Antonio Conte is infamously known for switching Chelsea to a back three last season. He took a team of talented players and made them an extraordinary unit.
So why did the same group of players succeed, when they struggled so much the campaign prior?
Putting aside simple motivation, injury or leadership factors, the usual answer is that players are being utilized incorrectly.
If one needs any proof that a formation can make or break a player, look no further than David Luiz in a back four, compared to the Brazilian in a back three. It is night and day.
Luiz’s talents are the ability to organize his defense, an energetic style of play, and immense attacking quality. His defensive acumen is based on taking risks to win tackles and organizing others.
In a back four, his risky behavior is more liability than strength. Conversely, in a back three, with protection on either side, the Brazilian’s defensive and offensive talents flourish. He was one of the largest benefactors in Chelsea’s switch of formation last season.
After a 0-3 first half to Arsenal, following a 2-1 loss to Liverpool, Antonio Conte had seen enough. The famed move to three at the back was easily the largest reason for Chelsea’s successful campaign, winning the Premier League title, as well as being a finalist in the FA Cup.
The Blues are hardly a pioneer of the back three, as Italian teams, such as Conte’s Juventus/Italy, have been doing it for years. However, the common belief was that it would not work in the Premier League. Conte and Chelsea proved otherwise.
The effect of Chelsea’s switch to a back three goes further than their title. Over the course of the next year, we saw more teams than ever before trying out three defenders in the back.
Teams like Arsenal and Tottenham had success utilizing it, while others such as the US National Team under Jurgen Klinsmann failed horribly in their endeavor. While one may argue personnel played a factor, it certainly is a formation that relies on a full understanding from everyone involved.
While Chelsea’s formation caused problems for teams at first, with the swing in popularity, coupled with more time in preparation to play against the Blues, the formation can no longer catch others off guard or unprepared.
No longer can Chelsea beat teams with a well-organized back three and converted wing-backs alone.
For the Blues to continue their success, they will need more than a shiny new formation. The Blues need the ability to adapt. This is where Conte becomes more valuable than any other manager in the Premier League.
Mourinho’s pragmatic style and Guardiola’s possession-based football are both highly documented styles of play, with each reaping strong results throughout their respective careers.
Conte however, fits a different niche in football. His ability to be flexible is what makes him clever.
It’s why we saw him tinkering at the end of last season with a 3-5-2 formation. He knew that it would be useful going forward.
I would suggest that if Chelsea continues to make smart purchases in the transfer market (yes I condone their business thus far, as long as they continue to make signings), then we will see the Blues utilize several formations this campaign.
So which formations will they deploy?
Just because teams have started to work out Chelsea’s 3-4-3, doesn’t mean that the Blues won’t use it at all. It’s a formation that brought them success and Conte would be foolish to completely abandon it.
We will likely see Bakayoko become a new partner to Kante in the centre midfield (replacing Matic).
This will strengthen their defensive prospects, while also giving them a few more attacking options going forward. The new French midfielder is better-equipped to take on defenders than his Serbian counterpart, making him the complete prospect.
Rudiger and Christensen give Chelsea stronger centre-back options to choose from, than simply relying on the same three.
If the Blues add depth in wingers, they will have better choices in the wide areas as well. Hazard, Willian, and Pedro all offer something different. With Musonda and Boga on the cusp of challenging for a first team place, we should see Chelsea only add one more winger this summer.
With Champions League now a factor, there will be plenty of game time to go around.
This is the formation that I believe we will see most, especially in the Premier League.
While Conte will be eager to make adjustments, I do not think he will want to completely abandon a back three that saw all five main defenders flourish last season.
David Luiz as discussed earlier was a revelation. We would be remiss if we didn’t talk about how well Gary Cahill played, how quickly Azpilicueta transitioned into a centre-back, and how seamlessly Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso became functional wing-backs.
Chelsea now have the option to play two out-and-out strikers up top, with Morata and Batshuayi. Although it’s preseason, the Belgian frontman has announced himself as a realistic option this season, while Morata’s price tag alone will justify his quality.
The two could form a formidable partnership and we wouldn’t put it past Conte to reinvent the two-striker system in the Premier League, would we? The Italian has shown his ability to make positive changes and I believe this is his next big move.
We could also consider Hazard/Pedro/Willian playing in the second striker role. This is similar to how we saw Loftus-Cheek operate in the striker’s position, partnering Batshuayi last season.
These creative attacking midfielders would basically have the license to roam free, pick up the ball in dangerous areas, while the opposite striker would be looking to create space with runs, hold up the ball or create opportunities in behind the defense.
Overall, I believe Conte will utilize this formation the most this year.
This is the formation that Chelsea’s new manager tinkered with at the beginning of last season. He had success with it in Italy, while in charge of Bari and Sienna.
In London, it had mixed results, with the Blues being too leaky on defense to really play this system.
Chelsea have added additional centre-back reinforcements in Rudiger and Christensen, and Bakayoko as Kante’s new midfield partner.
Imagine Batshuayi and Morata bulldozing opposing centre-backs in middle, with Hazard, Willian, or Pedro on the wings.
Add in Bakayoko and Kante holding down the middle, with a stronger defense than the beginning of last season and it becomes a realistic option.
The issue here becomes Chelsea’s full-backs.
Alonso is not a strong enough left-back to play the position outright, without three defenders behind him. If the Bayern loss on Tuesday teaches Conte anything, it’ll be Alonso’s frailty defensively, especially against a potential Champions League contender.
Azpilicueta could handle the right side well, but Chelsea would need at least two more full-back options to make this system possible.
Conte admitted in April that he wanted to play a 4-2-4 with Chelsea when he first arrived at Stamford Bridge. However, a lack of proper personnel forced him into making changes.
Should Chelsea do their due diligence over the next month, we could see Conte’s men playing this 4-2-4 formation next season.
The Italian may get his wish.
This is the last formation that I could see Conte utilize. The Italian famously left Juventus because he wasn’t able to make the purchases he deemed necessary to compete for a Champions League title.
He believed that his team needed to play a 4-3-3 and that they lacked the personnel to do so. However, with Abramovich’s looser purse strings, Conte may get the added players he needed at Juventus to successfully deploy this system in Europe.
Again, in order for Chelsea to play a back four, he’ll need more depth in his full-back positions and possibly in the centre of the midfield as well.
Fabregas, Bakayoko, and Kante make a strong midfield three, but after that, there is a significant drop-off.
Finally, he may look to add one more winger with only Pedro and Willian available to start the season due to Hazard’s injury and Musonda’s lack of experience.
Look for reinforcements in those three key areas to strengthen his ability to play his coveted 4-3-3 formation in the Champions League.
Overall, there are several options that Conte can utilize next season. The Italian’s infamous skill to make small changes to his team sheet will set Chelsea apart in year two.
Depending on the opponent, competition, and players available, the Blues manager will be expected to use several formations.
Keeping in mind the transfers both in and out, it’ll be interesting to see how he continues to recruit for next season.
Either way, Conte knows that he can’t solely rely on the 3-4-3 anymore.
The Italian will do what he does best, by putting his players in a position to be successful. His formation is just one tool he can use to do so.