Like Justin Timberlake did with the sexy, Antonio Conte has done so with the 3-4-3. Neither were the first, but they both brought it back. And so now we get to talk about it a lot, which is cool because the 4-2-3-1 (from AVB on down through RDM, FSW and TSO) got pretty boring and un-sexy after a while.
Conte's implementation of the thee-man defense takes a page out of history. It's slightly different from his own tactics at Juventus and Italy, and more similar to mid-'90s Germany or Udinese or late-'90s AC Milan. The man in charge of those two Serie A clubs was an Italian tactician named Alberto Zaccheroni, and while henceforth he was known as the "inventor" of "The Godfather" of the 3-4-3* (a label he's more than happy to not play down), three-man defenses were not nearly as scarce back then as they are nowadays. Or at least before Conte brought the sexy back.
For a more in-depth look at the rise and fall of three-man defences, and specifically the 3-5-2, check out Jonathan Wilson writing in the Guardian from 2008.
* Legend has it that Zaccheroni "invented" the formation in a game against Juventus during the 1996-97** season, when Udinese, lining up in a 4-4-2, got a red card in the third minute but would go on to win 3-0 (!!) when the coach simply decided to keep playing with just three defenders. It should be noted that Juve missed two penalty kicks in the game, one each from Vieri and Zidane.
** Not coincidentally, Germany won Euro 1996 with a 3-4-1-2 system and a golden goal from Olivier Bierhoff, who just happened to be playing his club football for Zaccheroni at Udinese. A few years later, Bierhoff and Zaccheroni, now both at AC Milan, would run across Chelsea in the group stages of the 1999 Champions League. A 0-0 at the Bridge was followed by a 1-1 at the San Siro. Bierhoff scored as of course did Dennis Wise, a great [funning] goal.
As Michael Cox, then strictly known as Zonal Marking wrote at the turn of the decade, one of the biggest tactical trends of the first few years of the new millenium was the shift away from three-man defenses seen all throughout the '90s — from the likes of Van Gaal at Ajax or Cruyff at Barcelona (both educated under Rinus Michels at Ajax in the '70s), for example — though he noted that the "three-man defence is a real thing of beauty when fielded correctly". It would appear that Conte has gotten Chelsea to field it correctly indeed.
In fact, for Zaccheroni's money, Conte's already gone straight to the top as far as managers in the Premier League are concerned.
"At one time, the Italian League was the league which had the best coaches. Now it's the Premier League and any manager would like to go there. Nearly all the best coaches are in the Premier League but I think Antonio is probably the best of them."
"I met him as a player and many times as a trainer and he's having success because of his ideas, methods and determination. In 2006 when he was just starting as a coach, I remember Conte coming to watch our training sessions in Turin with Juventus. We chatted afterwards and he had a lot of questions. I think he has studied and taken something from all the great coaches over the years. He is so passionate, he would pick up things from the best."
-Alberto Zacccheroni; source: Mail
Despite his success with Juventus, Conte's initial idea was to play a 4-2-4 with Chelsea. He thought it was going to be "perfect" for the players. Except it wasn't.
"I must be honest because we started our season with different ideas. At the start I wanted to play with 4-2-4 with two forward roles and two wingers. We didn't find the right balance, I tried to change 4-3-3, to play with midfield more. Then I change to 3-4-3. 3-4-3 was an alternative with 4-2-4."
"When we prepared for the season, the club knew my idea and the first idea was 4-2-4, the second idea was 3-4-3. I knew that 4-2-4 was perfect for these players."
"But the message was very clear. When you you see that every game you concede goals and many chances to score other goals, it means you have to change something. For this reason I changed it. I try to give more balance offensively and defensively. This happened. Also because I see that the players enjoy this type of football, this system. Every single player has his quality in this system."
But what's even more impressive is the speed with which Chelsea adapted to the new instructions. Many different things have been written about the 3-4-3 over the past month, but one common theme on which everyone seems to agree is that it takes high levels of understanding and teamwork to implement it correctly in game situations — which takes lots and lots of practice, learning, and dedication, especially with the vast majority of players used to playing in four-man base formations.
"It's not the same to play with four defenders and to play with three defenders. But the first two weeks we worked a lot, above all the first week because we changed it after Arsenal. Then there was the international break."
"Then we started to work very hard to find the right line of passes with the ball and to find the right situation defensive. But yes, I'm surprised at the speed to understand this new change."
-Antonio Conte; source: Independent
As Jonathan Wilson, who's made a name for himself talking tactics, points out in that piece I linked at the top, sometimes we can get a bit lost in all this formations and tactics talk. After all, the most important thing is finding the system that works best for the situation at hand. "And that illuminates a universal truth about tactics: there is no right or wrong, just fads and fashions and systems that are right for particular teams at particular times," wrote Wilson. True then, true now.