outweigh the negatives. He brings dogged defending, determination, leadership, an aerial presence in both boxes and, having played up front in his native Serbia until the age of 15, surprisingly predatory instincts in the final third.
Ivanovic has already scored his way into Chelsea legend, weighing in with crucial goals en route to domestic and European silverware over the past seven years and even netting the winner in the 2013 Europa League Final. After another clinical finish secured three points over Aston Villa in February, Mourinho hailed his right-back as one of the greatest signings of the Roman Abramovich era.
With his future on the line, Ivanovic will have no desire to think of himself in terms of Chelsea’s history. He has fought for recognition ever since arriving at Stamford Bridge in January 2008, waiting eight months to make his debut and gradually changing his game to become indispensable. He won’t lie down now but his early-season floundering has given Mourinho a huge decision to make.