This article was originally written before the UEFA Super Cup against Liverpool, but did not become relevant until this past weekend, when Frank Lampard, to much surprise, set up his team in a Conte-ish 3-4-3 at Molineux, and was rewarded with an impressive victory.
The main inspiration for this article and the change it advocates for was the leaky defence, but it’s not certain that Lampard’s reasoning was the same. This experiment may be short-term. It may be a one-off against a team who also use this setup. Perhpas he just doesn’t trust Marcos Alonso in a four-man defence — and who does?
So, as we wait for his next team sheet, here is the month-old article, filled with additional comments in italics, considering some of the changes that have happened in the five games since.
Here are five arguments for using a five-man or three-man (depending on how you look at it) defence as the primary setup this season.
Bolstering the defence
As it usually happens when one considers switching to five at the back, the main reason is a leaky defence. In this case ‘’leaky’’ would be a euphemism for either the team’s lack of quality or Lampard’s inability to organize the defence, I don’t know which one is closer to the truth, but I know it won’t end well. Yes, many problems can be solved with, as Conte would say, work, work, work, but considering the magnitude of the problem, it’s practically certain that it needs something more than that. A systematic change might be necessary.
Put simply, we are playing way too open and attacking, and an extra player at the back seems like the easiest way to balance that out*. At the same time, our attack is working very well and probably wouldn’t suffer as much with one player less in attacking midfield**, especially as our full backs would be able to play much higher, as Lampard obviously prefers. This exact change was made by Conte three years ago in similar circumstances — bad defence with bad results — and the rest is, as they say, history.
*Even though we again conceded 2 goals to Wolves, those happened with a comfortable lead so they don’t really invalidate the point. Wolves weren’t a threat before our fourth goal, especially in the first half when Rüdiger played.
**After 5 goals against one of the best defences in the league, we can probably confirm this to be true.
Both James and Dave would be starters
Last season, Azpilicueta was deployed ‘’finally’’ to his ‘’natural’’ position of right back. It wasn’t long until we realized that it was no longer his natural position. Six years earlier, he was acquired for very little money as an average right back to serve as a back up to the great Branislav Ivanović, and average he has remained. But in the meantime, his immense defensive potential was unearthed by the genius of Mourinho, who played him as a right-footed left back. And then, Azpi became even more fantastic as a the right-center back in a three-man defence. For years he was considered the best defender in the Premier league, but left back is no longer an option (no Mourinho) and the RCB position exists only in three-centre back formations.
In short, the only way to extract world-class performances from our fan-favourite Dave is to switch. In a four-man defence he is just an average player. It’s painful to see him wasted and written off, especially considering that he is one of the most loyal and dedicated players to have ever played in royal blue.
One of the main arguments against a 3-4-3 had been the lack of a good right wing-back. Victor Moses was solid for Conte’s title-winning season, but the following season he was quickly exposed as playing above his limit — would’ve been a perfect backup*, to be fair. But now, we do seem to have the perfect player: 19-year-old Reece James has just returned from possibly the best loan season of any Chelsea player ever, which is quite a feat considering the sheer volume of loanees of the past decade. He was voted the Player of the Season at Wigan and was named among the best XI of the entire Championship. Memorable praise for him included his coach saying that he was the man of the match in every match, while at least one observer went as far as to say that the teenager was the finest player to have ever played for the club(!).
Hence, not only do we have a player seemingly perfect for the RWB position, he wouldn’t have to compete for minutes with the captain**, who is still only 30 years old. Wouldn’t it be such a horrible waste to have only one of them on the pitch at the same time?
*Moses is under contract until 2021, and could return next summer just in time to become a back up for James. That role could be taken in the meantime by Pedro or Azpilicueta, both of whom played RWB several times for Conte.
**Even though Azpilicueta played in RWB against Wolves, I doubt that Lampard wants him there long-term. James will soon return from injury and Dave will be restored to RCB (if Lamps truly continues with 3-4-3).
Our left backs are actually wing backs
Both Emerson and Marcos Alonso were purchased under Conte to play as left wing-back, having made their names playing in that position for Roma and Fiorentina, respectively. Last season we watched as Alonso struggled in a four-man defence; on Saturday, we had the opportunity to see him in his natural habitat again. A switch to wing-backs seems like a win-win for both sides of our defence*.
*Emerson is a more adequate full back than Alonso, but they’re both much better utilised as wing-backs instead.
The team would lose its weakest link
Namely, the No.10 position. While Loftus-Cheek is sidelined, one of the most important positions in the team will have to be filled by Ross Barkley or Mason Mount. The first an average player, the second inexperienced and unproven*. Even when RLC returns from injury, the situation is not that much different. Our best attacking options are on the wings, especially with Callum Hudson-Odoi, and even with Pedro and Willian increasingly past their best.
*Here the situation has changed quite a bit. Mount has not only proven himself already, but is playing almost every minute and scoring regularly. That renders this argument much weaker than it was, though Mount is also versatile enough to play either in central midfield or as one of the inside forwards/wingers.
We would need fewer big signings
With Chelsea still set up largely in Conte’s image (if not the exact players on his wishlist), the 3-4-3 suits the team, emphasizing the current squad’s strengths and minimizing their weaknesses*. Wing-backs are one example, but N’Golo Kanté’s best role is in a midfield-two as well, while three centre backs mitigate the individual weaknesses of any one defender. And while Chelsea have collected sizable transfer fees for the likes of Eden Hazard and Álvaro Morata, buying any top talent these days, be they attackers, midfielders, or even dfenders, will likely cost upwards of £100m. A switch to 3-4-3 would effectively mean we need to make only one monster transfer.
*The situation has changed here a little bit as well. The young players are proving to be the real deals so far. Tammy Abraham’s 7 goals in his last 3 games could mean that we’ve found our long-term striker solution. Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori, Christian Pulisic, and all the other young players making an impact means that Chelsea can concentrate funds on a few surgical acquisitions, rather than the scattershot approach of the last few seasons. That’s not a direct benefit of the 3-4-3, though it’s not hurting it.
So this is what the team would look like in a 3-4-3:
It’s definitely too crowded in attack. Christensen would probably have a guaranteed first-team place considering the experience and quality he has in the central position (Gladbach and Conte’s Chelsea), as would James for reasons previously stated. Alonso would be a much greater competition to Emerson than he is in a 4-2-3-1. For others, the situation wouldn’t change much.
Some of my original arguments for the switch aren’t as strong as they were at the start of the season, primarily due to the emergence of Mount and Abraham, but they seem versatile enough to fit any sort of formation Lampard throws at them.
Regardless, no formation should be set in stone as it was last season or even under Conte. Lampard has emphasized the benefits of having multiple a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan X, and the ability to switch between them even during matches. But the 3-4-3 definitely shouldn’t just be a one-off after last weekend.