Chelsea have shown the benefits of their new 3-4-3 system in a display that has Antonio Conte’s fingerprints all over it.
Like his Italy side at Euro 2016, Chelsea are now showcasing predetermined moves in attack, dynamic wing-backs and a well-drilled back three that gave nothing away, which has seen an upturn in their recent form.
Since their 3-0 defeat to Arsenal on the 24th of September, Conte has changed his system from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3. The change in formation has seen The Blues win five games out of five, scoring 16 goals and are yet to concede.
Credit has to be given to the Chelsea manager who has found the perfect system to utilise the ability and strengths of his key players such as Eden Hazard.
Here is an insight to why this formation is working so effectively.
The main reason why the two ‘advanced’ forwards in this system, Hazard and Pedro, have been enjoying success is down to the lesser defensive burden on them.
Added to this, Diego Costa has been brilliant in the way he has operated something similar to a false nine at times in his movements to create space in behind for Hazard or Pedro to move into. The heat map of Costa shows that he inclines to drop more towards the number 10 role.
Costa is a striker who normally would stay as high up the pitch as possible, occupying the two central defenders. Since he has had team-mates who are playing closer to him, it has allowed him to drop deeper into positions to pick up the ball. Knowing that Hazard or Pedro would push higher playing on defenders’ shoulders if he dropped deeper to receive the ball. He is now added more link-up to his play rather than a direct striker who would stay as high up the pitch as he can.
At the start of the season, Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation saw Diego Costa playing as a lone striker and often finding himself isolated against two defenders.
Wide attacking players Eden Hazard and Pedro were often doing their defensive duties tracking back full-backs which left the distance between them and Costa even greater. You would often see opposing full-backs such as Hector Bellerin or Kyle Walker attacking, which pushed Eden Hazard back into defensive areas where he often switches off.
However, since Chelsea have changed their shape and now play with wing-backs it has given more lenience to the likes of Pedro and Hazard to stay up the pitch and be a threat on the counter attack. They now have a wing-back who has a responsibility to track back and defend.
In possession, Hazard and Pedro to roam the pitch but have a responsibility to stay near Costa to score and assist goals.
This was a prime example when Chelsea played Leicester City when Hazard scored.
Costa dropped deep to receive the ball which sucked Wes Morgan out of position in the centre of Leicester’s defence, and Hazard utilised the space which Costa had created and scored from the resulting attack.
The positive use of Chelsea’s wing-backs
As a player, my position is right full back. I have never actually played in a competitive game as a wing-back but I have played it in training. It is probably the hardest position to play in football due to the extreme amount of running that is required from you.
In my opinion, for this system to work, I believe it all stems down to the wing-backs.
There is a lot of box-to-box running that is required from a wing-back. Without the ball you slot in to make a five across the back and when the ball is turned over you are expected to be an attacking outlet as a high attacking winger.
From past experience, playing against a 3-4-3 can either be a formation that works brilliantly, or terribly. When it’s played well, it can exploit a lot of your weaknesses depending on the formation which you play. When it’s played poorly, it normally stems from a confusion between players who haven’t played the system before. It can leave massive gaps in dangerous midfield and defensive areas.
The wide play was one of the most eye-catching features in the Chelsea v Manchester United game where The Blues ran out 4-0 winners. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/37670362 .
United set up with Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford in the wide areas and it was plain to see that Jose Mourinho instructed them to stay and track back with the Chelsea wing backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses.
Conte used this tactic brilliantly and recognised this as a potential situation in which Chelsea could thrive. He instructed his wing backs to push United’s wingers as far back as possible, once again forcing United into a 6-3-1 shape. (As seen on the tactics board below).
Not only did this ask a lot from United’s main counter attacking threats in Lingard and Rashford by forcing them into such a deep position, but also it also left United very open in midfield.
As seen by the tactics board, United were left with just three players to cover such a large area in the midfield.
United’s full backs didn’t seem to fully understand their role against their opposing wing back. This was most clearly highlighted in the third Chelsea goal, where Valencia, instead of tracking Hazard’s run in behind United’s defence, moved towards the wing to mark Marcos Alonso.
In hindsight, with Hazard clearly being the most dangerous threat in a central area, he should have stayed inside rather than being forced out wide.
Being coached as a defender in professional football, you are told to mark inside to out rather than outside to in. If Valencia had stayed narrow, he may have been able to prevent Hazard running through on goal, and if the ball went wide to Alonso he could have made his way over to close him down.
It was poor defending by Valencia, but on the other hand it was clever play from Alonso as his positional sense left space for Hazard to exploit and score.
Had Chelsea been playing their traditional 4-2-3-1 at the start of the season, Hazard would have been playing as an orthodox winger, and Alonso as an orthodox left full back. There is no doubt that Valencia would’ve known that Hazard would’ve been his responsibility to mark once he began to make a move behind, leaving Alonso for the winger in front of him to deal with.
3 Central Defenders
A common approach for managers facing Chelsea’s three at the back is to play with a lone striker.
Instead of wasting a player further up the pitch in an area the opposition will naturally control anyway, the player would be dropped back to provide solidity deeper down the pitch. This was a tactic which Mourinho went with in the 4-0 game.
This means that Chelsea will have a three vs one overload– one which would have been considered meaningless by Mourinho due to the harmless deep positions the central defenders.
Chelsea, however, were able to put this three vs one overload to good use due to the outside central backs’ positive play stepping out of defensive and affecting play further up the pitch. Creating gaps and space for the forward players such as Costa, Hazard and Pedro to exploit.
Man Utd’s man-marking and defensive strategy was pretty obvious – the two central midfielders, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba were encouraged to lock onto Chelsea’s midfielders Nemanja Matic and N’golo Kante. Whilst the wingers would stay tight and mark the attacking wing backs wherever they went.
However, it was not clear how Mourinho wanted to deal with Chelsea’s centre backs stepping into midfield.
With the two central midfielders, Nemanja Matic and N’golo Kante, being marked closely, they were never able to turn when receiving the ball.
However, with defenders Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill offering themselves as an option either side, Chelsea were able to find a free man to help go forward with the ball, effectively making a four vs two when in possession.
When Azpilicueta or Cahill were on the ball, Pogba and Fellaini were never sure whether to close them down, leaving their designated marker free, or to stay with their man in central midfield. (As seen on the tactics board below).
When Pogba or Fellaini did go out to press the centre back, Ander Herrera often had to step out of his deeper position protecting the back four to pick up the central midfielder that had been left free. This then leaves the gap discussed earlier for Costa to exploit and causes a big problem for United’s defence.
These are a few of many reasons why Chelsea have been so successful since their change of formation.
Credit has to be given to the Chelsea manager who has found the perfect system to utilise the ability and strengths of his key players.
Special praise also has to go out to the Chelsea players’ flexibility to switch formation and their reaction to respond with outstanding performances and results.
With Chelsea in this kind of form, it is looking very difficult to see any other team in the Premier League finishing above them at the end of the season.