Chelsea just haven’t been the same ferocious animal this season. Their current Premier League standing of third place is enough to tell you that but even excepting Manchester City’s immaculate form and Manchester United’s vast improvement, Chelsea are still nine points worse off than they were last season after 24 games – and that’s without the experimental, inconsistent early portion of Conte’s reign. Only after a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal at the end of September did the Blues truly hit top gear.
Causes as to why are vast and various. No Premier League side has successfully retained the Premier League title since United in 2008/09 and Chelsea are just the latest to suffer from a division-wide trend. Likewise, the Blues have the added challenge of Champions League football this season but struggled to bolster their squad adequately during the summer, while Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic and John Terry took an abundance of experience and leadership out of the first-team when they left for pastures new. Replacements Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko, meanwhile, haven’t exactly torn apart the Premier League as expected.
All those factors have undoubtedly influenced Conte’s ever-problematic second album. But rather than the change in band members, the impact of new fronts and the irresistible tide of history, there’s perhaps a more instrumental force at work; how the Italian has actually set up his sides in the Premier League this season. While the switch to 3-4-3 after the defeat to Arsenal inspired a 13-game winning run that essentially secured Chelsea the title, Conte’s attempts to adapt it this term have struggled to provide the same trophy-clinching outcome.
Indeed, the statistics speak for themselves and amid a Premier League campaign which has seen Chelsea line up in a 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 (or slight variations of) on 14 and ten occasions respectively, a discernible distance does stand out; Chelsea have scored more goals, conceded less goals, averaged more shots on target and more possession and produced a better win-rate while using Conte’s tried and trusted 3-4-3.
In fact, when using 3-5-2, they average over one goal less every two games and have only won 50% of the time. That 21% slump would be a gigantic difference for any side, but especially one expected to win the majority of their games this season.
Of course, there are some caveats here. 3-5-2 is Chelsea’s more defensive setup and overall, has been used against tougher opponents – the likes of Tottenham at Wembley, Manchester United and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool at Anfield and Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium. But it’s been used against far lesser opponents as well, and that’s where Conte’s insistence on the system becomes a little more baffling, using it in the shock 1-0 defeat to West Ham when Chelsea produced just two shots on target and during the scoreless draw with Leicester at home two weekends ago.
No doubt, there are some justifications for the setup, particularly in terms of personnel. Conte has never completely warmed to Willian but Cesc Fabregas won him over during the latter stretch of last season. Playing with three in midfield gives the Spaniard more license to roam, and also gets summer signing Bakayoko on the pitch as well.
Likewise, Eden Hazard is moved from out wide to a free role behind Alvaro Morata; there’s an obvious logic to putting Chelsea’s biggest creative threat and biggest goal threat alongside each other and earlier this season, the Belgian playmaker looked like a greater force than ever before in the central role.
And yet, it doesn’t allow Chelsea the same width in attack or the same verve going forward as 3-4-3, and that has certainly hampered Hazard and Morata at times. A vastly contrasting performance against Brighton last Saturday provided the perfect example of the difference between the two systems; although Michy Batshuayi is an inherently lesser striker than Morata by common consensus, the presence of three up front allowed Chelsea to stretch the opposition wider and deeper, and despite being pinned down to the left rather than his freer, central role, more space was created for Hazard to exploit.
That particularly rings true with his second goal, as Batshuayi and Willian lured defenders away to allow Hazard to essentially walk through the Brighton defence and slot past the goalkeeper.
After three consecutive games in which 3-5-2 had produced three scoreless draws, the performance against Brighton gave the impression of Chelsea’s attacking cast feeling like the handbrake was finally off, and that the structure of the team allowed them to express themselves. Chelsea’s glorious second goal, a succession of backheels followed by Willian’s blistering finish, was ample testament to that.
There is an understandable logic to Conte tweaking Chelsea’s game-plan from last season. As much as anything else, Chelsea’s title was a consequence of the switch to 3-4-3 last term catching the rest of the Premier League off-guard, so it would be a grave mistake for the same manager who benefitted from that allowing his side to become too predictable – that’s precisely one of the problems Jose Mourinho suffered. In any case, Chelsea’s starting XI personnel has significantly changed – Morata, Bakayoko and more recently Andreas Christensen represent changes to the spine of the team in all three departments – and different players are better suited to different systems.
But it’s the stubbornness in which Conte has stuck with 3-5-2, despite modest results and incredibly rigid performances at times, that has provided the biggest source of frustration. Had Conte used his modified version of last term’s game-plan more sparingly and only against top-quality opposition, perhaps Chelsea would be a little closer to competing with City at the top of the table.