The year in tactics: Chelsea dominate with Conte’s 3-4-3

General view of an Adidas soccer ball - Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
General view of an Adidas soccer ball - Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

The end of 2016 is approaching, which means it’s time to examine the most successful tactics of the year. Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 at Chelsea is up first.

Any manager worth his salt understands formations and tactics need to suit the player personnel and maximize the potential of the talent available. Imposing a lineup without any regard for its fit on the roster available is not exactly a recipe for success.

To his immense credit, Antonio Conte understood this early on during his time at Chelsea and as a result the Blues are sitting comfortably atop the Premier League, six points ahead of second-place Liverpool. Nine of the last 12 times a team was top of the Premier League at Christmas, they ended up winning the title.

Notably, Conte didn’t shake things up from the very beginning of his tenure. He started in a more traditional 4-5-1/4-1-4-1.

It took him almost two months to readjust that formation and rediscover the three-man back line that made him one of Europe’s most coveted managers during his time at Juventus.

The afternoon of Sept. 24 was a dark one for the Blues, as they went down 3-0 to Arsenal. That match was the last time they lined up with four defenders. Conte reverted to his proven formula of success with three at the back and Chelsea have won 11 games in a row since then.

Going from four to three men at the back didn’t translate to a less defensive or more attacking style. But it provided the team with a more balanced approach and ensured the particular skill sets of the players available for selection were better optimized.

Case in point: Cesar Azpilicueta was a serviceable left back before the switch to a back three. He has now developed into a leader of the back line; he’s showing tremendous positional and tactical awareness as a right center-back, and thriving in a position better suited to his skill set than left back, where he often struggled providing support in attack and was caught out wide on the defensive end.

The beauty of the system is that when executed correctly it provides balance as well as a numerical advantage with and without the ball. The three defenders are tasked with marking the opposition’s two forwards (when facing a 4-4-2 formation). If the opposition line up with three forwards, at least one of the four midfielders (or wing backs) drops back to provide support and ensure a numerical advantage from a defensive standpoint. This is where having the appropriate personnel is a major requirement for the implementation of this formation.

Nemanja Matic is able to provide the defensive steel by patrolling the area in front of the back three, clogging the lanes against incoming through balls and sometimes acting as a fourth defender by picking up any opposing midfield runs. N’Golo Kante, a tremendous box-to-box midfielder with one of the highest work rates in the Premier League, is able to provide support to the forward line as well as the back line as needed.

Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses are fantastic two-way players, disciplined enough to contain the opponents’ wide players and not get caught upfield, but also able to penetrate through the opponents’ defensive third and provide support to the three forwards.

All of the four midfielders are well suited to defending, true box-to-box players, so Conte has the luxury of shoring up the defense with seven at the back and playing a counterattacking game, as we saw in their 3-1 win against Manchester City, or of sending six or seven men forward in attack against more defensive sides.

Finally, the three-man forward line allows Diego Costa to thrive as a center forward by providing him support from Eden Hazard on the left  (and increasingly the middle, as Hazard drifts centrally) and either Willian or Pedro on the right wing. All those wingers are fast, and great at taking defenders on one-on-one and setting up chances for Costa.

Hazard is back at the level of play worthy of his Premier League Player of the Year Award two seasons ago. In the current Chelsea system, he’s able to cut inside, take people on and is generally allowed the creative freedom to thrive that didn’t seem to be encouraged during the second season of Jose Mourinho’s second managerial stint in West London.

Next: Premier League power rankings

Perhaps Conte was always going to revert to his 3-4-3 regardless of the circumstances. What’s becoming evident now is that his formation best suits the type of players on the current Chelsea roster. With its recent track record of success we are starting to see the 3-4-3 become replicated across Europe, although nowhere else more successfully than at Chelsea.