At Chelsea, it seems every few years the same questions come up – what system/tactics will the new manager use? Does the personnel fit the system? Who will the new manager looking to buy in the transfer window? The answers when recent managers like Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas, and even Carlo Ancelotti arrived were a lot clearer. All three had distinct ideas in previous managerial jobs, and largely the players, perhaps with some manoeuvring, could fit their style of play.

With Antonio Conte taking over the manager’s position at Chelsea in just a couple short months, the answers aren’t quite as clear, especially when looking back at Conte’s previous history. A switch from a back four, which has been the primary defensive structure for a very long time, could be on the cards, particularly as Conte has favoured a back three in the past with Juventus and also currently with the Italian national team.

Cesar Azpilicueta in action against West Ham United
Cesar Azpilicueta in action against West Ham United

It’s not a system entirely foreign to this Chelsea squad. Over the past three seasons, when chasing a result, Mourinho was known to switch to a back three in order to add the threat of a second striker while using the third centre back to help guard against a counter attack. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t work. But overall, it’s hard to gauge its success or failure because it wasn’t used as a main tactic for 90 minutes, and often late in games, you’d find interesting scenarios, like Cesar Azpilicueta, the left back, being asked to play as a centre back in order to accommodate a more attack-minded player.

With Conte possibly using that system as his main style of play, it’s worth a look at whether or not that system will work in Premier League, particularly because teams have employed it in recent times, but mostly as a defensive formation and often discarding it after a short period of time because of it getting exposed.

Any time a foreign manager joins the Premier League for the first time, there are also questions about how quickly they can adapt to the league. For Conte, the Premier League presents an interesting challenge, not just in higher pace of play when compared to Italian football, but also the difference in tactical play.

Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho

As Mourinho himself admitted after his time at Inter, Italian football is a much more tactical game with team looking to outmanoeuvre one another. Italian football, especially in attack, is largely based on partnerships meshing well, most notably in the attacking third where a balance within the idea of the “trident” is often used to create chances. Because of the use of complimentary types of players in the final third, often in Italy you see variations on diamonds, Christmas trees, and various shapes that don’t always feature the traditional wingers as part of that three-player relationship.

3-5-2, against most formations that feature two strikers, or even one striker, in a formation that’s rather narrow, can be very effective because the three-man midfield keeps you from being overrun in the middle, the three-man defence gives you a spare man at the back against two main attackers, and it gives you two central attackers to threaten the opposition’s back line.

However, in England, since around the mid-2000s, a fair number of teams have switched to variations of 4-3-3 as their base formation, which is one of the main weaknesses to any formation featuring a back three.

In a way, you can blame Mourinho for that. His focus on using 4-3-3 as a way to play between the lines of 4-4-2 forced a lot of teams to abandon that formation in order to stop that style of play. As you see in England now, a lot of teams are playing 4-3-3 variations and doing so usually with at least one winger to stretch the play.

This style of play is the one major weakness of a back three, and it’s one that Conte will need to find a way to combat. When team playing a 4-3-3, especially one with wingers, faces a 3-5-2, that team is able to negate any numerical advantage in midfield, and allows the team to expose the back three with any ball played in behind the fullbacks. Premier League sides often feature players with pace in the wide areas, which isn’t always the case in Italy, so that might be one of the reasons why you don’t see many back threes work long-term in England. That long diagonal to a winger with pace can cause havoc, and many teams go back to a back four if that weakness continues to be exploited.

One weakness to a back three is that it can easily become a back five if your wing backs can’t get forward and get pushed back. Even when not in a 3-5-2, relying on the fullbacks to provide width can be problematic in the Premier League, as teams are not afraid to double up on the fullback to prevent him from getting forward and then use that 2 v 1 situation to isolate the fullback in defense. In 3-5-2, if the wing backs don’t get forward, it can allow the midfield to get overrun and your back line to have to cover more ground, opening up spaces for attack.

The good thing for Conte is that he tends to use his fullbacks as wide midfielders, asking them to stay higher up the pitch. But that presents the previous problem of the long diagonal.

But if Conte’s managerial career has shown one thing, it’s that he’s not necessarily married to a system. He may opt for a back three, but most likely will take his time to assess things. This is a manager who played a 4-4-2 at lower sides like Atalanta and Siena because he preferred to attack and also tried to convert Italy to a variation on 4-3-3 to prepare for life after Pirlo. It’ll be interesting to see what his assessment of this current squad is, but be assured that his tactical nous will find a system that will work for this squad.