Is there a place for Chelsea's John Terry in Antonio Conte's three man defence?

For many, Chelsea’s defensive woes throughout September were proof that letting John Terry go in May would have been a grave mistake. The Blues miss the calming influence and organisational skills their skipper brings, with Gary Cahill looking particularly diminished without Terry alongside him. Absence can certainly enhance the reputation of players, and it seemed as if the former England captain would return immediately following an injury. However, poor defending is seldom about the performances of individuals. Though isolated mistakes do lead to goals, extended spells of porous defending hint at structural or tactical problems. Antonio Conte sought to address this at Hull by switching to a system with three centre backs and two-wing backs, and his side ran out 2-0 winners.

A change in system as been in the offing since the Italian coach was appointed during the summer. His success with Juventus and Italy was built upon three centre backs, namely, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. However, rather like Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, Conte has favoured a softly-softly approach; sticking to a fairly familiar 4-1-4-1 system. It will be intuiting to see if a back three is a long-term policy for Conte at Chelsea, because no team has won the Premier League playing three centre backs. Even more intriguing will be whether a 35-year-old Terry can fit in to this system.

 

Terry hasn’t played in a back three very often during his career, though one notorious occasion was England’s 2-0 loss against Croatia in Zagreb under Steve Maclaren. Accepted wisdom states that in order to thrive in a back three, especially as one of the outside centre backs, you have to be quick and adept at defending in one against one situations. The wing backs must go forward in order to give the attack width, which means the centre backs are drawn higher up the pitch. None of this sounds particularly suited to Terry, who like most of his fellow countrymen enjoys defending in a zonal manner; fairly deep and with numbers around him to provide security.

Conte is on the record saying that one of the key purposes of his coaching career has been to prove to the world that there is more to Italian football than catenaccio. His Italy team in the European Championship was exceptionally well organised, but not necessarily one that sat deep and played reactively. Following their victory over Spain in the last-16 Xavi labelled the Azure a hybrid of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona; rugged and aggressive man marking at times, but also a team that could press high and seize the initiative.

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Terry’s best spell in recent times came under Jose Mourinho, when Chelsea won the league title in 2014-15. Terry was peerless that season, but for at least the second half of that campaign Chelsea played with a very deep defensive line as Mourinho tried to conserve their ailing legs. Andre Villas Boas tried to implement a higher line during his brief spell at Stamford Bridge in 2011-12, with disastrous results for the team as well as Terry. He picked up eight bookings in the Premier League that season; to put that in context, he has only received nine yellows since. The reason for this indiscipline was that a higher starting position left him exposed, forcing him into desperate recovery tackles.

The three warhorses; Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci are not especially quick either, but are more comfortable being left isolated against attackers. Perhaps Conte will place Terry in the middle of a back three where he is not required to defend on the flanks. At the KCOM Stadium, Cesar Azpilicueta played on the right of the backline with Cahill on the left. This could prove to be a good move for the Spaniard, and means that Conte doesn’t have to rely on the hapless Branislav Ivanovic. David Luiz will certainly benefit from the security of an extra defender beside him, and has the technical quality to bring the ball out from the back. However, the coming weeks will tell us whether Terry has a place in Conte’s new look rearguard.

Featured image: All rights reserved by Habergaraj

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