When Branislav Ivanovic first arrived at Chelsea, he spent a good deal of time on the outside looking in. The outside being a comfortable spot on the bench.
Luckily, the Serb had Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko for company; a friend, a translator, and someone who convinced him that if he was patient and persistent, he would get his chance.
Injuries to defensive rivals Alex and Ricardo Carvalho gave him an opportunity to ply his trade at the heart of the back four, and with his large frame and considerable power, Ivanovic looked every inch the traditional English centre-back. He involved himself as much as he could on the ground and in the air, to try and secure a regular starting role for the position he seemed designed to fill.
However, it was an injury to then first-choice right back José Bosingwa in October 2009 that afforded Ivanovic a surprising opportunity.
Even throughout Chelsea’s most defensively sound period – during and immediately after José Mourinho’s first spell at Stamford Bridge - no player really managed to take the right-back position and make it their own. Even Ivanovic was initially considered a stop-gap.
During his first full season with Chelsea, Ivanovic made 21 appearances as an unconventional right-back despite it being new to him. He recorded impressive stats in making 3.1 tackles per game and 2.1 interceptions per game in those appearances at full back, and even scored his first Premier League goal from his new berth on the right of the back four.
As a centre-back, Ivanovic is a solid defender who makes a good number of clearances and interceptions. However, his wide role allows him to be even more involved in the game as he makes a larger number of tackles to help out an ever-changing defensive midfield at Chelsea. He also wins more aerial duels as a wide man, averaging 4.2 per game this season, and won more than any other player in the Champions League group stages (31).
The Serb has been on a one-man mission to stop anyone coming within 30 yards of goal. Incredibly, he has never made an error leading to a goal in the Premier League in either position. To put that into context, since the start of the 2009/10 Premier League season, Cech has made 10 such errors, Terry 5, Ashley Cole 3 and Alex 3 (in just 34 appearances). Ivanovic’s robust defending has been amongst the club’s most reliable.
But it’s not all about the glamorous world of defending for Branislav Ivanovic. He manages to pop up and score the occasional goal as well. In fact, Ivanovic has scored twice as many goals as a right-back as he has as a centre-back. He developed an eye for goal at an early age as he played as a striker at youth level, which he says has helped him “sense how the ball will bounce or fall after being deflected.”
Playing wide allows him a lot more freedom to get involved in attacks, rather than being shackled in his own half, responsible solely for stopping opponents dead in their tracks. His prowess in the air makes him a difficult target to mark, particularly from set-pieces, and his headed goals such as that against Liverpool in the Champions League or the Europa League winning goal to atone for missing the final in Munich, have earned Ivanovic a place in Chelsea supporters’ hearts.
Despite being purchased to effectively act as a large Serbian wall in front of Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic seized an opportunity to become one of the first names on the team sheet by moving out of his comfort zone. Since then, he has seen off several rivals for the spot - players brought in for big money specifically to fill the role. Most recently he has forced Cesar Azpilicueta to adapt his own game on the other side of the pitch, and subsequently relegated Cole to the bench.
José Mourinho has been the first manager to value Ivanovic solely as a right-back, starting him in that position in each of his last 16 Premier League starts. With the comfort of stability, Ivanovic is enjoying his best season to date, earning himself a 7.32 WhoScored rating, his second best season being 2009/10 with a 7.19. The only Chelsea player with a higher rating this season is Eden Hazard, and that’s mainly down to the fact the Belgian will dribble past anyone who looks at him sideways (sometimes twice).
With his work ethic, versatility, and robust defensive skills, Ivanovic has left his manager with one easy selection decision this season. If only the others were quite so straightforward…
What position do you consider Ivanovic most suited to? Let us know in the comments below