By: Adam Reckamp
Going into the international break, Chelsea, under new manager Antonio Conte, are in a state of transition. This season has been tumultuous for the Blues to say the least; after starting off the season with three straight wins, Chelsea earned one point in their following three fixtures and suffered embarrassing defeats to rivals Liverpool and Arsenal. But Chelsea’s results aren’t the interesting part of their season thus far – surprisingly their most recent fixture against Hull proved to be the most insightful.
After the humiliation Chelsea suffered in the first half of their 3-0 loss at the Emirates, Antonio Conte, pragmatic as ever, radically shifted Chelsea’s tactics: switching to his favored three at the back for the second half. This 3-4-3 formation adopted by Chelsea was carried over into the next match against Hull to great effect, with the 2-0 victory being widely heralded as the best of Chelsea’s season.
Conte’s pragmatism is a nice departure from last season’s disaster at Chelsea. Under manager Jose Mourinho, Chelsea got off to the worst start of any reigning champion in the Premier League era. Mourinho’s refusal to change tactics ultimately led to his firing midway through the season. While Conte quickly found success with the 4-2-4 formation, he was willing to adapt after it failed against Liverpool and Arsenal so spectacularly.
Conte is most comfortable using three at the back formations, something his time at Juventus and the Italian national team have proven. But Chelsea has run a four at the back formation for as long as fans can remember, and three at the back formations are rare in the Premier League. Louis Van Gaal found little success with his 3-5-2 formation at Manchester United, and no EPL teams use a three man backline regularly. This has all led to a serious skepticism around a three-back formation in English football, many have doubts over whether that style can only find success in other European leagues.
Conte has hinted that he will continue to employ the 3-4-3 formation this season; what does that mean for Chelsea moving forward? Look for newcomer Marcus Alonso and Victor Moses to play the wingback positions, with Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill to be the center backs. Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante should be deployed in the middle of the park to provide cover for the three man back line, with a three man trio up front. Premier League leading goal scorer Diego Costa will likely lead the line, with Hazard and Willian on the wings.
This strickingly leaves out creative midfielder and one of Chelsea’s best players two seasons ago, Cesc Fabregas. This is not too surprising, as Conte has not shown a preference for Fabregas so far this season, but the lessening role of one of the best creative midfielders in the world is important.
Whatever your thoughts on three at the back formations, Conte had to make this change. Chelsea had been running with four and flailing defensively for the last two seasons, it was time to spice things up. Outside of new transfers, something Conte wanted but the Chelsea board failed to deliver on, a change in formation is the only way to alter the team.
Even though three at the back formations make teams more vulnerable defensively, this shouldn’t be a major problem at Chelsea. The pivot of Matic and Kante should dominate the middle of the park, sweeping up any mistakes, and providing incredible cover for the back three. When Kurt Zouma returns from injury, his pace should fit a three at the back style perfectly.
But the main benefits of this formation are offensive, the width provided from the wingbacks should allow Chelsea’s best player, Eden Hazard, to cut inside and dominate games. Allowing Hazard more influence on the offensive side and assigning him less defensive responsibility is the best thing for this team. It also eliminates the problem of Diego Costa being on an island, while he has found lots of success this season, occasionally it seems to be in spite of his team. Allowing him to connect more with his wingers should make the Premier League’s leading goalscorer even more potent.
While the three at the back concept has not turned out well in the past, it was Chelsea’s best move to try it during this point in the season. If anyone is going to be successful with that formation it’s Conte, and Chelsea was becoming stale. The real test will be on October 15 at home against Leicester City. Regardless of your feeling on the new formation, its refreshing to see a manager finally bring a massive overhaul to the West London club.
(Featured Image: dom fellowes, Flickr)