How Chelsea are Freeing Their Wingbacks

Posted on October 30, 2010


If  you watch Chelsea play then you will notice just how attacking their wingbacks are. Ancelloti’s system is heavily reliant on the wingbacks for width and to create overloads on the flanks  so he sets up his midfield and defense in such a way that the fullbacks can get forward on a regular basis without leaving the team exposed.

Ashley Cole creating an overload on the left flank

The Temporary Three Man Defence

For an attacking fullback to be effective, other players must cover for him when he overlaps. This means that there must be one player who protects the space vacated by the fullback. Chelsea achieve this in interesting ways. As shown below, when Ashley Cole makes a forward run(which happens on almost every posession), John Terry will drift wide to the left and John Obi Mikel will drop deep forming a temporary three man defense. Jonathan Wilson has written about how Barcelona use the same strategy to free their fullbacks. Ramires or Zirkhov usually play behind Ashley Cole to provide extra protection and give him the option of a cut back instead of crossing the ball.

Chelsea's fluid 433

If Chelsea lose possession while Cole is out of position then it will be up to John Terry to deal with any counter attacks that come down the left side. So far this season, only Machester United were able to exploit his lack of pace in the Charity Shield with Paul Scholes continuously playing passes into the spaces behind Ashley Cole. This was essentially an exhibition game so I can’t read much into it. It will be interesting to see if teams figure out how to exploit this space as the season progresses.

How The Shuttlers Help the Fullbacks to Defend the Flanks

Chelsea play with a three man midfield, usually with Essien on the right and one of Ramires, Zirkhov or Lampard on the left. Anelka and Malouda do not play as traditional wingers and are freed of defensive responsibility, staying up the pitch waiting to start the counter attack. When Chelsea do not have possession, the side midfielders (or shuttlers) not only patrol the center of the pitch but they also drift wide and help the fullbacks to defend the flanks.. This is very important because the last thing any team wants is to leave their fullbacks exposed to two-on-one situations. Ramires already has experience playing this role for Brazil under Dunga, where he was tasked with protecting Maicon when the team did not have possession. Essien and Zirkhov have played as fullbacks so are comfortable defending on the flanks. Lampard is actually not suited to this role but he brings other things to the team so will probably go straight into the first team.These shuttlers need bags of stamina and tactical awareness as they are actually defending two positions. At AC Milan Ancellotti had Gattuso and Ambrosini performing these vital roles but they became less effective as they got older. The advantage that the current Chelsea side has is that their shuttlers are also good attacking players so their play is not as one dimensional as Ancelotti’s Milan team.


Chelsea play with the most attacking pair of fullbacks in the Premiership but the team is set up in such a way that this does not leave the defense exposed. This is evidenced by the fact that Chelsea have the best defensive record in the league(conceding only two goals) while playing an attacking style with plenty of width.

Posted in: Tactics