The one surprise in yesterday’s starting lineup was Antonio Conte choosing to leave both of his actual center forwards on the bench and picking a front three of Pedro, Eden Hazard, and Willian. While we’ve seen this all-smalls configuration before, it had always been used as an emergency option when Morata was injured or when Conte had a backup striker who didn’t fit his tactical ideas as well as Olivier Giroud does.
And yet, in the biggest game of the season, both Morata and Giroud were on the bench. Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti were surely breathing a sigh of relief, having been given free reign to easily deal with all of Courtois’s long goal kicks, which Chelsea inexplicably continued to employ. Sure, Chelsea have had a fair few issues in building attacks from the back and Barcelona’s ability to press is no joke, but all three forwards should’ve been more than able to simply run through Barcelona’s slow and immobile midfield.
So what was Conte thinking?
Those systemic issues aside — not playing a big man up front but still trying to utilize Hazard as one fairly often — Conte’s main idea was to bring “balance” to his side. Whatever that means.
“Playing Alvaro Morata from the start, with him and Eden Hazard, without Willian or Pedro, would’ve lost our balance. It would’ve been suicidal.”
Bold choice of words, so clearly something Conte felt strongly about.
What does “balance” mean? That’s slightly less clear to me.
At its most basic interpretation, it could just mean that both Willian and Pedro are tremendous workers, capable of putting in excellent two-way shifts — which they duly did — the likes of which simply aren’t in Eden Hazard’s game. So if he played on one side, and either Willian or Pedro on the other, Chelsea’s defensive solidity would be compromised and easily exploitable on the one side.
Conte also knew what sort of game he was in for, having to “suffer” without the ball for long period then pouncing when Chelsea did get on the ball. The all-smalls setup is certainly the quickest trio Chelsea can field up front, with all three highly capable in transition and on the counter.
Without re-watching the game and looking at how Chelsea’s two wingers played without the ball (i.e. things that Opta and other stats don’t track), it’s tough to tell exactly what their role entailed. Perhaps our tactical analysis will shed some light on their exact contributions. For now, we can rest assured that the decision Conte made was made from a tactical perspective ... and it almost worked to perfection.
“It’s a pity about the draw and there are regrets, because when you play against a side like Barcelona, you need the perfect performance to win. We did that for nine tenths of the game and unfortunately paid for our only error. Now we need a massive performance at Camp Nou.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Mediaset Premium via Football Italia