Chelsea’s trigger-happy approach to sacking managers has garnered plenty of criticism over the years, but rarely has a departure ever felt as unjust as Carlo Ancelotti’s exit from Stamford Bridge in 2011.
The Italian lasted just two years at Chelsea but wasted little time in becoming one of the most popular figures of the Roman Abramovich era. He brought historic success, and he did so by playing perhaps the most exciting football the club had ever seen.
After the disaster that was Luiz Felipe Scolari’s tenure at the Bridge, Chelsea needed to make a real managerial splash to get things back on track, and someone of Ancelotti’s reputation was exactly that. He’d won two Champions Leagues with AC Milan and was clearly one of the best around.
By the end of his first season, Ancelotti had already translated that success to the English game, leading Chelsea to a Premier League-FA Cup double for the first time in their history and shattering goalscoring records in the process.
Unlike many managers at Chelsea, Ancelotti wasn’t blessed with an infinite war chest from which to plan his transfers. The summer of 2009 saw only Daniel Sturridge, Yuri Zhirkov, a young Nemanja Mati? and the mighty Ross Turnbull join the club, so Ancelotti had to work his magic with another manager’s squad.
Lining up in a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation to begin with, Ancelotti built one of the most dominant midfields in recent memory. Michael Essien sat at the base with Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack either side of him and Deco floating around in attack. Florent Malouda, Joe Cole and Salomon Kalou would fill in when needed.
Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka were the two strikers who benefited from all that creativity, and they fired home goals at a ludicrous rate. Chelsea scored at least two in their first six games and regularly hit three, four or five in the coming weeks.
However, what made Ancelotti’s Chelsea so impressive was their versatility. Teams began to figure out how to play against the diamond, which presented the boss with a challenge. Should he stick to his guns, similar to the manner in which Maurizio Sarri struggled on in the 2018/19 campaign, or shake things up?
He chose option two.
Versatility hasn’t always been a core part of Ancelotti’s management, but it’s something which he learned early on during his time with Parma. The Serie A side’s success in the 1990s almost intimidated Ancelotti, and when he joined the club in 1996, he felt pressured into sticking with their preferred 4-4-2 system, even though his squad was not equipped for it.
“For six months I played [Gianfranco] Zola as a winger, because he had to fit into 4-4-2, and in the end he left to go to Chelsea,” Ancelotti recalled to the Daily Mail in 2010. “And I lost a great player.”
Chelsea benefited from Ancelotti’s stubbornness in 1996 when Zola made the move, and thanks to the boss’ desire to right his wrongs, they benefited from his flexibility 14 years later.
A fluid 4-3-3 was next on the agenda, with Deco dropping out the squad to be replaced by the natural winger that was Malouda, and the Frenchman erupted. He finished the campaign with 12 goals and ten assists, but that’s not even close to Chelsea’s top two scorers.
Drogba ended the campaign with 29 goals and 13 assists, and Lampard added 22 and 16 of his own. Rarely in Premier League history have we ever seen a duo put up those kinds of numbers alongside one another, but that was just Ancelotti’s Chelsea.
In that first season, Chelsea scored seven goals in a game on three separate occasions and even hit eight on the final day of the season against Aston Villa, so it should come as no surprise to see players racking up silly numbers.
En route to their title success, Chelsea broke several goalscoring records. Their 103 goals scored and +71 goal difference were records broken only by 2017/18 Manchester City, while their total of 68 goals at home still stands untouched.
The 2010/11 season was average, with Chelsea finishing second in the league and failing to win any trophies, and Abramovich responded by sacking Ancelotti hours after the final game of the season. The free-flowing era was brought to an end before it had even truly begun, and fans have been longing for a return to that style ever since.
For more from ?Tom Gott, follow him on ?Twitter!