Manuel Veth –
The focus in England was all on Liverpool vs Chelsea on Tuesday night. But on the eve of what could be the biggest game in the recent history of the club where he had become a legend, Branislav Ivanović has left Chelsea for Russia, where he will join Zenit Saint Petersburg.
The final day of the transfer window is always a busy period with many deals happening in quick succession. In the United Kingdom in particular, a whole industry has sprung up that follows every second of every club in the English top flight, as the minutes role down to midnight, and the window—much to the relief of anyone who works in the industry—closes.
In the frenzy that transpired, Branislav Ivanović was most certainly not the biggest name to switch clubs on Tuesday night. But for many Chelsea fans, it is the departure of a great club legend.
Ivanović will be enshrined as a legend at Chelsea
Ivanović will always be enshrined with supporters for the two successive European cup victories in 2012, and 2013. In fact, it is a bit of a tragedy that the two international trophies came to one of the most limited teams to have ever won international trophies.
Many who not support Chelsea have long forgotten the accidental cup victory in 2012. But for Chelsea supporters it will always be a bright moment in the club’s history.
Tragically for Branislav Ivanović, the Serbian missed the final after he was booked in the second leg of Chelsea’s semi-final victory against FC Barcelona. UEFA’s rule to suspend players after having been booked twice in the tournament has been a long-standing criticism. The final is about the best, and the best should be allowed to play.
With Ivanović, of course, the argument could be made that he was not exactly a superstar for Chelsea—indeed, he was often the subject of criticism. During the 2011-12 Champions League campaign, Matthias Sammer, than working as a commentator for the German broadcaster, Sky, singled out Branislav Ivanović’s performance in the first leg of the round of 16 tie against Napoli—a game Chelsea lost 3-1.
When asked about the second goal, Sammer pointed out that Ivanović was not a top class defender, let alone a right-back, which was the position he was playing: “Look at him trotting back, he is about an hour late, what is he doing, and why is he playing there?” Sammer gasped in the studio.
Ivanović later proved Sammer wrong
Ivanović and Chelsea later proved Sammer wrong when Chelsea overturned the game in the second leg and advanced. But, at the same time, Sammer had a point. Ivanović has always been a limited defender at best.
What made him stand apart was his willingness to win games for Chelsea. The perfect example for this is Chelsea’s UEFA Europa League victory against Benfica. The game was tied at 1-1, and appeared to head into overtime, when Ivanović’s header in the 93rd minute broke Benfica’s hearts and won Chelsea a second international trophy in as many years.
Always a steady workhorse for Chelsea since joining the club from Lokomotiv Moscow in 2008, Branislav Ivanović appeared destined to see out his career at the London based club. After all, new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, like the managers before him, relied on Ivanović at the start of the 2016-17 campaign.
He even appeared as the club’s captain on matchday 6 against Liverpool, and on matchday 7 against Arsenal. But the club lost both matches, and Conte scratched the right-back.
Ivanović became surplus after an injury
A muscle injury then saw him miss two games and, since then, he has been limited to making short-term appearances or being scratched entirely from the squad. The main reason for this is obvious. At age 32, Branislav Ivanović was getting older and, even more importantly, he did not fit into Conte’s preferred 3-4-3 system.
It was obvious, therefore, that, in order to receive playing time, he would have to move on. When the call came from Russia, and from Zenit in particular, it must have been an easy choice.
Ivanović knows Russia well. Between 2006 and 2008 he had played for Lokomotiv where Chelsea discovered him after he won the cup with Loko in 2008.
Chelsea’s connections with Russia are obvious. Roman Abramovich owns the club, and many of the most important advisors at the club are Russians. It is not uncommon, therefore, for Chelsea to negotiate with post-Soviet clubs to buy or sell players.
Meanwhile, for Zenit this is a good capture. Branislav Ivanović will bring the necessary experience to a squad that saw the departure of Axel Witsel to China. Zenit, in fact, hope that Ivanović could become the key component in the club’s title challenge.
Is Ivanović the difference maker in the title race?
The title race between Zenit and Spartak has been easily the most fascinating in recent years. Both clubs are the most popular teams in Russian football, and both clubs have been active during the winter transfer window.
Futbolgrad even called it a transfer war on a recent World Football Index – Futbolgrad Podcast. Ivanović’s move to Zenit is just the latest of a long series of transfers by the two clubs and, with the window open till February in Russia, it would not be surprising if both clubs continue to further strengthen their squads.
But to focus on Zenit at the moment, this transfer is significant, because it gives the club stability in the back, which will make them a serious contender in the Russian Football Premier League and in the Europa League. Of course there is a major question mark regarding the transfer.
Mircea Lucescu is known for his dynamic attacking tactics in which the wingers move forward with great pace. Branislav Ivanović as a right-back, therefore, will have to support the attacking players on the wing. But as Sammer correctly pointed out four years ago, Ivanović simply lacks the pace to fulfil that role.
But perhaps Lucescu will reinvent Ivanović, and move him to the centre where he can play as a centre-back. This, indeed, might be the most logical choice for a club that needed an upgrade in the back four.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.