The Evolution of Branislav Ivanovic: In Form at the Right Time

Updated: September 20, 2014

Since joining the squad in the January window of 2008, Branislav Ivanovic has shown a steady improvement in quality and understanding of his particular role in the team. Originally signed for his versatility as a centre-back and right back, the Serbian’s game has evolved to include an attacking prowess now deemed necessary for the modern fullback.

Affectionately dubbed “Brana” by many of the Chelsea faithful, he’s had his ups and downs along the way, struggling to find the scintillating form he is currently in. However, many of his struggles can be attributed to being played in multiple positions under four different managers during his first 18 months at Stamford Bridge.

In a period I fondly refer to as “the Troubled Age,” trigger-happy and trophy-hungry Roman Abramovich sacked Avram Grant, then Luiz Felipe Scolari, then Guus Hiddink, finally hiring Carlo Ancelotti – all between the 2007-08 and 2009-10 seasons. Under Grant, Ivanovic never featured, finally making his debut for new manager Scolari in the League Cup against Portsmouth. His next competitive showing lasted all of five minutes,

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coming off the bench for then-favored José Bosingwa in the 85th minute in a 3-0 victory at Hull City’s KC Stadium.

It wasn’t until mid-November of the 2008 season when Ivanovic first started a league match, doing so in place of Alex at centre-back. Four starts later, he was once again relegated to the bench following a poor performance against Arsenal.

Scolari’s departure and Hiddink’s arrival in February 2009 saw him given very little first-team time, and it took him until April 2010 to break into the team. In the 2010-2011 season, under Ancelotti, Ivanovic featured far more in the starting eleven, benefitting from a long-term injury to José Bosingwa. It’s worthy noting that Ancelotti favored an attacking-style 4-4-2 – a formation in which Brana excelled in defense, while also making headway in his forays forward. His form that year was so good that he began to receive a lot of scrutiny from other clubs, leading to heavy links with Fiorentina and Real Madrid during the 2011 winter transfer window, and culminating in his signing a new contract with the Blues binding him to the club until 2016.

Still, it was not until the arrival of André Villas-Boas, following the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti in May of 2011, that Ivanovic cemented the right back position as his own. Ironically enough, Brana’s versatility was his biggest hindrance: having to compete for a centre-back and right-back position prevented him from being a consistent player in either. Under AVB, Ivanovic improved at his favored position but at times was still asked to play centre-back. Such was also the case under Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez, and Ivanovic scored important goals for both managers while playing different positions. Chelsea fans will certainly recall his strike against Napoli at Stamford Bridge which propelled Chelsea to their tournament-winning finish in the 2012 Champions League. The following year, in the 2013 Europa League final, his header won the competition for the Blues.

It may be easy to forget how vital his performances have been for the Blues in recent seasons, but one has only to listen to former Chelsea legend and record goalscorer Frank Lampard to understand his value to the club. “You only have to look at him to see what a beast he is. He goes under the radar a bit because he just does his job, but what a player. He’s a pleasure to play with and a great man. He is an absolute professional and he is a man you want on your side.”

But how exactly has the big Serbian made the right-back role his own at Chelsea? Have his performances really been that good? Is he consistent? For answers to these questions, I had to do a bit of stat-hunting.

In now his sixth season for Chelsea, 30-year old Branislav Ivanovic is off to a flying start. He has played every minute of Chelsea’s campaign, featuring five times, scoring twice and contributing an assist. He is regularly used as a pressure outlet and his penchant for getting forward forces opposing midfielders and wing-backs to be more honest. He’s shown an eye for goal and a willingness to overlap and interchange with the winger on his side of the pitch.

Ivanovic has the highest performance score of any defender in the BPL [Squawka]

Ivanovic has the highest performance score of any defender in the BPL [Squawka]

Brana has already completed as many take ons this season as he did in the entirety of the 2012-13 season. Most importantly, he’s exhibited a knack for knowing when to push forward and when not to – something he’s had trouble with in recent years.

Ivanovic's most recent Premier League and Champions League stats show a steady progression [Squawka]

Ivanovic’s most recent Premier League and Champions League stats show a steady progression [Squawka]

That’s not to say that Ivanovic hasn’t had his defensive lapses this season – the first goal conceded against Swansea was a result of his failure to track the outside run of Neil Taylor. Not ten minutes later, Brana lost sight of Routledge – again on his outside – whose curling effort just missed Courtois’ far post. However, these types of lapses are understandable, especially when considering the style of football Chelsea are trying to play.

Mourinho’s men are playing a higher, more compact line and the team as a whole have exhibited a far less defensive shape than the season prior. Yes, wingers like Hazard and Schürrle are still expected to defend, but they provide far less cover in this system than they were expected to in last year’s. As such, Ivanovic is tasked with making use of the larger amount of space down the sideline. This is relatively clear when analyzing the Serbian’s heat maps.

Often used as a lateral option by Nemanja Matic or Cesc Fabregas, Ivanovic can also afford to play higher up the field, especially when facing weaker opposition. Against Everton, his positioning yielded a positive result, as the Serbian scored inside of three minutes. Similarly, against Burnley and Leicester, Ivanovic merely occupying an advanced role kept their midfield and wing players honest. It also permits Chelsea attackers to make incisive and overlapping runs into the area, like the one Schürrle made before Fàbregas’ sublime assist found the German in stride.

Chelsea fans can expect Brana to be as present as ever in the opposing area on set-pieces this season (he’s scored from a corner once already) especially when considering the quality of delivery Fàbregas is known for. The Stamford Bridge faithful should also anticipate see him playing a more disciplined game. As seen above, his card accumulation has fluctuated between 8 and 12 yellows a season, but the return of José Mourinho will likely see that number reduced. The Portuguese demands a certain level of defensive discipline, as exhibited by Chelsea’s stellar defensive record from last season.

If Ivanovic’s numbers so far this season are any indication of his future form, Chelsea fans are in for a treat. No disrespect to Everton,

but the first true examination of his skills will come tomorrow when Chelsea face off against Manchester City. His weak-footed goal was the difference maker last season when the Blues travelled to the Etihad, and he will hope for an equally impactful performance this time around. From what we’ve seen, Brana has nowhere to go but up.

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