With Conte’s arrival, an infectious air of optimism descended upon Stamford Bridge this summer, but Chelsea’s early-season progress was derailed by a string of woeful defensive performances. It was unequivocal that the impassioned Italian had rejuvenated the Blues, yet it was equally evident that Conte was in desperate need of his ‘right solution’. It would appear that this solution has arrived.
Following a terrible display against Liverpool and an even worse first-half against Arsenal, Conte introduced us to a brand new 3-4-3 setup. Despite eventually losing 3-0 to the Gunners, Chelsea at least looked slightly less catastrophic in the second half than in the opening 45 minutes.
Three league games later, the introduction of the system has proven a revelation, certainly from a statistical perspective when compared with the first six games of the season. Nine points out of a possible nine (compared with 10 out of 18 previously), three successive clean sheets (1 out of 6 previously, conceding 9) and nine goals scored (10 in 6 previously) demonstrates just how seamlessly the team have adapted to the new system. The defensive solidity has been especially impressive.
Over the previous four seasons, the Blues had become accustomed to deploying in a 4-2-3-1 formation, a strategy that often led to Chelsea attacking too narrowly, seemingly without purpose, and thus failing to create goalscoring opportunities. The introduction of wing-backs has been of considerable benefit to the team in this regard.
The selection of the attack-minded Moses on the right, with a more defensively focused Alonso on the left provides the team with a healthy balance. When defending, they both drop deeper, forming a five-man defensive unit, but in attack, they provide not only width, but purposeful direct running (especially Moses) and useful service from the flanks.
The protection provided by the wing-backs has also eased the pressure on the defensive line, while having the protection of an extra centre-back seems to have instilled confidence in the previously shaky centre-back corps.
David Luiz has indeed thrived in the back-three, which allows him to utilize his technical abilities and trademark long-range passing and forward runs. Defensively, he has been secure, displaying impressive physical prowess and aerial aptitude. Positioned as the wide centre-backs, both Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta have been surprisingly solid; their adaptation to the new structure has been effortless. They have been instrumental in not only slowing down the opponent's attack, and challenging for far post headers, but also in recycling possession and helping the build-up on the flanks.
The new system has been equally rewarding from an attacking perspective. The two forwards that sit behind Diego Costa are positioned more centrally as opposed to hugging either touchline, which in turn increases their involvement in the game. When Kante or Matic successfully retrieve possession, there is always an attacker near who is primed to instigate the counter-attack — a tactic that proved exceedingly effective against Manchester United.
Eden Hazard flourishes when the ball is at his feet and he is afforded the freedom to roam the field. The 3-4-3 system allows him to exploit his dribbling ability, and get into positions where he can create either for himself or others more often. Pedro has also reaped the benefits of the change. Renowned for his trademark runs in behind defensive lines, he has collected a goal and two assists in Chelsea’s last two games.
Having dismantled a mediocre Hull City and an understrength Leicester City, one felt that a game against a more prestigious opponent would be the most valid indicator of how successful the new system could be. Chelsea's trouncing of Manchester United was an emphatic response to any who doubted the efficacy of the tactical setup.
When a new manager inherits a squad, it is typically difficult for him to establish an identity. Antonio Conte has surprisingly made great headway in doing so at Chelsea, though he also continues to relentlessly pursue the right solutions and the right responses from all the players. The early signs from Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation are unequivocally positive and will hopefully establish the foundation for a tremendously successful season.