One of Chelsea’s few weaknesses in the title-winning campaign last year was their central midfield. They would, on occasion, get caught out in the center of the park by an opposition that outnumbered them. Antonio Conte adopted the 3-4-3 system at Stamford Bridge, which plays two central midfielders only. This was at a time when most other teams were still using a variation of a 4-5-1, which employs three players in the middle.
N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, who would more often than not occupy the double pivot in the Chelsea system, found goings-on hard against teams that pressed high and didn’t allow them time on the ball. In a defensive sense, it was easier for teams to penetrate through the center as they were a man-up.
During his days at Juventus, Conte’s preferred formation was the 3-5-2, not the 3-4-3. This classic Italian tactic plays three central midfielders, two wing-backs, and two strikers. At Juve, the manager had the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio to call upon. They used to work in perfect tandem, giving defensive cover when required and bombing on to make that extra man in attack while the team was on the front foot.
At Chelsea, Conte wasn’t too comfortable playing Cesc Fabregas with Matic and Kante. Matic isn’t the most robust of midfielders and prefers to sit back and provide a shield to the backline. On the other hand, Kante is a great tackler and passer but is at an obvious disadvantage in the air due to his slight frame. He needed someone who could boss the midfield physically, and have a bigger presence going forward as well. The club got just the man for the job – Tiemoue Bakayoko.
The former Monaco man hasn’t played too much thus far, but whatever we’ve seen has been hugely encouraging from a Chelsea point of view. At the weekend against Arsenal, he was brought on for Pedro at half-time, marking a tactical shift. In the first half, Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka were pretty much-running proceedings against Kante and Fabregas. Bakayoko’s addition though completely turned the tide. Even though the Blues were unable to go on and get the telling goal, the Frenchman put in a beast of a performance. Alongside Kante, he looked unbeatable at times. He also on occasion carried the ball forward from midfield. There are indications that he can become a Yaya Toure-esque player for Chelsea in the future.
It will also be really interesting to see how Danny Drinkwater will come into the picture once he’s fit. The Englishman can adeptly play the role of a deep-lying playmaker.
The second barrier to the 3-5-2 at the moment is the lack of forwarding options. Alvaro Morata has established himself as the first-choice forward for now, while Michy Batshuayi is still finding his feet in the Premier League. Conte preferred playing one target man alongside a pacey second striker at Juventus (Llorente with Tevez, Vucinic with Giovinco). It is therefore hardly surprising that he really wanted Chelsea to bring in Llorente in the summer.
Eden Hazard has played as a striker before, but assigning the target man role to Morata seems a little off. It remains to be seen how Conte finds a way around that.
All in all, though, it won’t be long before the Italian starts moving to the 3-5-2 on a more permanent basis. The tactic rendered Juventus nearly unbeatable in Serie A, and if Chelsea is to keep improving following their success last year, they need to keep improvising. The most obvious weakness i.e. getting outnumbered in midfield, has to be wiped out.
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