Unless you’ve been on Mars for the past decade, in a cave, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears, you’ll probably be aware that Chelsea’s managerial history has been somewhat… unstable. Somehow, a supertalented and self-powering clique of club legends propelled the club through that most turbulent of periods, but that era is well and truly over (sorry for reminding you). José Mourinho’s return was supposed to see the club enter a new period of stability and incremental development, incorporating youth team players and slowly phasing out the old guard. Let’s just say it didn’t quite work out like that.
Antonio Conte now has the unenviable task of stepping into the Stamford Bridge hotseat and not just fashioning a title-challenging outfit out of the wreckage of the second Mourinho era, but of laying the foundations for the future – setting in motion the continuously successful, self-renewing and cost-effective machine that Roman Abramovich has been hankering after for some time now.
The second task is a tall order – and a matter for another article entirely – so let’s just focus on the first one here. Can Chelsea win the title this season? What are Conte’s tactical options? Which can we expect to see? And which systems would this writer – admittedly, not the least biased observer when it comes to questions of tactics and aesthetics – prefer to see?
Let’s have a look…
The system with which Conte started the pre-season period and which he has described as the setup which he feels best fits the characteristics of the squad as it is at the moment. Even though Leicester City won the Premier League playing more-or-less the same way, it can look somewhat archaic – indeed, one of the reasons Leicester were apparently so unlikely to win the title was that their system was so archaic. Nonetheless, should Diego Costa stay put and should anRoOthMeLrU sLtrUiKkAeKrU arrive in the meantime, there’s theoretically no reason to think this system, played properly, can’t have similar success. The practicality of it, however, is another matter.
- Defensively compact (at least in theory).
- Said defensive compactness can apply both high up the pitch and deep in the Blues’ own final third, allowing Chelsea to press hard when they need to and to sit back when they need to – this adaptability is extremely important.
- A two-striker system allows for a more direct style of play, and with two high-quality number nines being supplied by players like Cesc Fàbregas, Eden Hazard and Willian, it seems reasonable to expect a high number of clear chances being both created and finished.
- The defensive compactness can rather easily disappear if the midfield two isn’t at the races: games like Everton away last season, for example, when Chelsea’s double pivot almost literally disappeared, undermined the good work of the front four and left the back four completely exposed. N’Golo Kanté’s success in a midfield two at Leicester was unbelievable, but it’s hardly reasonable to expect him to be continually unbelievable – we did that with Nemanja Matić and Eden Hazard and look how that turned out.
- It’s not just the midfield two that’s placed under enormous pressure here: the front four has to set the tone correctly and keep the pressure fully on for ninety minutes, or else the opposition has an easy first pass into midfield and the midfield two’s workload doubles. The humiliation at Goodison Park was another good example of this happening, while this season’s pre-season games have offered a few more.
- Perhaps the most notable problem in preseason has been the team’s inability to play out from the back when set up like this. Too many times the ball has been aimlessly circulated around the back four and then sent back to Courtois, who has punted long and lost the ball. If Chelsea do this every Saturday during the season, they won’t give themselves anything like a decent chance of fulfilling their potential.
This is a much more balanced system, but one which Conte seems unlikely to opt for: it simply doesn’t offer the element of surprise that can be so valuable at this level – and in particular during this coming season. It’s fine, and it would be frankly amazing if we didn’t see something like this used in the easier games during the campaign, but against the big guns Conte will probably search for something a little more unexpected.
- Most of the players know the system already, having played in it for years – not just for the Blues, but for their national teams too. As such, it will take almost no time to prepare: the players just need to be briefed on the minutiae of their roles, and presumably told to play with a bit (a lot) more intensity than usual.
- It’s a nice, balanced system – not too attacking, not too defensive. Furthermore, it only takes a minor tweak or two to change the composition of the team within the same system and, consequently, the rhythm of a game. As previously mentioned, adaptability >>>
- It puts a lot of square pegs in square holes and round pegs in round holes. That’s really helpful.
- Do we really want to see another season of César Azpilicueta being completely overrun at left-back because his winger has no interest in helping him out? (No, we don’t.)
- Do we really want to see another season of Branislav Ivanović – a year older, lest we forget – having to pretend he’s Dani Alves so that Chelsea actually have enough bodies in attacking positions? (No, we don’t.)
- Do we really want to assume that Kanté’s arrival is going to provide the requisite oomph that Chelsea so badly needed last season, without causing other problems in separate phases of play? (No, we don’t.)
The system with which Conte had such great success at Juventus, for a long time it was assumed that the new boss would simply pitch up at Stamford Bridge and impose this way of playing on Chelsea’s squad. The Italian is much more of a pragmatist than an idealist however, and shorn of the defensive talents of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and, most importantly of all, Leonardo Bonucci – not to mention the peerless playmaking ability of Andrea Pirlo – Conte has recognised that this system simply isn’t practical with Chelsea’s current squad. We may as well look at how it would turn out anyway, so let’s crowbar Chelsea’s best players into the best reproduction of it that we can – some kind of weird 3-4-2-1 that makes very little sense.
- The Matić/Kanté double pivot is solid as f**k, and with Hazard and Willian or Oscar flitting around in free roles in front of them, there are lots of reasons to think this setup could be loads of fun. At least, as long as Chelsea have the ball.
- The back three may just about be able to cover for each other’s weaknesses – Ivanović and Terry may now be slower than an early 90s dial-up connection, while Gary Cahill is simply the word ‘meh’ on legs, but there’s safety in numbers. Or something.
- Juan Cuadrado at right-wing-back with Kanté alongside him and Willian or Oscar ahead? Yes. Make it happen.
- The left-wing-back slot. Oh god, the horror.
- This system only really works when you’re playing extremely defensively – or, rather, deeply – and countering into the acres of space that your tactically naïve opponent has allowed you to develop behind them. See: Napoli under Walter Mazzarri. Chelsea are unlikely to find that these situations arise in the modern-day Premier League.
- The back three may just about be able to cover for each other’s weaknesses – but they probably won’t. A new centre-back is needed if this is the way forward.
The shape Chelsea have ended up playing in their last couple of pre-season friendly games actually makes a lot of sense as a viable Plan A. It remains to be seen whether this is just a case of a couple of meaningless friendlies going surprisingly well or whether it’s something more important, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
- It offers various important players numerous angles of attack, a pleasing balance in the middle third and very necessary protection to an increasingly laughable back four. That’s pretty convincing in and of itself.
- If Conte is intent on maintaining extremely high intensity levels, this orientation of the midfield three seems a very good way of closing down space and keeping lots of pressure on the Blues’ opponents from the first whistle to the last.
- It bears repeating: this back four really needs a dedicated defensive midfielder in front of them.
- If Conte and Chelsea really are intent on keeping Diego Costa and signing another big name striker, this means that they’re probably going to try everything to play a two-striker system, so this 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 remains something of a pipe dream.
- There is a big question mark over the front three’s ability or willingness to apply the requisite levels of pressure on the opposition to match the midfield’s work-rate and make things easier for them.
- If Chelsea keep Costa and sign Lukaku and play this system and don’t loan out Bertrand Traoré or Michy Batshuayi, the latter two could fall off the map completely. Further wastage of young talent at Stamford Bridge is highly undesirable.
This is the bit where this writer goes all pipe-dreamy and imagines an absolutely ideal scenario. If the reader’s interests extend only to real-world matters, stop reading here. If you fancy a trip into dream land, come right this way as we re-create Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona 1992 Dream Team with Chelsea’s current squad.
- We keep all the benefits of the front three from the 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 system and back it up with a midfield four – including an uber-creative number ten, free to flit around the pitch and look for killer balls at will. Goals, goals, goals.
- There’s just no way playing Kanté and Ruben Loftus-Cheek as steamrollering box-to-box midfielders – with numerous passing options in front of them and (potentially) sufficient cover behind them – can’t be loads of fun.
- This is perhaps the system which best suits John Obi Mikel – this is a factor that should always be considered. Coming into his peak, Mikel can finally hit the heights expected of him here.
- Seeing as Conte is a pragmatic manager who always tries to strike the right balance between defence and attack, he is extremely unlikely to think this gung-ho goalfest plan is a good idea.
- Leaving Ivanović, Terry and Cahill as a back three with only one defensive midfielder stood in front of them is, admittedly, something of a gamble. At best.
- Those two are enough, really. Much as this writer would like it to, this is simply not going to happen. Also, dear Roman: buy a new defence.