SHOOT Says: Conte should switch to a 3-4-3 formation to maintain Chelsea’s top four hopes
Antonio Conte has got a lot of work to do. Defensive issues within the early stages of a managerial tenure are to be forgiven, especially having inherited a backline of aging, and in cases, plainly mediocre defenders.
What won’t be taken so lightly however, is consecutive defeats to league rivals in which the same defensive tactics were directly culpable for the game being thrown away in the first-half.
Though it’s fair to say the majority of goals conceded against Liverpool and Arsenal were down to individual mistakes and not overall defensive structure, the strangely passive, almost lethargic approach of the side to moving the ball outwards from the back invited the kind of pressure which made mistakes inevitable.
Having gone from working with the three best Italian centre-halves of the decade for the past five years, these problems will be distressingly unfamiliar for Conte, whose early sacrificing of his favoured 4-2-4 formation, and his subsequent reluctance to field Cesc Fabregas, has shown how he feels compelled to make compromises in his attacking tactical decisions to accommodate for a backline he simply cannot trust.
Branislav Ivanovic was abysmal in both of his club’s recent defeats. The Serbia captain no longer has the energy to play full-back in the Premier League and is a liability against speedy wingers – his booking for fouling Alex Iwobi on Saturday was probably the most predictable yellow card of the season so far.
Gary Cahill was directly at fault for Arsenal’s first and third goals, whilst his poor clearance teed up Jordan Henderson’s spectacular winner eight days earlier, his place (and long-term Chelsea future) looks under extreme threat, with John Terry and Kurt Zouma shortly to return.
Cesar Azpilicueta (probably the club’s most reliable defender) is simply not a left-back. The Spaniard is an excellent one-on-one defender, but is constantly caught too narrow when overloaded on the right wing. It sums up Chelsea’s situation that David Luiz has been by a distance the best, most assured defender in the side in the three matches since his return.
The one positive for Chelsea is that the game allowed Conte to experiment in the final stages. With half an hour to go, the Italian changed his system to play a 3-4-3 system, a move which hardly eradicated Chelsea’s problems, but which seemed to ease them slightly.
It’s a tactic which the Italian may be forced into using in the short-term until he can recruit better players; it’s a system which makes a fair amount of sense also, given the players at his disposal.
Both Terry and Zouma will surely slot back into the side once they return from injury, with both potentially available after the next international break. With Conte insistent on playing a deep defensive line, the added experience and physicality which the pair provide may help to sure up the backline slightly. Despite his age, the Chelsea captain is still the best penalty box defender in the country.
The role of sweeper in a back three meanwhile should suit Luiz perfectly. Without the responsibility of having to cover for one of the wing backs and with space to move into in defensive midfield, the Brazilian should have the best possible opportunity to show off his incredible long passing ability (with both feet), which could become essential given Fabregas’ probable, regular absence from the starting XI.
Both Azpilicueta and new signing Marcos Alonso could also thrive as predominantly defensive-minded wing backs, the former Fiorentina defender having played the same role in the Serie A for stages last season.
It should also bring the best out of N’Golo Kante to be moved forward into a central midfield role alongside Nemanja Matic. The Frenchman is a superb pure destroyer, but struggles to provide much energy to the side in such a limited role.
Conte clearly doesn’t want to use a three or five-man back line at Chelsea. It’s a system which relies heavily on individuals to provide creativity and which (most likely) will fail to get the best out of in-form attackers, Eden Hazard and especially Diego Costa.
Two miserable league defeats in succession mean that, for the short term at least, he may not have a choice. Chelsea won’t secure a top four place unless they sort out defensive problems quickly. And for that to happen, instant changes need to be made.