September 24th 2016, Arsenal put on a clinical display scoring 3 times in the first half to put a woeful Chelsea to bed. Chelsea came into this game off the back of their first loss of the season to Liverpool at home. Liverpool much like Arsenal had played an aggressive attacking game against Chelsea, which the team looked unable to cope with. Chelsea looked an old and jaded side when faced with Liverpool’s intense, aggressive approach at Stamford Bridge.
This was, arguably, an even more harrowing experience, as all of Chelsea’s key men were poor. With Chelsea hero Branislav Ivanovic looking every inch of the 32 year old he is, and Eden Hazard and Diego Costa despite bright starts, having regressed back to their 2015/16 selves. This result left Chelsea in 8th place, and 8 points off of leaders Manchester City. The game offered a stark illustration of the job that Conte had in front of him to revive Chelsea.
November 20th 2016, almost 2 months to the day of the Arsenal humiliation, Diego Costa’s 10th league goal of the season, with an assist from Eden Hazard, saw Chelsea top the table by 1 point over nearest rivals Liverpool. Chelsea were organised and fluid in attack, and their domination probably deserved a second goal. Not only did this win take Chelsea to the top of the table, this was their 6th league win in a row. What is even more impressive this was done by conceding exactly 0 goals, for only the 10th time in Premier League history (the 5th time a Chelsea side have done this) In that time Chelsea have also scored 17 goals, and now have an overall goat difference of +18. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have also rediscovered their form (both players top their respective categories in the Premier League fantasy team)
So what is different between the Arsenal demolition, and 6 wins in a row and 0 goals conceded? 3-4-3. 3 defenders playing at centre back, 2 wingbacks operating the entirety of the flanks, 2 wide players to support a striker leading the line. To put the switch of formation into further perspective, before starting to pay 3-4-3, Chelsea had conceded 9 goals in 4 games. The results that followed the switch were 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 and then 1-0 against Boro.
3-4-3 has a long history but is back in fashion as it allows for getting an extra attacking player on the pitch. The Netherlands, and Barcelona used an attacking variation of the system under both Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, generally with the midfield four as a diamond.
But it has reappeared across Europe in recent years deployed by attacking possession based teams as a response to deep defensive bus-parking.
But it is not just Chelsea moving towards this shape. Barcelona have used it under Luis Enrique on occasions to break down dogged defences, as have Manchester City. Spurs, West Ham and Everton have all experimented with the system as well, but it is Chelsea who have perfected it.
Conte’s logic for switching to 3-4-3 was laid out in a press conference last month
“We started the season with another system because the idea in my mind was that I wanted to play with the 4-2-4. Then we switched with 4-3-3 and we played also in the same way like last year, 4-2-3-1.”
“But I noticed in some circumstances we didn’t have the right balance because when y3wsou concede more goals than your opponent and even more chances to score a goal, it is never a good thing. For this reason, we switched to the new system of 3-4-3 and I think this is a good fit for our squad.”
And what a fit it has been for a number of players within the Chelsea team. Eden Hazard has been liberated by the 3-4-3, he has been allowed to operate in forward gear by Conte, who has accepted that Hazard will not track back. In 12 league games Hazard has made 52 successful dribbles, compared with 89 the whole of last season. He should pass his total of 36 shots in the whole of 2015-16 against Tottenham on Saturday. However Hazard has made just four tackles. But Conte will take the form that Hazard is in, over defensive cover at this moment in time.
David Luiz was looked as a joke purchase, when he re-signed for Chelsea on transfer deadline day. He had hardly covered himself in glory for defensive performances in his previous time at Chelsea, he was seen as an easy target by other teams. However at the middle of the central 3 defenders, Luiz has not only become a defensive leader, but is now able to dictate play from the back, and has been starting attacking movements for the Blues.
Victor Moses, high-class wing-back, has been the most obvious gain. Moses is also the definition of a common trait amongst the “modern manager”, the ability to make good use of the things that they find, recycling some talented but dormant part into a key part of the team. Moses has been Conte’s own success story, a winger and No10 across five English clubs before the age of 25 but now in the best period of his career as a powerful and utterly committed right wing-back.
Much like his use of Moses, Conte’s use of 3-4-3 is a response to the balance of the squad he inherited. He had a shortage of experienced defenders but plenty of quick and mobile attackers and maybe the league’s most athletic midfielder in N’Golo Kante.
Adding an extra centre-back in Azpilicueta, provides cover for the wing-backs to push up while freeing Kante and Nemanja Matic of some defensive responsibility so they can get higher up the pitch.
With a specialist wing-back behind Hazard, in Marcos Alonso, bought from Fiorentina in the summer potentially with that in mind, Hazard is free to roam forward and interchange with Diego Costa and Pedro or Willian in a fluid front three. It has also solved last season’s problem of Diego Costa becoming isolated and frustrated. Which has resulted in Costa rediscovering the form that drove Chelsea to their last title 2 years ago.
The one issue that Conte will have to face is the lack of squad rotation. Quite rightly so he is hardly changing his team, as they are winning, and winning comfortably. But at the moment players like Cesc Fabregas and John Terry find themselves far removed from the revolution. While the lack of European, and EFL football will no doubt appeal, when it comes to resting players. Conte may struggle to keep everyone happy.
The real test for this formation revolution will come over the course of the next 2 weeks. Chelsea must play Spurs and Manchester City. Both of these teams match the high-intensity hard pressing football that Conte favours, and this evolving team may find life less comfortable. But if the blue 3-4-3 revolution is to continue, then Chelsea must win these type of games. Otherwise the numbers simply won’t add up.
By Rich Lee @RichLee2202