Almost 6 years ago, Chelsea pushed through a £9.7 million deal that brought a relatively unknown 24 year old Serbian defender from Lokomotiv Moscow to Stamford Bridge. His name was Branislav Ivanovic. No one knew back then, but the young defender would develop into one of the best right-backs in world football and some of the best transfer business Chelsea have ever done. Strong and as powerful as they come, never shying away from a duel and not afraid of throwing in a hard tackle if necessary, he has won it all with Chelsea. His only misfortune is to be a part of the same football generation as Philipp Lahm, in whose shadow he has been living for years.
The young Serb arrived after the Blues had lost to Manchester United in the Champions League final and failed to win the competition for the first time in the club’s history – a history fact that Ivanovic would help rectify four years later in 2012. He broke into the starting 11 straight away and with the exception of his first season when he “only” made 26 appearances for the club, he never let anyone take his position from him and has started every Premier League game this season. Over time he helped Chelsea’s defence become one of the best in Europe and developed a reputation of a horrible defender to play against and eventually one of the best in the game.
Yet, his contribution at Chelsea has mostly gone unnoticed in the eyes of all fans, media and football experts. This is even more surprising considering the defender’s stand out characteristic – his ability to come up offensively in big moments of the game. Indeed with most of his work coming up defensively, the part he plays offensively is easy to oversee. But when we scroll through his goal scoring record for the Blues, we realise why he is not only one of the most underrated players in this Chelsea team but also in the world.
His goal against PSG on Tuesday was his third goal in five games. The first came in the League Cup Semi-Final, the second handed Chelsea a 2-1 victory at Aston Villa to maintain the Blues’ seven point lead at the top of the table. His most recent one might prove to be the difference when PSG visit Stamford Bridge in a few weeks. Among other key goals in his Chelsea career we can find his strike at Manchester City in a game Chelsea won 1-0, his last-minute winner in the Europa League final 2013 against Benfica or his extra time goal against Napoli in the Champions League Round of 16 that put Chelsea through to the quarter-finals, a campaign which the Blues crowned with a famous victory in Munich where Ivanovic played an integral part.
Overall the Serb has scored 29 goals for his club in all competitions – a number many midfielders would be proud to reach. Many of those came from set pieces, a discipline Chelsea are particularly good at with their defenders having 14 goals this season to their name, more than any other team in Europe. But it would be wrong to assume all his goals came from set pieces, his stunning left foot volley against Aston Villa comes to mind and his pile-driver against Manchester City last season. When his offensive threat is combined with his intimidating figure and build, which hides some surprising pace, good balance and coordination as well as a defender who makes his presence felt in every duel and stands out in one on ones, we get a player every team would love to have. As if that wasn’t enough, Ivanovic has a reputation of a team leader and a fighter who leaves everything on the pitch, he famously finished the League Cup Semi-Final against Liverpool with a boot soaked in blood. It is not by chance that Jose Mourinho described the player as “a beast with a big heart” and “a player who has every right to be considered a Blues legend”.
When we compare the Serbian powerhouse to the world’s best right-backs from the world’s best clubs in the form of the Bayern Munich captain Philipp Lahm, who is widely considered the very best at the position despite transforming into a defensive midfielder under Pep Guardiola, Daniel Carvajal from Real Madrid, Pablo Zabaleta who competes with Ivanovic in the Premier League and Dani Alves from Barcelona, we can see that his place is rightfully among them.
When it comes to defensive statistics, Ivanovic tops three disciplines to his colleagues and is not far behind in the others. He completes an average 2.08 tackles per game, with Zabaleta ahead of him at 2.71 and Alves on top with 3.09. However, that can simply mean that he is required to make less tackles or that wingers avoid taking him on one on one and we can see that he comes on top as the only right-back who wins over 50% of all duels with an impressive 58.3%. His Premier League rival comes second in this discipline with 49.5%. If we compare that to Philipp Lahm, the German only completed 0.57 tackles per game this season and managed a 45.3% success in duels.
The Chelsea defender uses his strength and height to his best advantage in aerial duels winning 3.12 every 90 minutes, with Zabaleta again the only real competition in the discipline (2.20). The Argentine however tops the percentage of aerial duels won with a very impressive 70.9% with Ivanovic second best at 60.9%. The dominance of Premier League players in these categories can be used to demonstrate the high physicality and intensity when compared to the Bundesliga and La Liga.
The Serb averages 1 interception per game, a statistic bettered by Alves (1.07), Zabaleta (1.69) and Carvajal (2.23). He also gets a fairly low number of blocks for the Blues (0.08), with the majority being made by Cahill and Terry. However none of the other right backs manage even 0.5 per game with Carvajal the closest at 0.46. Where Ivanovic does stand out however is the number of clearances which reach a very high 4.16 a game. That shows his ability to read and clear danger, which is important especially when the Blues settle to kill a game. A stat that no defender wants to top is the number of defensive errors and it is Lahm and Zabaleta who come on top with 0, followed closely by Carvajal (0.07) and Ivanovic (0.08).
When comparing the other aspect of a right-backs’ life, the offensive contribution to his team, it must be taken into account that Philipp Lahm started most of his games in midfield this season for Bayern, hence his statistics from last season, when he was deployed in both roles were used. The offensive side of his game is something Ivanovic greatly improved upon under Jose Mourinho’s reign. He has always been a threat from set pieces, however from open play he was reluctant to go too far forward. That changed with the arrival of Jose Mourinho and Nemanja Matic and Ivanovic was seen in games this season where his average position was more to that of a right winger than a right-back.
No one has directly contributed to more goals for his team that the Serb, who has already bagged 3 goals and 3 assists this season. That leaves him with a 0.12 average per game in both statistics, with Zabaleta also getting 3 assists but in fewer games. In terms of chances created, the two Premier League defenders are bottom of the table with 1.04 and 1.07 respectively, while Dani Alves is top with 1.32. The Brazilian also leads the way with key passes (1.20) and again we can see Ivanovic and Zabaleta lacking in this aspect compared to the others with 0.92 and 0.90 respectively. This can once again go down to the different style of the Premier League compared to the Bundesliga and La Liga where full-backs can afford to support attacks more often and also find themselves with more time on the ball.
Take-ons are the discipline of Philipp Lahm who takes both the number of successful take-ons and the success rate with 1.07 and 77.14%. Ivanovic is not too far behind however with 0.92 and 62.16%. A success rate more than twice as high as that of Dani Alves who is successful only 30% of the time and bettered slightly by Zabaleta at 62.50%, but the Argentine’s offensive contribution overall is a lot smaller with only 0.28 take-ons per game. The Bayern Munich captain also tops the table with an incredible 92% pass completions with Alves (88%), Carvajal (86%), Zabaleta (85%) and Ivanovic (81%) all trailing.
Having compared Branislav Ivanovic to the world’s best right-backs, it is safe to say every penny of the £9.7 million Chelsea sent to Moscow in 2008 has paid off multiple times. Few could argue that he is not one of the best defenders in the world, let alone one of the best right-backs. Defenders are traditionally not lauded for their goal scoring ability, but with the big Serb we must make an exception. His goal scoring ability in key moments makes him stand out, he seems to choose his moments carefully and it is an ability that very few players in the world, and even fewer defenders, possess.
Ivanovic is like a tank and a player who perfectly sums up the modern Chelsea under Jose Mourinho. He is the type of player that defines Chelsea, as much as the team is art in players like Hazard and Fabregas, it is a destroyer in the likes of Ivanovic, Matic and Terry and both qualities combined can be found in Diego Costa. It is the mix and balance in Mourinho’s team that gives them a strong shout in the Premier League and in the Champions League and more big goals from Ivanovic are sure to come for the Blues. His first chance will be at Wembley on the 1st of March in the League Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur.