Love him or hate him, Ashley Cole is the best at his position in England, and arguably the world. While this has been the case for many years (although I’m sure the Evra family might object), under Carlo Ancelotti Cole has transformed from an indefatigable left-back to an integral cog in Chelsea’s attacking strategy.
Fullbacks are an important aspect of any back four, of course, and the manner in which a manager utilizes this versatile position reveals their attacking intent. Overlapping fullbacks are a staple of most attacking outfits, combining with the wide men to enter dangerous space, or simply to drag defenders out of position to allow attackers more freedom to cut open a defense.
Ashley Cole has been the standard for the fullback position for years now. His tireless work on the left flank for Arsenal gave the Gunners that extra option in attack as he would race to the byline and whip in a decent cross, or simply (as stated above) supply an extra body the defenders had to acknowledge. It was always Cole’s unique ability to both know the right time to join the attack, and then to have the stamina to get back into sound defensive position in the event his team quickly lost possession. This is what has made him the best left-back in England for over a decade. Not to mention his ability to make Ronaldo and Messi look ordinary on more than one occasion.
But under Ancelotti, when Chelsea are in attack Cole has evolved into an auxiliary winger. On paper, the Blues line up in a formation much like this:
We can argue about slight variances, but this is essentially the formation Chelsea use. Within this basic framework, there is an abundance of movement between Drogba, Anelka, Malouda, and Lampard. Particularly those front three, and particularly when the Blues are playing an inferior team, as they have in the first three matches of this Premier League season. When Chelsea are dominating possession, the triumvirate of Drogba, Anelka and Malouda can meander about, dropping deep, going wide, playing high, basically anywhere they can positively affect play.
But with the liberty Ancelotti has granted these three, their tendencies often lean towards playing up the middle. Anelka is a natural central striker, as is Drogba, and for Malouda, he wants to play up the middle to more heavily influence the game, which has transformed him into one of the PL’s best players. These tendencies leave Chelsea a very narrow team at times.
Ancelotti has rectified this would-be problem by ordering Cole to act as his width.
Cole is no longer simply making those blazing, overlapping runs from deep, but he is being stationed on the left of midfield when Chelsea are in attack. He is a full member of the attack, maintaining some semblance of width for the side. We are seeing new runs from Cole: acute diagonal runs from shallower positions, deeper overlaps to release HIM into scoring positions, and coming infield to join Lampard and Malouda in attack.
In the first half of Chelsea’s 2-0 win against Stoke, Cole put on a masterclass of this “new-found” position. Perhaps Stoke aided in this by playing a back 5 with wingbacks and CB’s that rarely looked on the same page, but credit Cole for exploiting such weaknesses. Stoke could not cope with Cole’s attacking forays, and not for the first time this season, Chelsea’s best move of the first half found Cole on the end of it. A quick back-and-forth of possession led to Michael Essien placing an inch-perfect pass through to Cole, who scuffed his shot wide. The fullback was playing higher than any forward on the move.
Later, Drogba dropped deep and wide, while Cole raced into the box on an acute diagonal from the touchline. Drogba did well to lob a 15-yard ball over two defenders and find Cole, who, running towards the goal, one-time lashed it from midair on to the crossbar. A phenomenal attack, which underlines Cole’s new role in the high-flying Chelsea attack.
There are few elite fullbacks who can take on the responsibility of being a dual-role player. Brilliant attacker, miserly defender, Cole has pulled it off with flying colors, and Chelsea are the great benefactor.
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