Antonio Conte’s introduction of 3-4-3 in October 2016 has left a lasting imprint on not only Chelsea, the tactical switch inspiring a 13-game title-winning run, but also the rest of the Premier League.
Once deemed almost alien to the Premier League and especially the clubs at the division’s summit – Roberto Mancini’s attempts to implement it at Manchester City in 2012/13 backfired spectacularly – it’s now the staple setup at Arsenal and Tottenham, while a back three formation has been used by all but one member of the big six so far this season.
And yet, there have already been seven instances out of a possible 18 in the Premier League and Champions League this season in which Conte has varied the system he used in every top flight game from October onwards last term. Results would suggest that’s a counter-intuitive approach; Chelsea are two places worse off than at the end of last season and have already lost the same number of games in the top flight.
But the wider logic is tough to dispute; Chelsea are a much-changed animal from last season – trading Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic for younger, more mobile alternatives in Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko – and they needed to be.
It’s no coincidence there hasn’t been a successful Premier League title defence since 2009 and Chelsea showed during their last one how detrimental it can be for a manager to stick with the same players, the same formation and the same ideas. There’s nothing worse for reigning champions in a top flight as competitive as England’s than becoming completely predictable.
Accordingly, Conte has given himself different tools to work with, so a different strategy is inevitably needed to get the absolute best out of them. And that, on the most part at least, is what Chelsea’s new 3-5-2 does.
While the defensive dynamics are essentially the same, offering the transition between a back three and a back five, the extra body in midfield allows Cesc Fabregas and Bakayoko an extra few inches of creative license, while lining up Chelsea’s two most fearsome attacking threats, Morata and Eden Hazard, in the closest proximity possible.
It was an idea first spawned in arguably Chelsea’s best performance so far this season, their 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the Champions League’s Group Stages. Hazard, returning from injury, produced a majestic display in a freer, more central role behind Morata. Within an hour, the potential potency of the partnership was already clear -Hazard’s driven cross upon drifting out wide directed into Atletico’s net by Morata’s head.
Since that stunning away win in the Spanish capital, Hazard and Morata have lined up as a front two, the former deployed just behind the latter, five more times and the returns from those six games speak for themselves; seven goals and three assists.
Even though only two of those goals have been direct combinations between the pair, the setup is clearly getting the best out of both. From per-game returns combined, Hazard and Morata average more goals, key passes, shots, dribbles and passes when operating as a front two than their shared season averages.
That’s because, as seen at Liverpool on Saturday, the two benefit from each other’s games, even when they’re not directly linking and even when one isn’t enjoying pinnacle form. Hazard was unquestionably the star of the show at Anfield, his talismanic dribbling verging upon Lionel Messi levels in the first half, but that wouldn’t have been possible without Morata stretching Liverpool’s backline and drawing defenders away from the Belgian.
There’s already a telepathic understanding in place which makes the movement between the two as important a weapon as any technical metric they can be statistically judged upon. It was one of Morata’s quietest performances yet in a Chelsea shirt, but produced arguably the best we’ve seen from Hazard this season.
Most importantly though, it’s given Chelsea a different dynamic in the final third. While the rest of the Premier League is beginning to adjust to ways of cancelling out the narrow front three we saw at Chelsea last season, Conte is already moving onto something new – a different offensive problem for his opponents to try and solve.
Front twos, even with one playing behind the other, have now become the bigger rarity in the Premier League; one the Chelsea gaffer is now setting up his side to try and exploit. It may not be enough to catch up with Manchester City in this season’s title race, but Conte is continuing to evolve this Chelsea side.
The longer the club can keep Hazard and Morata together, the more likely they are to become champions once again in the coming years.