Antonio Conte is transforming Chelsea by revolutionising their formation and sticking two fingers up to the Premier League’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Matt Briggs analyses the changes he has made…
Chelsea would have swept away just about anyone put before them on Saturday night but Ronald Koeman’s decision to match-up Antonio Conte’s line-up was his worst yet as Everton boss.
Ahead of the game it was certainly a bold move against a Chelsea side who had won their previous four games, including a 4-0 demolition job on Manchester United, but in the aftermath of Everton’s 5-0 defeat it now looks naive.
A switch to 3-4-3 is paying dividends for Conte – a manager whose success in Serie A with Juventus was built on three at the back. Five straight wins, 16 goals scored and none conceded and a performance on Saturday evening which befitted the Bonfire Night date.
“This was the best 90 minute performance I have ever seen in the Premier League,” said legendary commentator John Motson.
“It was a great game, a good performance,” claimed a modest Conte in the immediate aftermath – however after some time to reflect the Blues boss rightly upgraded the display and after being asked to use an Italian word – ‘fantastica’ was his considered response.
Conte was right to crow too because Chelsea were simply breathtaking, but Koeman’s attempts to nullify the hosts with a like-for-like formation was suicidal. Not since the opening day of the season had Everton gone with a back three and although they managed a draw against Spurs on that day they were never going to get a repeat once Eden Hazard had put Chelsea ahead.
Playing a three-man defence and a rearguard with limited pace too against Hazard, Diego Costa and Pedro was always going to be risky and it proved more than that as Chelsea’s three frontrunners tore Koeman’s men apart.
Playing against two strikers a back three can be very effective, because it gives you a man over in defence while you can then try and outnumber the opposition in midfield. Playing three vs three though, and away from home when you are likely to see little possession is and was a very different story.Everton had seen only Spurs concede fewer goals ahead of the Stamford Bridge clash but it soon became clear that switching from a back four to a back three was not as easy as it may seem.
Koeman afterwards claimed the formation was irrelevant because Chelsea’s pressing, hard running and quick passing would have prevailed whatever, but his 3-4-3 failed to give his men a footing in the game.
The Dutchman switched to a back four on 36 minutes with the arrival of Kevin Mirallas and he will point to the fact that his men fared no better to prove the point that the system was not a factor.
However, starting a back four would not have left his defenders three on three against a revitalised Chelsea.
Hazard on another level
Hazard looks like the player he was the year before last and much of that has to do with him being further forward and able to vacate any defensive duties. It’s no coincidence the Belgium star now has seven goals this term, eclipsing the six he grabbed last season after admitting he has got his football mojo back again.
“I am enjoying playing now, my position is a bit different from before, I go inside more and I try to shoot,” he said after scoring twice on Saturday.
Costa, who also netted leads the scoring charts, looked a yard sharper and is thriving on two quick players either side of him, while Pedro looked like the player he was at Barcelona for years – rampaging up and down the right flank.
Koeman will point to the absence of the suspended Idrissa Gueye. He leads the division on tackles won (44) and was a big miss at the Bridge but Chelsea would have found a way through with or without Gueye.
Luiz the Chelsea rock
For Chelsea, David Luiz put in another rock-like display in the middle of the back three.His return to the Bridge was met with some scepticism and he was surely not Conte’s first choice as he returned somewhat out of the blue on transfer deadline day. Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli was rumoured to be Conte’s preferred target, but the Brazil defender was the man drafted in and he has been moulded into a reliable kingpin.
His ability to bring the ball out of defence was always undeniable but the fans and pundits that once sniggered at his lackadaisical tendencies have been forced to take note of his improvement – a man coached the right way.
Ahead of the season in his first Chelsea press conference Conte placed his emphasis on being flexible.
“When I was in Italy I liked to say that the coach is like a tailor,” he said. “You must build the best dress for a team, and respect their characteristics and talents. Then you decide. In the past I started seasons with one idea and then changed it because I saw this system wasn’t good. Three at the back? Four at the back? It’s not important.”
And he’s done exactly that with Chelsea – aborting a back four after the mauling by Arsenal to adopt a three-man defence which has suited his squad thus far.
The Italian tactician, who has long-term plans and is soon hoping to bring his family to the capital, employed an attacking 4-2-4 formation at Bari between 2007-09 and he won the Serie B title in the latter of those two seasons, before using the same line-up with two high-playing wingers at Siena en route to another Serie B promotion two years later.
The 46 year-old attempted to play a similar way at Juventus before the arrival of Arturo Vidal and then he went to a 3-5-2 system to suit the Chile star, which brought him three successive Serie A titles.
He’s modified that again at Chelsea. Employing a 3-4-3 line-up and his ability and willingness to be flexible will be a major advantage as Chelsea bid to get back to where they once were.
A version of this article first appeared on GoPlay Sports Tours.