London – Chelsea’s domestic campaign ended on a sour note, with last Saturday’s 2-1 FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal denying Antonio Conte the double in his first campaign at Stamford Bridge. But it is Conte who has been Chelsea’s superstar this season and his decision to switch from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 in autumn should be considered among the most decisive tactical moves in the 25-year history of the Premier League. After changing to that system, Chelsea steamrollered their way to the title and eventually recorded 93 points – the second-most in the Premier League era.
Conte, however, is unlikely to rest on his laurels and will strive to improve Chelsea further next season. It is notable that no one has retained the Premier League since Manchester United won it in 2007-08 and 2008-09 and Conte will need to create a stronger squad to cope with the added demands of European football if he is to defend the league title successfully.
Indeed, since that decisive switch to 3-4-3 in the second half of a 3-0 defeat at Arsenal in late September, Conte essentially used only 13 players to any great extent. As with Leicester in 2015‑16, it is easy to identify Conte’s first‑choice starting XI, with only a minor debate about whether Willian or Pedro should start on the right and a late flourish from Cesc Fàbregas testing Conte’s faith in his regulars.
Conte’s main task now will be developing his squad for next season for a Champions League challenge and he may even prioritise European competition as a personal mission, considering his inability to take Juventus past the quarter-final stage. Either way more rotation will be required. Chelsea appear well‑stocked in defence, with Nathan Aké and Kurt Zouma likely to play a more significant role next season, but Chelsea are woefully short of midfield back-ups after the mid-season departure of Oscar to Shanghai SIPG. Up front, Michy Batshuayi provided some decisive contributions from the bench but Conte will need to use him more next season.
In a tactical sense, too, Chelsea may need to evolve. If it would be unfair to suggest that opponents have found out their system, it is clear the 3-4-3 did not work quite so effectively after Christmas, with Tottenham, Manchester United and then Arsenal all genuinely outplaying Conte’s side. It is notable that Chelsea went 11 games between January and the end of April without keeping a single clean sheet, an amazing statistic considering they kept six in a row immediately after the change of system.
Opponents exploited weaknesses in the 3-4-3 more readily: Spurs successfully exposed Gary Cahill’s lack of mobility and César Azpilicueta’s lack of height. Other sides have caused Chelsea problems with energetic pressing and have exposed Fàbregas’s tactical indiscipline when he has started in a central role, and Manchester United man-marked Eden Hazard very effectively, leaving Chelsea without genuine creativity. Arsenal used Danny Welbeck up front to prevent Chelsea’s defence from keeping a high line and then, when Conte asked his players to press, Chelsea lack compactness and Arsenal played through them easily.
The level of opposition scouting and data analysis in modern top‑level football means systems can be considered unbeatable one month and fundamentally flawed the next, and top-class managers are always seeking to evolve their side and keep opponents guessing.
How, then, will Conte change things next season? First, Diego Costa may depart and the nature of his replacement may cause a fundamental restructuring of Chelsea’s attacking play. A pure speedster up front, for example, might mean Conte is more likely to field a defined midfield playmaker. On that note, Fàbregas has proved almost irresistible in recent weeks, having been excluded from the starting XI at the start of the campaign, although in big games the Catalan surely needs two defensive midfielders behind him, which would necessitate a change of formation.
Conte could, therefore, turn to a 3‑5‑1‑1, a system he used in the second half of matches in recent weeks, with Fàbregas as a third central midfielder and Hazard floating behind the main striker – which might allow the Belgian more freedom to evade opposition man‑marking. This was a formation Conte occasionally turned to at Juventus, albeit without significant success.
However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Conte could ditch his three-man defence entirely. With Marcos Alonso capable of playing left‑back and Azpilicueta a natural right-back, Conte can switch from a back three to a back four seamlessly, and it is slightly surprising he has not done so more regularly this season – that flexibility has clearly benefited Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham. Perhaps, with Conte’s 3-4-3 proving so successful, he simply hasn’t needed to. But Conte had planned to use 4-2-4 and 4-1-4-1 at Chelsea – and if he suspects opponents have sussed out his 3-4-3, we could see something radically different for 2017-18.
The Guardian Sport