Chelsea’s less than impressive start to the defence of their Premier League crown has excited everyone across all social media channels. As Mourinho embarks on calling out employees from different areas of the club, football fans sit content in watching a drama unfold before their eyes, feasting on the talking points.
After the medical staff, the second group Mourinho focused on was the players. No fewer than seven first-team regulars were named as having underperformed in the team’s first two games of the season. One to come under more scrutiny than most is Branislav Ivanovic, whose performance has gone from one extreme to the other.
After being given the runaround by Swansea’s Jefferson Montero on the opening day, he was targeted by both Manchester City and most recently Crystal Palace as a vulnerable component of Chelsea’s machine.
Those fond of football debate have reacted with theories that Ivanovic’s legs have gone at the age of 31, he’s stopped trying, and that this has long been on the cards as teams have finally worked out how to exploit his weaknesses. That would seem to be to isolate him against a fast, skilful player – Swansea did it with Montero, City with Sterling and Kolarov, and Palace with Zaha, Sako and Bolasie. Chelsea therefore need to sign another defender.
I wouldn’t agree with any of these theories put forward; rather, Ivanovic is suffering from what’s known in football as a confidence crisis. It happens to all players, no matter how good you are. The problem is that it hits when you’re not expecting it. You don’t understand what other players are doing that is making you look so bad, when not long ago you were so good.
Moreover, Ivanovic last season, and in seasons before, was excellent against the same tricky wingers, won the league and was named in the Team of the Year.
A confidence crisis could be, and probably is happening to several of Chelsea’s players, but with Ivanovic it’s been the most noticeable for me. That is to say that some things that he’s been doing on the pitch are clear indicators of an absence of confidence in a player.
One thing that immediately strikes you is how slow he’s been to put pressure on his opposition winger when the ball goes out to him. Chelsea’s pressing ability under Mourinho has always been one of their defining features and a large part of why they concede so few goals. If the ball goes out wide or into a dangerous area, the nearest player usually sprints towards the ball and, backed up by his teammates, forces the opponent back towards his own goal or into a mistake.
If you lose your confidence, it becomes harder to do this. You doubt whether it’s the right decision, and find yourself halfway between putting pressure on the man and letting him come to you. The main thing affecting you is the fear of him beating you. There’s always the risk that if you press someone, he’ll wait until you’re off balance, shift his weight the other way and turn away from you. If you go to him but stand off a couple of yards, you give yourself a headstart if he decides knock it past you.
Ivanovic did this numerous times in Chelsea’s most recent game against Palace. If you look at the first Palace chance in the video below, Ivanovic doesn’t get pressure on his man at any point, rather continuing to back off and keep a couple of yards between himself and the ball. This stops him from getting beaten down the line, as happens in the very first clip, but allows Zaha to play the ball into the gap between Ivanovic and Zouma, which Matic has to track the runner into. As others get drawn to the ball, space opens up for Cabaye to shoot, and he should score.
A similar thing happens for Palace’s first goal, as Ivanovic neither presses Souaré when the ball goes wide, nor stays on Bolasie to prevent him from running into space. It’s likely he feels that both of these decisions would be wrong, so ends up doing neither – he then can’t be criticised for being beaten one-on-one or for letting a player wander into the box unchallenged.
The Match of the Day highlights even showed Bolasie walking with the ball in the closing stages to run the clock down, and Ivanovic walking out to meet him. Not a sign that he doesn’t care – no footballer would deliberately walk on a pitch when he should be running. He may have been tired, but any remotely fit player can still at least manage a jog in injury time.
On the other hand, it would be humiliating if you ran to a player walking with the ball, and he put it through your legs or took it past you. In footballing terms, it’s called getting “mugged off” on the pitch. It can only be a severe lack of confidence that causes a player to act in such a manner.
Another sign of a confidence crisis is the tendency to ball-watch. City’s opening goal in the next video is a good example. Ivanovic isn’t the main person at fault – the failure to stop the ball going into Aguero and Cahill being caught off-balance against are clearly bigger causes, but throughout the build-up he pays more attention to the ball than his position.
When Aguero links up with Touré, Ivanovic is too busy looking at the ball to close the gap between himself and Cahill. This gives Aguero more space to turn into and shoot, and Ivanovic reacts too late. You might say that his reading of the game isn’t up to scratch, but tucking in to cover your centre-back is a basic move for any footballer.
I’ve found that ball-watching, for whatever reason, is one of the first things players do when they lack confidence. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I believe it comes from needing to know where the ball is so you don’t get caught out. What can then happen is that you occupy yourself with following the ball that you forget where you should be, and ignore players not in your line of sight.
This means you can easily be caught if players run behind you, or cause fine margins to go against you as you fail to make up a yard of ground to stop a player shooting. Essentially, your head is all over the place and you concentrate so hard on getting everything right that you forget the basics.
Football is a ruthless game, hence Chelsea’s recent and upcoming opponents picking up on this. Whether it’s interpreted as a lack of confidence is irrelevant, it doesn’t go unnoticed and is seen as a clear weakness. The fans spot it too, and are unforgiving as ever. In many respects, the management is the same. They don’t care if your morale is rock bottom, they expect you to deliver on the pitch, and if you don’t, you’re out of the team.
Speaking of which, this might be the best option for Ivanovic if things don’t pick up. Chelsea are under huge pressure and can’t afford to drop many more points, which Ivanovic will cost them if he carries on showing clear signs of weakness. There comes a point where trying to play yourself out of your poor form clearly isn’t working, and a spell out of the firing line to breathe benefits you more. City did it with Joe Hart in 2013/14, remember. Where did they finish that season again?
The problem is nobody really knows how to deal with a confidence crisis, and nobody really knows how they got out of it when it hit them. People do escape, though, and Ivanovic will be back this season, provided that Chelsea don’t implode. People might talk about how he’s trying harder, done extra fitness work or adapted his game.
The simple reality will be that the confidence which gave him such consistency, spaces in the Team of the Year, a couple of league titles and a Champions League winners medal, and then went away for a bit, will have returned. Things tend to move from one extreme to the other in times of crisis.