Antonio Conte left Euro 2016 a hero. His Italy team were knocked out by Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals, but not before the former Juve coach had masterminded impressive wins over both Belgium and Spain. Conte restored Italy’s reputation after their dismal showing in previous tournaments and captured the imagination of Chelsea fans, who saw a manager coach of energy and a team seemingly willing to put everything on the line for him.
However, there was one major concern surrounding Conte – that he would try to implement the three-man defence that brought so much success with Juventus and also saw Italy punch above their weight at the Euros. The 3-4-3 formation was feared because no team had ever successfully made it work in the Premier League era.
Those Chelsea supporters needn’t have worried.
Conte has always shown a willingness to adapt his team to what fits best. He began his Juventus tenure with the then-favoured 4-2-4 he had used to propel Siena to promotion from Serie B. Juve’s struggles to function with this system saw him change to a 3-5-2/3-4-3 hybrid, however, and he rode this formation all the way to a domestic double and helped the Bianconeri become the first team to go unbeaten in a 38 game season in Italy.
It has been a strikingly similar theme this season. Coming into a club that laboured to a 10th-place finish last season and a dressing room full of discontent, the feeling was that this team needed major work to be relevant again and patience was cautioned.
Conte began to work on the squad he inherited. He did not force his 3-4-3 system on the players and instead attempted to play a variation of a 4-3-2-1 that played more like 4-1-4-1/4-2-4. But the season did not get off to a good start, with four initial wins followed by a draw with Swansea and losses to both Liverpool and Arsenal.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
The 3-0 thrashing by Arsenal may have seemed on the face of it as a sign Conte’s team was in crisis but it actually brought a seminal moment for Chelsea, a subtle tactical switch that would change the fortunes of both club and manager. Marcos Alonso was brought on in the 55th minute for Cesc Fabregas and the team switched to a slightly more defensive 5-3-2.
The team played with more fluidity than before and rather than consider it merely an anomaly from a blowout game, Conte instead rigorously drilled his players in practice the 3-4-3, something that was aided by the fact they did not have European football to worry about midweek.
The next week he unveiled his new-look 3-4-3 and Chelsea have since gone on an 11-game and counting winning streak, which impressively included a 4-0 win over ex-manager Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United and a 3-1 victory over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at Etihad Stadium. Eden Hazard is now back to Player of the Year form, Diego Costa is back from the dead with 13 goals, Pedro is finally justifying Chelsea’s purchase of him from Barcelona and Marcos Alonso has become a revelation as a left wing-back.
HOW IS IT WORKING?
So why is the 3-4-3 working so well when it was the very thing pundits and fans were so scared of?
Firstly, this isn’t actually the first time the 3-4-3 has been successful in the EPL. Brendan Rodgers implemented a similar system in 2013-14 when he played Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson as box-to-box midfielders and flanked them with Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique as wing-backs. Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez comprised a lethal attack that scored 78 goals between them; Liverpool actually scored the third-highest number of goals ever in a Premier League season (101).
The 3-4-3 requires certain elements to be successful but it is best imagined as transforming a 4-3-3 by putting your deepest defensive midfielder into the back three as a centre-back and moving your full-backs forward.
It is successful against standard four-man defences simply because you win the numbers game in attack. With the wing-backs acting as attackers, you have five players against four and this advantage can be devastating if used properly. In fact it can allow teams to commit as many as seven players forward with four of them acting as wide players and the midfielders pushing up to attack, while the three centre-backs defend.
Of course with so many players committed forward, the team can become imbalanced and appear more like a 3-2-5 if caught on the counter-attack. This is why discipline in wing-backs to track wingers is of utmost importance. To this point, Chelsea’s Victor Moses deserves enormous credit for transforming from a more attacking winger to an extremely disciplined wing-back. Without Moses’ discipline and Alonso (a full-back who brought up in the very attack-minded Real Madrid academy, La Fábrica), this system simply could not work and Chelsea would be caught out.
The 3-4-3 has also helped make David Luiz effective, while allowing the midfield of N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic to form a tandem that effectively utilises their industrious work-rate and ball-winning abilities in a double pivot. It allows each player to cover effectively one half of the field or even just split the middle if the wing-backs are effective at tracking wide players who are counter attacking. This would not be possible in a 4-2-3-1 as the burden falls on them to win the ball and create attacking opportunities from deep.
Luiz is not a great shutdown defender by any definition and is more effective as an attacking defender with support to cover his defensive lapses when he leaves gaps in space behind him. His play often exposed both Gary Cahill and John Terry in the past and they did not have the pace or ability to cover the spaces he left. But with César Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill now flanking him on either side, Luiz can use his pace as a sweeper and take the ball forward while one of Matic or Kanté goes back to cover if necessary. Azpilicueta also joins Moses as a bit of an unsung hero for Chelsea, as he is a natural right-back who has marvelously transformed into an excellent centre-back who can provide his own attacking impetus for the team.
Attack is the best form of defence however, and it is here that the 3-4-3 has truly brought Chelsea to life. The 3-4-3 truly exploits opponents’ four-man backline simply by the amount of confusion it can cause with simple passing and spacing patterns. Because the wing-backs can push up far enough that they essentially become orthodox wingers, the defence’s full backs are forced to go out wide to defend them, which then leaves the attack’s actual wingers, in this case Hazard and Pedro/Willian, to exploit the space between the full-backs and centre-backs. The centre-backs cannot commit to defending against these players as they still need to concentrate on defending the central striker, especially when that striker is Diego Costa.
Immediately the defence requires more players to commit to the back since they are outnumbered and this forces opposing teams to play more defensively than they would like, especially when players like Luiz and Azpilicueta run up to join the attack. ‘Parking the bus’ is not nearly as effective as it would appear as Conte can simply remove one of Kanté or Matic with a creative passing artist like Fabregas who is tail0r-made to use his magnificent eye to find holes and unlock defences. Not a bad weapon to have on the bench!
WHERE DO CHELSEA GO FROM HERE?
The question remains: how far can Conte take this team? A consequence of asking so much from your full-backs and to a lesser degree other players is that they tire as the season wears on and to an extent that was evident as Liverpool stumbled down the home stretch in 2013-14 with only four points from their final three games (including the fateful loss to Chelsea) after going on an 11-game winning streak of their own.
Coaches could also find weaknesses in this Chelsea team as the season wears on and more film becomes available. There will inevitably be injuries, as can be expected with a long season – league campaigns are more of a war of attrition after all. Depth will be brought into question and losing Oscar is not likely to help this possible issue.
Chelsea do have the advantage of not playing in Europe and so they will have more time to rest and acclimatise to the new system while prioritising the league. Manchester City and Arsenal pose major threats, but they both are dealing with European commitments and City have yet to fully take off with Guardiola. Klopp and Liverpool are also a serious danger, although squad quality and depth raise legitimate questions after they’ve had some recent stumbles. Tottenham are already 10 points behind and would need a significant loss of form to catch up, while Manchester United have also stumbled through the first half of the season.
A clear challenger has not presented themselves as of yet so savour the moment Chelsea, the 3-4-3 just might be your saviour after all.
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