With the summer upon us and transfer activity beginning, speculation on who will join Chelsea for next season’s campaign has already begun. A disappointing 10th place finish is not an acceptable result for the 2015-2016 season, and the cycle that saw the Blues crank out trophy after trophy every year appears to be over, with John Terry being the last member of that era possibly seeing a reduced role.
Thus, Antonio Conte takes over the Stamford Bridge hot seat with the tall order of refreshing a squad that is sorely lacking in depth and looked rudderless last season. The Italian is regarded as a football general, in most ways, and will look to inject a been of focus and intensity back into this Chelsea team.
Conte’s appointment has led supporters to wonder exactly what his arrival will mean as far as shape and tactics on the pitch. Since the 2005-2006 season, Chelsea have largely played multiple variations on 4-3-3, with the exceptions of Jose Mourinho, Luis Felipe Scolari, and Carlo Ancelotti briefly flirting with a diamond formation. But Antonio Conte has never really been known to use that system exclusively, instead preferring attack-minded versions of 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 in his career. Most likely, that will mean Conte may opt for a 3-5-2, as it’s highly unlikely that this squad fits the mould of 4-4-2 without some serious changes being made.
However, is Chelsea’s squad really equipped to play 3-5-2? On paper, it looks like it could be a farcical idea. But the way that Conte has often deployed his version of that formation, it very well might work, especially if he gets the signings he’s rumoured to want.
When Antonio Conte first arrived at Juventus, he found himself in a similar situation. Juventus had finished 7th the year before and were on the verge of an identity change. Conte had used an attacking 4-4-2 with attack-minded wingers at both Atalanta and Siena previously and was expected to look to do the same at the Torino club.
But Juventus had agreed a contract with Andrea Pirlo on a free transfer before the appointment of Conte and with Pirlo, a 4-4-2 is really never an option. Juventus had three quality centre backs in Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and Leonardo Bonucci, thus the 3-5-2 was chosen, in part to play to the strengths of Pirlo. In came players to fit that system over the years, and 3-5-2 had become the trademark of the Juventus playing style.
Ironically, Chelsea find themselves in a similar situation to that Juventus side, both in the areas that need strengthening and the personnel at his disposure. Conte’s 3-5-2 is a bit unique in that it is a solid defensive structure, but he deploys his wing backs more like wingers than fullbacks. That’s not to say they aren’t asked to defend, but their first instinct is to go forward, which is why Conte first signed Stephan Lichsteiner upon his arrival and later used Kwadwo Asamoah to fill the weakness on the left side.
On paper, it doesn’t look like Chelsea have adequate wing backs, but that’s not entirely true. Cesar Azpilicueta has shown an ability to get forward on either side, while Kenedy proved last season that he is capable of playing as a left wingback if needed. On the right-hand side, Willian is a player that does have the skill-set to be deployed as a right wing back given his workrate. If asked to be a defensive one, he might struggle, but given the fact that Conte wants his wing backs to attack, Willian could very well be an option to play that role if asked to do so.
Centre back is a position that could very well mirror that Juventus team, as well. Chelsea do have three very good centre backs, with John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Kurt Zouma, with Branislav Ivanovic providing a fourth should he be moved there from right back. Ivanovic could very well find himself as a center back, at least early on in the season, with Zouma still out injured. With question marks about how Zouma will recover from his injury and Cahill’s form dipping last season, that may be why a new centre back is being looked at. The only question mark is who that player will be.
The Chelsea midfield is where the real question lies within a 3-5-2. Cesc Fabregas is quite good at dictating tempo in the midfield, but he’s much more effective playing further forward and doesn’t really fit the Andrea Pirlo role, given his weakness in defending and reading the game further back. The Blues also don’t have that box-to-box midfielder needed to do the work for a player like Fabregas, and the biggest questions lie in how you look at Eden Hazard and Oscar.
It’s likely that in a 3-5-2 that you could see Hazard play further forward as almost a second striker to Diego Costa, freeing him of defensive responsibilities and given him the freedom to roam and create. But the position of Oscar is a bit more unclear. It’s been debated as to whether Oscar could adapt and play well in a deeper midfield position, and certainly he’d add to a bit of the energy and creativity back there. But if he can’t make that switch, his role further forward isn’t really there in a 3-5-2, and he could very well be sold to bring in some money. It’d be a shame, really, for a player who’s talents have largely been underappreciated and who’s been often played out of position over the last two seasons.
Realistically speaking, if Conte doesn’t play a 4-3-3, the characteristics are there within the squad to make the switch to a 3-5-2. The real question then becomes, how does that formation work in the faster pace of the Premier League, especially since most 3-5-2’s recently have only found short-term success? That will play out once Conte takes over after his duties with Italy, and pre-season may give us the answer to the question of formation and style of play.