Branislav Ivanovic: A Right Back in a Centre Back’s Body

Branislav Ivanovic is a Chelsea cult hero. He’s also a world class defender. But is the Serbian defender a centre back who can reluctantly cover at right back, or a right back with the physical attributes to cover in central defence?

The name Branislav derives from the Slavic elements borni-ti (to protect) and slav-a (glory) and means “warrior”. It could hardly be more appropriate for his playing style or his mentality could it? A common nickname for Branislav in Serbia is Bane. I will forgive you for wondering if it’s in fact the Chelsea number 2 under that mask in The Dark Knight Rises. Ivanovic has been at Chelsea for 4 and half seasons now after signing in 2008. He did not play at all in his first few months at the club. Avram Grant may have been the manager at the time, but Bane clearly wasn’t signed at the manager’s request. That gives us 4 years of evidence upon which to come to a verdict about his best position. I decided to go through every game he has played for the club (excluding substitute appearances of less than 10 minutes) and look at our defensive record with him at right back, compared to with him at centre back. My starting hypothesis is that the records may be fairly similar, so it’s important to look at the strength of the opposition. Let’s go.

08-09 season: Luiz Filipe Scolari & Guus Hiddink

Games at CB: 10

Mins at CB: 855

Goal conceded: 9

Clean sheets: 4

To be honest, most of Ivanovic’s games at CB were in the domestic cups and in home games against weaker opponents. However, he did play in central defence in that disappointing home defeat to Arsenal (2 Van Persie goals).

Games at RB: 8

Mins at RB: 720

Goals conceded: 9

Clean sheets: 4

His record at right back is statistically slightly worse that at centre back for this season, but there were 4 notable results with him at right back – a 2-1 Champions League win at Anfield (later dubbed “Branfield” after his brace that night), a 2-0 away win at Newcastle, a 2-1 win against Arsenal at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final, and a 0-0 draw away to Barcelona, where Bane had a great game against Thierry Henry.

The one major blot on his record was the Champions League QF second leg 4-4 draw against Liverpool, where he gave away a penalty for a foul on Xabi Alonso.

All in all, right back certainly proved more successful for Ivanovic purely because of the strength of the opponents played, and the excellent results achieved.

09-10 season: Carlo Ancelotti

Games at CB: 8

Mins at CB: 669

Goal conceded: 4

Clean sheets: 5

Just 8 games in central defence for Ivanovic this season. Those included away league wins at Sunderland, Stoke and Wolves. The other 5 appearances were in easier cup games.

Games at RB: 35

Mins at RB: 2743

Goals conceded: 22

Clean sheets: 16

Notable results with Ivanovic at right back included home and away 1-0 wins against FC Porto, home and away 2-0 wins against Liverpool, a 2-0 home win against Arsenal, a 3-0 away win at Arsenal, a 1-0 home win against Manchester United, and the 1-0 FA Cup Final win against Portsmouth. The blemishes on his record were a 2-1 away defeat at Manchester City and home and away Champions League defeats to Inter Milan. In the aftermath of the exit from the Champions League, a late equalizer was conceded at Blackburn to a back post header. Ivanovic had been substituted and Paulo Ferreira was beaten in the air for the goal.

What is clear is that Carlo Ancelotti considered Ivanovic his first choice right back, and only a centre back when others were being rested in lesser cup games, or were injured. Ivanovic had little trouble adjusting to constant changes in his position – at one stage a run of 11 successive clean sheets was forthcoming when he was in the starting back four. A League and Cup Double was won this season, in no small part due to outstanding defensive displays in the big games.

Ivanovic in October 2009:

“It is sometimes difficult to change positions, but I try to give the maximum regardless of where I play in the team. I am ready to do everything that the manager requests of me. The biggest difference is that right-back is more about going on the attack, while the central defender position requires constant concentration.”

10-11 season: Carlo Ancelotti

Games at CB: 29

Mins at CB: 2236

Goal conceded: 21

Clean sheets: 12

This season, Ivanovic was forced to play in central defence in (or within) 29 games. This was due to the club selling Ricardo Carvalho and replacing him in the squad with Jeffrey Bruma. This meant Ivanovic moved up to 3rd in the CB pecking order. He generally did well against mid-table opponents or weaker teams in Domestic Cup Games and in Champions League Group Stage matches. However, he was in central defence for a 3-0 home defeat to Sunderland, as well as a 1-0 home league defeat to Liverpool, and a 3-1 demolition at The Emirates. Ivanovic also lined up centrally for a Champions League SF defeat to Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.

Games at RB: 20

Mins at RB: 1473

Goals conceded: 13

Clean sheets: 6

This was another decent season for Ivanovic’s record at right back in big games. Even though there were defeats away at Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United in the league (and another defeat at Old Trafford in the CL SF 2nd leg), he was at right back for a 2-0 home win over Arsenal, a 2-1 home win over United, a 2-0 home win over City, and 2-1 home win against Tottenham. He also scored an absolutely crucial 84th minute winner at Ewood Park, where he headed in at the far post in open play.

Ivanovic in March 2011:

 “I prefer to be on the pitch. I see my future in Chelsea. I want to be ready and to give the maximum for the team. It depends on the manager which position.”

11-12 season: Andre Villas-Boas:

Games at CB: 15

Mins at CB: 1213

Goal conceded: 19

Clean sheets: 2

These figures speak for themselves. Only 2 clean sheets in 15 games at centre back for AVB. Included are the hopeless defensive displays at Old Trafford (3-1 defeat after being 3-0 down at half time) and that 5-3 home defeat to Arsenal. He did play at centre back in a very good home win against Manchester City, though.

Games at RB: 15

Mins at RB: 1178

Goals conceded: 12 

Clean sheets: 4

All indications were that AVB saw Ivanovic as a central defender and not as a right back. It wasn’t until AVB’s 15’th game in charge that Ivanovic first started at right back (an away win at Ewood Park – the first game where we reverted to a deeper defensive line). It was a bit of a mixed bag of results with him at right back – a home league defeat to Liverpool, a 3-3 home draw with United (after leading 3-0) and that disastrous night in Naples (a 3-1 defeat to Napoli). The best of the results were a 3-0 away win at Newcastle, a 3-0 home win against Valencia, and a very important 1-0 FA Cup victory at Loftus Road against QPR. Either way, AVB adjusted his tactics (“We will never compromise on our beliefs” – sure!) and moved the defensive line 20 yards deeper and moved Ivanovic back to right back, where his record was better than at CB, though still not exactly glowing.

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About Grant James

Grant James is a professional football analyst and coach who holds a UEFA B Licence, FA Youth Module 2, CAF B License, the Prozone Level 3 in Performance Analysis and has a one-year diploma in Sports Coaching Science from ETA. All views are his own.

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3 Responses to Branislav Ivanovic: A Right Back in a Centre Back’s Body

  1. Francois Pienaar August 23, 2012 at 9:17 PM #

    RB for me

  2. celeryeddie October 23, 2012 at 9:16 AM #

    I prefer him at centre back. Azpilicueta gives more going forward and is quicker with low centre of gravity. Ivanovic isn’t quick at all and struggles against pace. He also gets a lot of yellow cards for fouls and then we concede goals from freekicks. I would play Azpi with Ivanovic as backup, and put Ivanovic next to Luiz or Cahill at centre back. Terry is too injury prone now.

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    […] is next in line to shift to centre back, but I have been quite vocal in the past about my view that Ivanović is only average in that position. Whilst he has the physicality suited for centre back, he does not have the concentration or […]