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If the Chelsea man had a Brazilian last name, he”d be at PSG right now

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Illustration by Marc Ricca for Eight by Eight

 

For a Westerner, the name doesn’t flow off the tongue. Visually, it’s not pretty either: BRANISLAV IVANOVIC. It’s got a Franken-foreign sound and look to it. Chopping it up into a simple “Bran Ivan” would give the 30-year-old Serbian a more familiar feel, but further Anglicization is the last thing anyone needs right now.

Chelsea’s partially balding middle-aged Serb looks more like a villain Liam Neeson killed in one of the Taken movies than a football scout’s fantasy. With apologies to his significant other, there’s nothing sexy about Ivanovic. He doesn’t have the hair or flair of David Luiz, the exotic name of Marquinhos, or the power of Thiago Silva. His Brazilian PSG contemporaries cost the French club approximately $150 million to assemble, with $70.6 million of that going into Chelsea’s oil-soaked pockets in exchange for Luiz. But Ivanovic, a tamer, more well-rounded player than Luiz, cost Chelsea a tidy $14.8 million back in 2008.

Based on performance and effectiveness alone the gulf between the transfer fees of Ivanovic and Luiz is objectively perplexing. Granted, each came to their current clubs in vastly different contexts, but at this very moment, Ivanovic is the one playing like the $70 million man, not Luiz.

Ivanovic’s role for Chelsea is the same that Mourinho mapped out for Brazilian fullback Marcelo at Real Madrid: Get forward like hell and let the centerbacks worry about defensive shape. A football contrarian wouldn’t dare stick a brutish Serb who can’t whip in crosses in an attacking fullback role, but that’s just what Mourinho’s done. It’s paying GIF-worthy dividends too.

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Diego Costa would be proud to score this recent winner against Aston Villa—a golazo pivotal to Chelsea’s runaway title campaign. This goal, like his header against PSG in the Champions League this month, also underscores Ivanovic’s strengths as Mourinho’s attack dog from defense. He won’t ghost past his opposing number or target his forwards on early crosses, but he’s territorial in his approach. He just knows where to be. Ivanovic prefers to pop up in and around the penalty box to supply oncoming runners with short backline-splitting horizontal passes.

When in need, he’s not afraid to drop the hammer and online casino score the damn goal himself. Defenses keep sleeping on Ivanovic, and he keeps on taking his chances like a striker. The same shit happens on set-pieces too, where Ivanovic’s tenacity to get a head on is only matched by his graceful aerial finessing. Like so, against Benfica in the 2013 Europa League Final:

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He’s notched over 300 appearances and chipped in 30 goals and 28 assists over his Chelsea career—a remarkable tally for a defender—but he’s still can’t escape the workman-like Eastern European football stereotypes that have followed him to London. A recent alleged biting/choking incident against Everton stirred curiosites behind the man who doesn’t smile in his teammate’s Instagrams. Perhaps not smiling makes him smile? Is he aware of the inescapable irony behind placing his jawline on James McCarthy’s shoulder? It’s difficult to say, because getting a read on Ivanovic is, as past Chelsea managers can attest to, something that can go overlooked—Ivanovic only made 16 league appearances in his first two seasons at the club.

Mourinho’s only compounded the matter by recently calling Ivanovic a “competitive animal” with a “big heart”—fine words from a man who can possess a wicked, sometimes laconic tongue. But when “competitive” and “heart” are amongst a player’s top attributes to a manager, it’s usually because the player lacks genuine quality.

This clearly isn’t the case. Perhaps Jose knows better than to alert his touchline rivals to Ivanovic’s threat. If that’s indeed what’s happening here, it’s working. Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling once called Ivanovic the “scariest” opponent he’s ever faced. Explaining further, Sterling didn’t mention Ivanovic’s footballing quality or creativity. It wasn’t his actual production that was terrifying, but instead his physique, teasing that Ivanovic is a “big guy, big upper body, big lower body. A real tank.” Is scary the new sexy? Hey, at least someone is checking out his body.

The simple truth is, that it’s difficult for a balding Serbian centerback-turned-fullback to be recognized as as Chelsea’s best attacking rightback since Glen Johnson. Johnson’s game, similar to the Brazilians and Spaniards surrounding Ivanovic in Chelsea’s XI, is effortless at its worst, and classy-without-trying-too-hard at its best.

Trying hard isn’t cool, but scoring sweaty goals sure as hell is. Enough so to go shirtless though? Ivanovic thinks so.

Follow illustrator Marc Ricca on Instagram at  @marcricca.

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