How has a tactical change ushered in the start of a new era at Chelsea?
While Antonio Conte was urging the Blues crowd to cheer for their team towards the end of a 4-0 humiliation of Manchester United, a sense of satisfaction swept across Stamford Bridge; Chelsea had finally stepped out from under the shadow of former manager Jose Mourinho to begin the dawn of a new era.
Far too many managers had come and gone, trying to stamp their identity on the club; the Italian head coach has succeeded where they all had failed. This was now HIS Chelsea.
As a deeply passionate man, Antonio Conte’s managerial style is typified by his tactical nous to instil into his teams the defensive solidity combined with a direct attacking style of play. His teams need to work hard and be disciplined, with and without the ball.
His philosophy has worked wonders with his previous teams, and is now beginning to show at the Bridge. He inherited a side fraught with uncertainties after an abysmal 2015-16 season, and had to bring together the team and fans for a common cause.
Under the new manager, the West London club initially persisted with the mundane 4-2-3-1 system, which had been fairly effective under former management. Harrowing losses against Liverpool and Arsenal forced the Italian to switch to a more preferred and exciting 3-4-3 formation.
Having previously been successful with a variant of the 3-5-2 structure at Juventus and then with Italy, this was right in his comfort zone. After three successive thumping victories against champions Leicester, Hull City and Manchester United, the decision to change his tactical set up has been vindicated.
As defensive mainstay John Terry was out injured, Chelsea played with David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta as the three central defenders. This tactical formation requires the back three to hold their shape while defending, and also provides an additional player to deal with opposition forwards.
David Luiz seemingly lacks the patience and concentration required for a defender; this structure allows the Brazilian to roam forward in attack as the two remaining center-backs provide cover for counter attacks. With his passing range, he can also spray long balls bypassing the midfield directly to the strikers.
In modern times when ball playing center-backs are the fashion, Terry remains the epitome of a traditional no-nonsense player and has been the most consistent Blues defender. To accommodate Terry into this system when he returns to fitness would be one of the pleasant challenges for Conte.
Wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses have been tasked with heavy attacking and defensive responsibilities, going up and down the flanks. Having spent two seasons in Italy, Alonso looks to have developed as a quality defender; additionally, his attacking prowess was on display against Manchester United when he launched a long ball onto the path of Pedro for his early goal.
Moses has been handed a new lease of life at Chelsea under Conte and has been putting in impressive performances on the right flank so far. However, it remains to be seen if he is just as comfortable defensively against faster attacking wingers.
Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante patrol the central midfield, providing additional defensive strength to the team. Kante has been allowed the freedom to play the role of a box to box midfielder, and has since been able to replicate his form of last season. Matic is the midfield enforcer and the shield ahead of the defensive men.
Despite the positives, Chelsea still lack a spark of creativity from the midfield and might find it difficult to break down stubborn defenses. Cesc Fabregas, one of the most creative players in the squad, will also need to earn a place in the first eleven.
Form of the attacking players – Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro – has been the biggest positive of the new system. The wing-backs allow the two attacking players to take up more central positions close to the striker, and have a more influential role in the game.
Blues striker Diego Costa has been in immense form since the start of the season, but having Hazard and Pedro more mobile has seen an increase in the number of scoring chances. The Belgian, particularly, seems to have rediscovered his golden touch from the title winning season of 2014-15.
The new look side seems to have found the right balance between attack and defense. Although far from the finished product, as the manager and his system evolve, Chelsea FC will finally look to have found their niche in the English Premier League.
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