“Three at the back?! Two at the back?! Four at the back?! It doesnt matter, what matters is the system and the principles of the way we want to play” – Antonio Conte.
One thing Chelsea’s he has stressed since his first press conference has been finding the right solution for the team, a solution that will bring wins. In the space of about three months at Chelsea, we’ve seen Conte set his team up in at least four different formations with mixed results. From the 4-1-4-1 to the 4-2-4. As all good systems often have in common, they bring out the best in players and are adaptable to different situations. If the game against Burnley was an advertisement for the 4-1-4-1, the First half against Arsenal showed up the glaring deficiencies, and just like everyone thought, something had to change. Chelsea were shipping in goals and struggling to get the best out of the likes of Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kanté.
Conte responded with a switch to his “trademark” 3 man defence but this time around, it was the 3-4-3 (he had hinted earlier that it was an alternative solution) not the famed 3-5-2 he used to great success at Juventus. Fast forward 4 1/2 games after the calamitous first half against arsenal, Chelsea have scored 10 goals, conceded 2 goals, kept 3 1/2 clean sheets and have looked more balanced and driven both on and off the ball. The dynamics of the 3-4-3 being used by Conte involves firstly, a pressing game off possession and a swift transition from defence to attack when in possession. Secondly, the shape the team takes in possession is more of an asymmetric 3-2-5 with Moses being the more attack minded of the wing backs and a 5-4-1 when off the ball.
It’s obvious that this system has brought the best out of Hazard and Pedro so far, with both playing more centrally and less out wide and with their backs to the goal. The importance of the width Alonso and Moses create on the Flanks have also opened up spaces in the right and left channels which Chelsea’s third goal against Manchester united showed beautifully and Moses’ third goal against Leicester city too. The relationship between the wingbacks and the Wide forwards in this system cannot be overstated, both when defending and in attack. Conte recently talked about the attributes of the centre backs in the 3-4-3, The tactical awareness and technical ability of the central back and the aggressiveness and speed of the side backs to both cover the channels and press the opponents. These areas are crucial to the functioning of the 3-4-3 system. But how much of a fit is this Chelsea team?
Looking at the squad for the 2016/17 season, it’s glaringly obvious that it wasn’t set up for a 3-4-3 system. The EFL cup match against West ham was a perfect reminder of the lack of proper depth in the squad to execute a 3-4-3 perfectly with rotation of players. The 11 players that started against Manchester united and a few (Chalobah, Zouma, Batshuayi, Oscar, Willian, Begovic, Eduardo) bring the total number of players suited to the 3-4-3 to 18. While the rest (Fabregas, Aina, Terry, Mikel, Loftus-cheek, Ivanovic) are not bad players, it’s difficult to see how they’ll perform brilliantly in this 3-4-3 system as their natural roles seem to be out of place for this system or (in Terry and Ivanovic’s cases, they’re past it). That brings up some questions, what happens when the first team players look tailor made for this system are injured or suspended? Is the 3-4-3 a temporary solution? Can long-term success be achieved with the 3-4-3?
Although Conte might have found a functioning solution presently, he needs to either reshuffle the squad in January to suit the 3-4-3 system better and give him room for rotation without a substantial drop in performance and execution of the system or work hard to find other solutions that can as well utilise this same squad and produce good results. Looking at the earlier results in the season achieved using other solutions, I doubt the second option will be appealing to Antonio Conte. The 3-4-3 might be working for now with a core of about 15 outfield players, the west ham game showed up the lack of adequate squad depth for rotation of the players. It seems the fewer matches on the calendar this season is somewhat a blessing in disguise as it affords the team enough time to rest in between games. Expect less rotation from Conte. It would also not be a surprise to see Chelsea make some important additions to the squad in January (if the 3-4-3 is to be a long-term solution).
Till then. It’s refreshing to see Chelsea play a different system from that of the past decade and most importantly, getting results and playing good football.
The Earl Conte era has truly begun.