There are two viewpoints to analyse Chelsea’s 2016/17 Premier League title winning season from. The first and most obvious tells us that Antonio Conte became the first ever manager to successfully implement a three-man defence at a top Premier League club, and his ability to do so has significantly altered the tactical landscape of the English top flight. Tellingly, by the end of last term, there were only four teams throughout the division who hadn’t attempted a similar system to Chelsea’s 3-4-3 at some point over the campaign.
Yet, two-thirds of his second season in, and three-man defences have seemingly struggled for lasting impact. Albeit some still adopt it for short parts of the campaign, Liverpool and Manchester City are almost exclusively 4-3-3 teams, Manchester United have lined up with four at the back during 26 of 30 occasions in the Premier League, Arsenal gave up their imitation of Chelsea’s game-plan in January – the only exception since providing their infamous performance in the Carabao Cup final – and Spurs haven’t used three central defenders in the top flight since a draw with West Brom in November.
That reinterpretation of what many believed would become Conte’s ultimate legacy in the Premier League gives us the second viewpoint to truly gauge what happened last season. As fellow fresh appointments at Manchester City and Manchester United were still getting to grips with teams they’d inherited, Chelsea’s underwhelming start implored Conte into a radical change of system that the rest of the division just couldn’t find the instant answers to. By the time they had, Chelsea had already ridden the wave of a 13-game winning run that for all intents and purposes secured them the title by the end of December.
Although Conte’s execution of a system that so many previous managers have failed to master in English football, especially at its elite end, undoubtedly deserved the praise he received, it was more a case of 3-4-3 bringing an element of surprise to Chelsea than being the kind of tactical innovation that would go on to define an era – like in the same way as how Jose Mourinho’s use of 4-3-3 during his first spell at Chelsea soon became the staple formation of every Premier League club. In fact, it was incredibly similar to how Brendan Rodgers stopped the rot during his final full season at Liverpool; although it started with a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, the Reds enjoyed a 13-game undefeated streak using 3-4-2-1 in 2014/15, moving them from 10th to 5th place.
And so, if Conte’s adoption of a three-man defence wasn’t quite so ground-breaking as it originally seemed, rather a shrewd ploy that provided phenomenal short-term gain, there is a consequential to answer; why have Chelsea persisted with it so religiously amid a season in which they could miss out on qualification to the Champions League, and amid a start to 2018 that has seen them lose more games than they’ve won across all competitions? Is the success of last season making Chelsea’s game-plan a dogma, one that’s now causing as much harm as good?
After all, Conte has made structural changes to every part of Chelsea’s starting XI at times this season. While the Italian hardly deviated from 3-4-3 at all last term, even for short periods within games, by Chelsea’s third competitive match of the current season he’d already experimented with five in midfield, using the change to great effect in the 2-1 win over Tottenham at Wembley. 3-5-2 was then used again against Atletico, Roma and at Anfield and has become Conte’s go-to alternative formation, especially in big games.
Likewise, recent weeks have seen significant alterations to the dynamics of the front-line too, with Eden Hazard operating as a false nine and dropping in to become part of the midfield. Yet, at no time this season, not even when Chelsea were chasing leads in shock defeats to Bournemouth and Watford, not even when – as co-commentator Glenn Hoddle pointed out – they were 3-0 down at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night, did Chelsea change up and go to a back four. It’s almost as if the thought has never crossed Conte’s mind, as if he now sees three-at-the-back as an unchallengeable element of the west London club’s DNA.
Of course, the defensive unit in any team implores consistency and thus the reluctance to change it is understandable. But Chelsea have rarely had that at the back this term anyway with David Luiz losing his place to Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger and Gary Cahill becoming almost interchangeable and both wing-backs occasionally rotated with understudies. The only genuine permanence has been Cesar Azpilicueta – but he’s actually the most adaptable defender at the club, the one who would be most comfortable switching between back threes and back fours even if it meant him moving from centre-half to full-back.
And it’s not as if this Chelsea team is incapable of lining up with four defenders. Conte inherited a 4-2-3-1 team from Mourinho, albeit one that was ludicrously dysfunctional during its final season under the Portuguese, and started his Blues tenure using essentially the same formation. In fact, it was widely believed that Conte saw Chelsea as a 4-2-4 team, with two central strikers and two flying wingers, and after signing Olivier Giroud in January they have the capacity to line up that way now.
More pivotal than having the means to do so, however, is Chelsea’s arguable need. Just as 3-4-3 breathed vital confidence into a team that had jettisoned it at alarming speed during the twelve moths previously, perhaps a return to a four-man defence can have the same effect. It won’t catch the rest of the league off guard in quite the same way – after all, it is the most common defensive setup in English football – but it will give opponents different types of problems to deal with than what they’ve become accustomed to upon facing this Chelsea incarnation, and it could provide the jump-start the Blues need to bring a positive end to a largely underwhelming campaign.
Currently more than one win away from reclaiming a place back in the Champions League spots, it’s clear Chelsea need something to inject a new sense of life into their run-in. Returning to four at the back, or at the very least reverting to it in certain scenarios, is a seemingly simple yet promising answer.
So, Chelsea fans, would you like to see Conte return to four at the back against Leicester? Let us know by voting below…