Antonio Conte began his Chelsea tenure 22 months ago with the intent to have his new team line up in a 4-4-2/4-2-4 hybrid formation, utilizing a very familiar back-four (Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic) behind a pair of midfielders, two wingers, and two staggered forwards. Within a month of preseason action, that morphed into a 4-3-3 with Kante as a holding midfielder behind Matic and Oscar and a front three of Hazard, Costa, and Willian. That’s how Chelsea set out in Conte’s first official game as Chelsea head coach, in August 2016.
While Chelsea won that game, and a couple more afterwards, the defense and midfield were repeatedly exposed in subsequent matches, most famously in the back-to-back defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal. That’s when the 3-4-3 (5-4-1 without the ball) was instituted, proving the catalyst to not only Chelsea’s title but a revolutionary shift in the Premier League’s tactical landscape.
The 3-4-3 wasn’t without flaws, especially as teams learned how to play against it. Conte needed to evolve, to tweak, to improve, especially as the makeup of the squad changed in the summer. That part hasn’t gone smoothly as we know all too well. The 3-5-2 seems the next logical evolution, but results had been mixed. Recently however, there’s been renewed promise.
After Sunday’s 1-0 win over Liverpool, Conte stopped by Chelsea TV to explain some of the tactical changes he’s made late in the season, changes that have built a five-game winning run in all competitions and, improbably, pulled Chelsea back to the brink of Champions League qualification.
“I think that when we play with the three midfielders [...] it is better, in this moment, for our team. Because in this way I think that we have more balance, we don’t lose offensively, at the same time I think we are more balanced, we have more compactness. Also this is not the first time that we keep the clean sheet, playing with the three midfielders.
“This way you can leave Hazard as striker to have more freedom to stay linked with Giroud, to have combinations, and then to push with the two wing-backs, especially when you play against a strong team. I think this is the best way for us.”
As the rest of the football world fawns over Manchester City and Liverpool, Conte talked at length about the need for “balance” before the game. Last season, that balance (and compactness) was achieved by the 3-4-3. This season, the 3-5-2 (or 3-5-1-1 as it were with Hazard in a free role) could be the ticket. When Conte tried it the first time, it gave us big wins against Spurs and Atletico Madrid, but the generally poor finishing made it ineffective in other matches. In response, Conte returned to the 3-4-3 more often, but that left the team vulnerable on defense while not really solving the problems with finishing chances.
“Everyone would like to play an offensive football. We tried to do this and I think in the past for this reason we lost many games, and we lost the opportunity to stay in the top four. If you remember we lost many games to be more offensive and to play with more offensive players.
“I think you must be humble to understand your level and to understand that if another team is stronger than you, you must use the brain, you must have a plan and not to play very open. Otherwise you risk to lose and this is something we lost many games to play this way.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea TV
Conte has been accused of being tactically inflexible — then again, what coach gives up easily on a formation that wins a title and, at one point, 13 in a row? — but he’s been searching for solutions all throughout the season. He struck gold quickly last season, improbably so in fact. This season, it hasn’t been as easy, but he now believes he’s found the ticket.
The three midfielders provide a stronger shield for the backline, mitigating for Fabregas at one end and letting him influence the play at the other. Meanwhile, Eden Hazard is entirely freed from defensive responsibilities, although that also means more weight on his shoulders in attack. That alone makes it a more defensive formation, especially when Hazard is not at his best, but this might be the best we can do this season. There is no foolproof, infallible strategy to winning; this one might gives us the best chance right now.
And so far, it’s working. It’s pressuring Liverpool and Tottenham. It probably will be rolled out for the FA Cup final against Manchester United, who are probably one of those “stronger” teams who warrant a “smarter” approach.
When it’s all said and done, we might still end up with Thursday nights and no FA Cup. But at least we will have given ourselves the best chance for success, which wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed after all that’s transpired this season.