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Feb 5, 2011

How to solve a problem like Torres

The fact that Chelsea lined up in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation (otherwise known as the midfield 'diamond') for their first game after spending £50 million on Fernando Torres, speaks volumes. Fitting one of the world's best strikers into their team is not a tough challenge for many Premier League managers, but when you already have a host of top class performers to choose from, it is not so easy.

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Chelsea have three options that will see Torres slot into the current side, with Carlo Ancelotti faced with the task of ensuring he hits the ground running with his new club.

The first is to continue with the formation that has seen them bring great success during the times of Jose Mourinho and one that proved to be enough to pick up the Double last campaign, after some initial tinkering from the Italian.

In playing a 4-3-3, Chelsea make the decision to push a player who usually plies his trade through the central areas out wide. This season, that player has been Nicolas Anelka. The Frenchman still boasts electric pace, even at this stage of his career, and is well able to fill the wide areas in conjunction with a genuine winger, Florent Malouda, on the other side. This has worked well for other clubs, as Man City's Mario Balotelli and Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt have converted from a central striker to a wide player with success, but may not be the best option for the new-look Chelsea.

The problem there is that neither Fernando Torres, nor Didier Drogba, would thrive in a wide role. If the 4-3-3 formation is to continue to work, one of these two will have to drop to the bench, or will be forced to attempt to reinvent themselves on the right wing.

Of the two, the more likely to drift wide is Drogba. He has shown more of a capacity to move around the pitch this season and, of course, can still interchange with his team-mate up front when needed. But Chelsea will lose what he does best, his battering-ram style, his physical presence and his direct threat on goal. Torres boasts more pace than the Ivorian, but spending £50 million on a player to then play him out of position on the wing seems unlikely.

The second option for Ancelotti is to revert to a traditional 4-4-2. With Torres and Drogba playing in tandem, Anelka would drop to the bench to provide impact in the latter stages of games, and the two central strikers would feed off each other. Certainly the prospect of two of the world's best finishers playing alongside each other is mouth-watering, but it creates other problems across the pitch.

Chelsea do not possess a right winger and would be required to move Ramires, or Yossi Benayoun (once he returns from injury) out there. With Branislav Ivanovic at right-back and new-boy David Luiz in the centre of defence, the right side of the pitch could be opened up to full-back Jose Bosingwa, whose attacking instincts could well be utilised in a more advanced role. Against the bigger teams, or the trickier players, the Portuguese's positional and defensive nous could help combat some opposing attacks, while also providing width and energy in the final third. But a traditional right winger would need to be purchased in the summer.

The most likely option is that Ancelotti returns to where he started his Chelsea career, with a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation. Against Sunderland, it was completed successfully with Anelka dropping into the withdrawn role, but questions have been raised.

"In a diamond your attention is more on controlling the play, you have more ball in midfield and one more man there as well,'' Michael Ballack revealed after Ancelotti's first failed experiment in 2009. "So you gain a small advantage through the centre but there's more hard work for the four midfielders because they have a lot of work to do on and off the ball in this system.''

Width, too, is missing, and Malouda's place in the side is in jeopardy as he operates primarily on the flanks. However, the chance to deploy two strikers and an attacking midfielder, with some more solidity in the central areas from Michael Essien, Ramires and John Obi Mikel, appears to give Chelsea the best option.

This formation also offers the possibility, against the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, to drop back into a more solid 4-2-3-1, with two defensive midfielders, a chance for a bit more width and one of Torres or Drogba up front. Ancelotti won the Champions League with AC Milan in 2007 with a 4-3-2-1 and could certainly be persuaded that flooding the midfield in a big game would be the way to go, without it marking a drastic change from his preferred diamond.

Ultimately, Ancelotti will likely try a few formations before he settles on a winning formula. Against some of the smaller teams, the most likely formation is a return to the diamond, while it would not be a surprise to see a 4-2-3-1 against better opposition. The envy of every manager in the game, he still has some tough decisions to make this season, although form and fitness may yet play its part in helping him decide.

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