A rsenal’s 3-0 defeat of Chelsea back in September last year turned out to be one of the most significant matches of the season. Not only did it cause Antonio Conte to revert back to a 3-4-3 system similar to that he employed at Juventus, but the following success of this formation set a precedent for other teams to follow. Manchester United, and then Arsenal would go on to employ the formation with varying degrees of success, but Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur side would come closest to Conte’s Chelsea last season with a very similar system.
Essentially, Conte’s system is a 3-4-2-1 that relies on David Luiz as the central defender of the three, the midfield pivot of originally N’golo Kante and Nemanja Matic (now Kante’s national teammate, Tiémoué Bakayoko) and the attacking trident of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa – again, now his compatriot Alvaro Morata. It was a stark contrast to the counter-attacking football played by Leicester in the 2015/16 campaign – predicated on a refreshingly traditional 4-4-2 -, but it proved effective: David Luiz’s defensive frailties were largely negated by system, which played to his strengths and encouraged him to carry the ball into midfield; breaking the first line of the opposition press or dropping deep to defend against longer balls.
“Chelsea’s attacking trident were amongst the most potent forces last year”
The fullbacks either side, Marcus Alonso and Victor Moses., press higher against weaker sides, creating 2v1 situations on the wing when combined with Pedro and Hazard, natural inside forwards who would attack the space between full-back and centre-back, leaving their fullback space on the outside. Alternatively, Hazard and Pedro would stay wider and allow Alonso and Moses attacking freedom closer to goal. With Costa occupying one of the opposition’s centre-halves, Chelsea was able to enjoy a numerical advantage against the typical 4-2-3-1 that most teams used to.
This season, with Costa now sold to Atletico Madrid, the attacking trident takes on a new form – Morata holds the ball up well, but it’s been his movement that has opened up new attacking
dimension to Chelsea’s play, and before his recent hamstring injury he was in emphatic form, with six goals in his first seven games – it was not a case of the Spaniard acclimatising to the Premier League, but the Premier League acclimatising to him. But with Morata out for around six weeks, Eden Hazard is expected to take up the central striking role and Willian should come in on either flank in the meantime, such is Conte’s reluctance to back young Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi. Batshuayi would mean less disruption, but with Hazard as the main striker Chelsea would have out-and-out pace up front, as well as a more skilful and technically gifted player leading the line. Of course, Hazard lacks much of an aerial threat, but opposing defenders will have to adapt yet again to counter Chelsea’s immense offensive capabilities.
Even when an opposing midfielder dropped deeper to try to contain Chelsea, this either allowed Kante or his midfield partner the chance to get forwards to maintain the overload, or gave Cesc
Fabregas, Chelsea’s main deep-lying playmaker, time on the ball to make an incisive pass. Naturally, the formation has also benefitted from extremely talented individuals – N’golo Kante is a perfect fit for the system, Alvaro Morata looks to be a very intelligent forward with fantastic positional awareness while Eden Hazard is arguably the best individual in the Premier League.
Tottenham Hotspur was the first to mimic Conte’s style and were the closest challengers to a maiden title for the Italian. Yet, this season, Spurs’ style operates slightly differently – their central defender is a genuine defender, in Davinson Sanchez – a summer arrival from Ajax who is quietly establishing himself as a sublime defender alongside fellow Ajax academy graduates Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Last season, without Sanchez, the presence of a defensive midfielder who sits just in front of centre-backs when out of possession was key to Spurs’ success as it meant Spurs essentially played a 5-3-2 without the ball, with Eriksen or Alli dropping deeper to support the midfield, and the wingbacks dropping deeper – essentially a defensive variant of 3-5-2.
Pochettino used Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama in this role in what was, in possession, a 4-2-3-1, allowing Spurs to change formation without changing personnel as Dier and Wanyama are both natural midfielders. This fluidity allowed Spurs last season the freedom of having marauding fullbacks in Danny Rose and
Kyle Walker, who was always aptly covered by Dier slotting alongside Vertonghen and Alderweireld.
“KANE – THE BEST STRIKER IN THE LEAGUE – IS THE FOCAL POINT”
This year, however, with the arrival of Sanchez, Spurs have the personnel to play three outright central defenders, not just two, and an exceptionally deep holding midfielder, but the importance of Dier or Wanyama’s midfield partner, Mousa Dembele, remains. Dembele’s ball retention stats speak for themselves and his physicality and ability to beat the first line of the press – much akin to Luiz’s role at Chelsea – are often key in creating quick transitions that lesser sides in particular struggle to defend. Going forwards, Spurs have the best striker in the league in Harry Kane, who acts as the focal point of the attack. Kane’s intelligent movement creates space for Dele Alli, who plays as a second striker and crucially not as a creative player – something successive England managers have failed to realise. Alli’s strengths are his movement and his tenacity, and Kane is a perfect complement to his style. The true creativity comes in the form of Christian Eriksen, Spurs’ best player – who plays on the opposite side to Alli. His vision and ability to pick a pass are key assets, but his fitness and intelligent pressing make him a perfect player for Pochettino’s system.
Again, Spurs benefit from key individuals across the team, and though squad depth is likely to be an issue this year their strongest eleven is arguably the best in the league. Even with Kyle Walker sold to Manchester City – where, if Guardiola maintains his ‘inverted fullbacks’ approach, the Englishman
will struggle – Spurs look like they’ve strengthened this year, with Serge Aurier coming in after an eventful spell at PSG to replace Walker, while Ben Davies has improved immeasurably in Danny
Rose’s absence. If their star players can remain injury free, there’s no reason why Spurs can’t challenge for major trophies again this year.
Regardless of Spurs’ success this season, one fact remains: Conte has subverted the hegemony of 4-2-3-1 and provoked the league into re-thinking a largely outdated system.