We have to thank television for dumbing the game of football down to a sequence of numbers. Each time I turn on the telly I invariably see a graphic that tells me that Chelsea play with a 343. And then we hear them explaining how other teams are failing to replicate the system since its uniquely Conte’s Chelsea. Well at least they got that part right. You see 10 years in television sports production taught me one thing. The guys in the graphics department, some of them don’t even follow football – these graphics are churned out by them. The executive producer may be forced to use a graphic that shows a formation because the advertisers have decided they want to brand the graphic. So they come up with a formation graphic. No-one really cares if its accurate. The only thing they really pay attention to are the names of the starting 11. And even today I see the wrong manager name go out. On a show just two weeks ago, poor Swansea, the graphic went out calling the manager Francesco Guidolin, not Bob Bradley. So you see guys whenever you turn on the telly, and see that graphic. Don’t believe everything you see, especially when the pundits go: “Chelsea is using a 343″. Deep down even they are squirming quietly.
Arrigo Sacchi said it best, ” What formation?”. When I met Houllier in the AFC cup final, he too looked bemused whenever the topic of numerically describing his formation came up. Football is played by 11 men who can fluidly change from one role to the next. They defend one way and they attack another way. Sometimes they may even change the way they attack several times in one match, and if you can keep up with all the changes that’s even more fascinating, cos I gave that up a long time ago.
Let’s take a look at that Chelsea graphic one more time. It does look like they have 3 central defenders ,2 central midfielders maybe even 4 and 3 players who are forward. Well when they defend they look like this, please excuse the picture, I did take it in a hurry. As many as 8 players get back, they form a dense pack that’s hard to get past, if they have time to get back in shape. When they have the time to get back in shape its a flat back 5 with as many as 4 other player in their own half. Only Diego Costa seems to be lurking on the shoulders of the opposing central defenders.
When they attack, well that 343 formation everyone so loves to use, well it really goes out the window. If you say a system is a 343, do you expect the 3 central defenders to behave like defenders? You do I expect. Do you expect them to be in the opponents half or at least near the half way line for the majority of time when your team is attacking the final third? You would think so. Just ask César Azpilicueta if he really is a central defender. According to Squawka, he is amongst the top 5 leading passers in the Premier League. Alongside him is N’Golo Kante!. Ever wondered why these two have such high pass ratings? It’s because Mr Azpilicueta isn’t your typical central defender in a back 3. In fact, Chelsea don’t even play a typical back three defence. The only player who ever stays back all the time is probably David Luiz. This backline is now one of my favourite defences to watch.
Against West Bromwich Albion, Tony Pullis decided to go back to basics, build a wall so dense it’d take a bulldozer to tear it down. For most of the match it looked like it was doing the job. So Chelsea kept pushing higher up the pitch and this is where things got interesting. The Blues backline acted like a pivot. As the ball makes its way through a midfield transition, either Cahill or Azpilicueta would act as halfbacks bringing the ball up. This would allow Kante to maintain his central position and more importantly: the team that’s defending loses all reference points in the final third. When a team defends it takes reference from where the opposition players are, so that they know who to mark zonally. In a typical 442 , its easy. The wide midfielder would pick up the opposing winger and if the fullback comes down for the overlap either the fullback picks him up or another player from central midfield picks that player up. There are fixed references you can follow. When Chelsea attacked they had 6 reference points in the opposition half. Whenever Kante has the ball, Azpilicueta is close by as a passing outlet. The backs shift toward the right when the ball is down the right and if the ball moves down the opposite flank, Cahill steps up and gives Matic support. Victor Moses and Marco Alonso lend width, allowing Pedro and Hazard to cut inside. When Diego Costa drops deep, the typical reference points teams take go out the window. Want to know which team found that out in a hard way? Just ask the master of defence Jose Mourinho.
When Manchester United faced up against Chelsea, Mourinho attempted to man mark the two central midfielders. This would have made sense if Cahill and Azpilicueta had acted like orthodox central defenders. They didn’t. Each time a United player tried to man mark one of the two, either Cahill or Azipilicueta would step up to become a passing outlet. United fell apart, by 4 goals. The system that Antonio Conte is using is very much forced onto him. We know he loves his 3 man defences. He failed in attracting Mr Leonardo Bonucci, the ultimate ball playing central defender. So he had to settle for David Luiz. While Luiz does appear to step out to cover ahead of his two partners, recent games have seen Azpilicueta take up a leadership role in the backline. He is seen frequently guiding Victor Moses and in the game against West Brom, he even told Luiz to stay back while he attacked the box with the rest of the team. This is a central defender who was at the edge of the box calling for a pass!.
Alright Chelsea have gone on a fantastic run, but it’s like all things new and bright. When Pep Guardiola employed inverted wingbacks, teams struggled. In fact it took a few seasons before several vulnerabilities emerged. His systems are prone to the diagonal and even Leicester City found an interesting way through with their 4-2 win. It may not be clear if he is using inverted wingbacks yet with Manchester City, but Leicester showed how easy it was to isolate a 3 man defence from its defensive midfielders. By sticking Jamie Vardy and Islam Slimani between them, Claudio Raneiri effectively isolated a key part of Guardiola’s system – his engine room. Eventually Guardiola had to drop back into a 4 man defence, which looked good, but a little late for that. The job is made harder when City don’t really have any defenders of note. Chelsea on the other hand, well they are playing to their strengths. There are some concerns though.
Whenever Azpilicueta moves up, he leaves a gaping hole behind, which needs to be filled by David Luiz. “Calamity” anyone? Luiz isn’t the most assured defender in the world, and against teams who are willing to press higher up the pitch, we could see pressures being exerted down Chelsea’s diagonal. The Blues tend to get back into a dense shape at the back fairly quickly, but they are still vulnerable to counter pressing. So if the Blues do decide to attack higher up the pitch, those flanks become vulnerable to sides that are willing to run hard between the channels. At the moment they do look the part of a relentless juggernaut, but that backline can still be breached by the brave. Oh yeah, and they don’t look like a 343, they’re just Conte’s Chelsea!