Chelsea Chronicle – The 343 Era
At the moment of writing this, Chelsea is now top of table entering into the new year and have now completed a 13-consecutive win streak, a feat only matched by Arsenal in the 2000/01 season. For a club so used to dominance, it could be seen as business as usual, however, the context could not be further from the truth. Chelsea at this point last season, where stuck in 15th place, 26 points away from their current position. POTY Eden Hazard had yet to register a single goal and they had just sacked one of its great managers in Jose Mourinho. With this scenario, one would have to ask, what has changed at the club and how has it got to this position? Well, in the 4th April 2016, Chelsea went about and hired famed Italian coach Antonio Conte, a man known for his dedication, tactical nous, and in the coming months, would change the fortunes around at Stamford Bridge.
Pre- Season/Transfer Market
Pre-season for Conte was off much wanted excitement by fans. After seeing the disastrous pre-season the year before, where the team had seen star players come back overweight, and the poor scheduling leaving the team with only 25 days to prepare for a long title defence, one of Conte main tasks would be to improve the conditioning of the players. Conte stressing physical fitness over the more holistic approach of Jose Mourinho, which was heavy training with the ball, showed the steps being taken to ensure another 15/16 would not occur, and that players would be in top physical shape for the season ahead.
Apart from fitness, during the actual pre-season games, Conte stressed a deep 442 zonal block. The usage of young forward Bertrand Traore to fill spaces left by either Fabregas and Matic, and of wide players such as Willian to overload wide areas, stressed a lot of what was to come with Conte. Winning the midfield battle and not letting the opposition create good shots/chances would become a running theme during the preseason, a known issue with this Chelsea side who at the start of 15/16 were averaging almost 7 shots per game onto them, and had an incredibly poor defensive record. In terms of attacking plans, Conte seemed to stress a lot of creativity from the front, due to his history with CBs such as Leonardo Bonucci, meant that long diagonal passes from the defence to the striker with layoffs, where becoming a more common playbook, not to mention Eden Hazard now playing in almost more central role in the attacking front, a role he had coveted after being more of a zone mover/forward under Mourinho.
Furthermore, the addition of title-winning midfielder N Golo Kante meant the club was able to fill a void left by Ramires, with his ability to win the second ball and provide great energy in the middle of the park, and being able to let Hazard take more risks when attacking wide areas. However, there were still doubts in regards to the transfer market as a whole prior to the seasons starting. Despite the Kante signing and also, the signing of Michy Batshuayi, a young talented forward from Belgium, the activity as a whole by the board elicited more of a, work with what you can squad, and a, these players have won a title. This left a feeling of frustration and doubt, with the fact the club ended up waiting till the last weeks of August to sign defenders in Marcus Alonso, a former Bolton/Sunderland full-back, and the re-signing of a fan favourite but the ever-questionable David Luiz. Thus, could Conte sustainably keep an old, out of form, and tested defence ready to compete for the season? There was no doubt what Luiz could offer in his verticality from deep, but would the defensive mistakes occur?
The first 3 games of the Conte era where a clean sweep, it seemed at first glance, a lot of the preseason dividends were paying off. Despite a late scare in the opener against West Ham, midfield battles were being won in a more decisive matter. Playing in the zonal block, and being able to overload the wide areas, gave teams little room for operating. It seemed as if Conte was going for a 433, with a lot of the same players from the title-winning season bar Kante. This meant that Conte job was real to get a lot of them back to form that they had in 14/15. Both Matic/Oscar where being able to press more highly and in packs, which meant the pressing from the front was now reaching similar levels of before, and were not allowing teams to build from the back. Also, star striker Diego Costa and attacker Eden Hazard were now reaching their world class levels of seasons before, with Conte’s physical fitness regime seeming to allow them to sustain massively over the 90 minutes.
However, there were still small problems that could be seen and where to later manifest. After playing for a team whose defensive distances were not as big as where to come at a club like Chelsea, who are expected to dominate games more, meant that new midfielder Kante would often find himself running after shadows with his willingness to hunt down more players than he had previously. This allowed for spaces to occur between the lines and so, mistakes were occurring in the more expansive setup. Furthermore, the benching of Fabregas and the acquisition of David Luiz still yet to have been made, meant creativity from deep and the front where lacking for periods of games. This meant that Chelsea was becoming a second half team, with a lot of late substitutions being made by Conte incorporating Fabrgeas to try and salvage a victory. This was deeply unsustainable, as even though someone with the quality of Diego Costa could end up bailing the team out, the defensive record was not good enough for it to be managed over a 38-game season. Due to a lot of individual mistakes made by starting CB Gary Cahill during the first 6 games, Conte side had conceded 5 goals, including 2 to minnows Bristol City at home with an experienced defence. While results were there, it was clear that Chelsea was vulnerable from the back despite the protection given with the likes of Matic/Kante in place.
All these manifestations left Chelsea in two pivotal games that would end up changing the Conte era forever. Both Liverpool and Arsenal were on the horizon, and after playing relatively weak teams, a lot of the flaws highlighted would end up costing Conte men. The attacking 3 of both Liverpool and Arsenal are some of the best in the league, players with the ability to roam into half-spaces and between the lines to create spacing problems for the CBs. The 433-zonal block was ultimately exposed due to this movement, Chelsea was left in a position where they could not play higher up due to the distances being created. This allowed for the midfield and defence to be further opened and leave the shape of the team incredibly disjointed off the ball. This was shown in costly individual mistakes by Cahill and Kante in the Emirates horror show, with Kante, a player who is more akin to a box to box player, having to play deeper and struggling massively due to the defensive distances being massively larger, and not as defined. This meant players such as Mesut Ozil or Alex Iwobi could easily attack the space and receive easily in half space and ended up scoring 3 goals in the half. Also, with this situation at play, meant that Kante was not able to fulfil what his skillset requires which is to attack and gain the second ball in the middle of the park, due to him being so deep in this 433. Furthermore, the Attacking front was bleaker in these two games, Hazard being completely isolated in the wide areas, with the likes of Walcott and Bellerin double teaming him, left Hazard not being able to attack in the half spaces where he thrives. Costa managed to score in the Liverpool game but too much isolation would end up suffocating Diego from making a fluid impact. Thus, after 8 games played, including cup games, 13 goals had been conceded by Conte’s men. The Conte era was looking to head into the dark side.
343 Era Begins
After being humiliated in the two biggest games of the season, Conte, akin to a man who had looked to have his soul crushed went back to basics with the team, and thus, the 343 era began. In the second half of the Arsenal game, Conte did something interesting, he subbed Fabregas off and put in Alonso, a player who was experienced in the 3 at the back formation as a full back and a LCB. While what ended up being an almost training session of a half at the Emirates, sowed the seeds for what was to become of the formation. Chelsea ended up not letting Arsenal create a good chance for the rest of the half, a common theme in the games to come.
The formation and its mechanics were very new to Chelsea before, the last time it went to such a different tactical edge was the diamond Carlo employed in the 09/10 campaign. It was ultimately, both Azpi and Cahill as LCB and RCB, with Luiz in the middle acting as the Libero of sorts, Moses/Alonso as wing backs, Matic/Kante as the two central midfielders, and a front 3 of Hazard/Costa/Willian or Pedro. One of the first ways I saw how the formation was improving Chelsea where in the ways I saw how it was helping cover the flaws that the previous zonal block didn’t, and also, helped give players a great array of passing options around them with the way they would both come to receive the ball and create midfield overloads. For instance, Luiz, a player who despite having great technique, always came into question his decision making when building from the back. Due to this, Conte employed that both Azpi and Cahill were given more time and responsibility on the ball, with Luiz further back. This allowed them to push forward and allow for fewer turnovers in the first phase of build up as Luiz was now taking the less touches out of the back 3 than ever before in his career, a sight which meant he would act more of an anchor in creating midfield overloads and creating a passing option when needed. Furthermore, the revitalisation of Azpilicueta as a sort of defensive shuttler, who has the ability to cover wide areas and progress with the ball was a further improvement. Azpi was always consistent during the Mourinho era but many felt his flat footedness made him quite useless in attacking areas. As a result, the more dominant Ivanovic was left to be given freedom and Azpi was more or less covering Terry and as a 1v1 presser of sorts. This means that by playing him, as a LCB, Azpilicueta brought his skillset intro fruition more, as his reading of the game could allow him to cover for the wing backs and a double team when needed.
Also, both Matic and Kante, while on paper, looked as if it didn’t contribute a lot creatively, in fact, could not have been further from the truth. Due to the fact that Luiz could push higher up and create a midfield 3 when needed, meant that Kante could press higher up and collect second balls, and not like in the zonal block, solely hold from deep. Also, this switch with Matic now allowed him to fully cement himself as a sort of deep-lying playmaker. This was not expected of Matic due to his role in Mourinho team being more of a destroyer who tracked opposition 10, but in a 343, his verticality and great passing range in the halfspace, allowed for a deadly link up with Hazard to occur more often. As a result, Matic notched up 6 assists, a career high at Chelsea.
Moreover, the use of the full backs, most notably Moses as an outlet and Alonso as an aerial presence, allowed further for more passing options and also for spacing problems to occur for the opposition. For instance, Hazard, who prior to switching, had been targeted by opposition to stay in the width of the pitch, was now receiving in more central zones of the pitch, almost acting as a false 9 of sorts with Costa supporting. This was of greater effect for Hazard, who, by Christmas, had now had his best start to his Chelsea career, by scoring in 4 consecutive matches and ended up with 9 before the new year.
With these highlights in place, Chelsea defensive record and ability to win games improved by two-fold. Over the 5 games, the formation was used, Chelsea only conceded 8 shots on target from the opposition, had scored 16 and conceded 0. These defensive overloads that the 343 allowed was shuffling teams into submission, the ability of Matic now realizing the ball quickly and the freedom of full backs to create width where outnumbering teams in every area of the pitch, with 2v1 scenarios being the cornerstone to how the formation would beat teams. There was no better example of this as to when Ronald Koeman Everton side came to Stamford Bridge and used the same formation but where comprehensibly beaten 5-0, with the likes of Moses and Pedro both running in behind and nullifying any threat from Everton full backs. Jose Mourinho Manchester Utd also fell victim to this, with the young Rashford and Valencia being completely nullified with the work of both Moses and Pedro double teaming wide areas and not allowing crosses to Zlatan in the box.
As with any long dominant spell, doubters may always come into play into how it may match up to a different opposition. City and Spurs were at a double header after the hard-fought victory at Middlesbrough, which put into question how the 343 could be either stopped or how it could adapt against elite opposition. The Spurs game both showed the 343 flaws and also the opposition flaws in how it could be stopped. Early in the kick-off, Chelsea were going quite vertical, (the first move of the game was a Matic long ball to Costa which should have resulted in a free kick), which was expected as a way to stop the high pressing system from Spurs, who, with the likes of Dembele, gave Kante his biggest matchup in recovering second balls. Thus, it was frustrating, with similar patterns occurring in the Liverpool game where distances were being created, careless possession, and it ultimately ended up with an early Eriksen goal. However, this Spurs formula very much entails for the team to score by a wide margin early on, thus, despite the dominance, it could not be sustainable for a whole 90. This meant that after every missed opportunity, space was being given up to Chelsea to exploit, with early signs coming from Lloris mistakes. As a result, by the near end of the half, Spurs high pressing system was now creating space in behind both Dembele and Wanyama, with either fitness becoming doubts and more turnovers being created. This meant with a quick Matic pass, Pedro found the perfect angle and scored, with no Spurs player marking. After that, Chelsea never looked backed, gaining momentum, pushing Spurs back, and ultimately closing out the game with Spurs now playing into Chelsea’s hands.
From this, it showed the adaptability of the 343, that despite the early Spurs dominance in pressing high and making both Kante/Matic create mistakes, ended up being an unsustainable plan, one with a high-risk reward system. However, the City game would be a much different plan. Peps system was in fact, to neutralise the full backs, which pegged Chelsea further into their box, and one in which the right-hand side of play was targeted, with Chelsea not being able to track Kevin De Bruyne movement between the lines. Thus, mistakes occurred, and dominance occurred. After the 30th minute mark, where Chelsea had still been able to create chances due to the space left by City wing backs, mostly the highly attacking Sane, City was still able to create the best counter to the 343 that a team had given Chelsea up until this point. Fullbacks being pinned down meant unnatural defenders such as Moses were being exploited by the dynamism of David Silva. Despite the quality of chances, City could just not finish. Despite leading by a Cahill OG, City did not exploit these mismatches created with KDB missing an incredible chance. Thus, what was to occur after this is all down to Football Cliché. Fabregas, a player with great individual quality managed to exploit a weak City backline, and quickly changed the whole momentum of the game with a brilliant Costa goal. This allowed for the Costa and Otamendi mismatch to occur with City playing a more dangerous higher line and ultimately, being beaten by 3 clinical transition moves by the late stages of the game. The 343 lived another day, despite it being exploited for large parts.
After both the City/Spurs game highlighted flaws, the following 5 were much weaker teams but still of greater importance in the long-term impact of the 343. West Brom gave Chelsea a bigger threat with their flat 451 formation which further nullified the full backs. Also, smaller teams where now giving the likes of Cahill/Azpi/Alonso more freedom and space with the ball as a way of affording them pointless possession as they are not considered a bigger vertical threat than the likes of Fabregas or Luiz. This meant that Chelsea is now entering a phase where the biggest problems they are facing are deep blocks having to be opened. Conte has answered back by bringing in Fabregas more into the fold, to the point where during the Crystal Palace game, Chelsea played with 3 midfielders, and two forwards as throughout the game, Pardew gave Alonso freedom and shut off the supply line to Moses due to Alonso lack of attacking threat. Thus, with Cesc on the pitch, it gave more spacing problems for Palace, as they now had to deal with an extra vertical threat, so Moses was not as man marked as in the first half and allowed him to create dangerous chances in the second half with his overlapping runs.
Overall, Chelsea 343 have adapted to different circumstances during this 13-game stretch and have ended up only conceding 4 goals throughout the 13-game run. While flaws have shown up in the way teams have shut down their full backs or pressured the pairing of Kante/Matic, Chelsea are operating in a great position. They do not concede high-quality shots on goal, players are stepping up from all over the pitch from both defence and offense. For instance, both Willian and Pedro have now got 9 goals and 5 assists between them, an occurrence that never happened during the Mourinho era with the third man scoring option never being consistent. I believe in order for Chelsea to improve however, they need to buy a CB in the mould of Koulibaly and another wing back. Koulibaly will further create spacing problems and add more creativity from deep, which means attacking game plans that can be more sustainable for Costa. Also, it means that opposition can’t leave the backline with freedom or else it will hurt them. Thus, they would end up having to play higher up which allows for more space in behind for the quick front 3 that Chelsea employ. Another wing back with more attacking threat and skill than Alonso will as well, not allow the Pardew tactic of giving players certain freedom due to their inability to make the difference on the attacking side. Thus, it’s been a great run for Conte’s boys, and if everything stays afloat fitness wise, they will be contenders till the end.