The Mind of Conte: Chelsea’s Emerging Midfield Concerns

Chelsea midfield worked as a powerful engine to facilitate their possession game in the last season mainly due to the sturdy and well-balanced partnership of the two box-to-box midfielders, Kante and Matic.

However, with the news of Matic reuniting with his former boss, Mourinho, Chelsea fans all over the world have been concerning over their club’s midfield solidity.  

The Serbian demonstrated massive improvement in his game last season winning 65.2 percent of the attempted tackles, making around 88 percent accurate passes, 69 percent accurate long balls, and 1.3 percent key passes out of his passes made.


Matic’s potential replacements

The potential replacement of the Serbian international has been expected to be Fabregas, who already disappointed in the pre-season friendlies, even though he has improved a lot in defence to be able to fit in the role Conte wishes for him.

Another potential candidate to partner Kante is Tiemoue Bakayoko, a new major signing from AS Monaco which Chelsea boss eventually secured before Matic leaving them for Manchester United. The £40m move is the largest midfielder signing ever made by Chelsea.

The 22 year old was the main contributor in having Monaco won Ligue 1 and reached the Champions League semi-finals last season.

Given his supremacy in one-on-one duels, interception, and dribbling, the Frenchmen can provide a robust midfield in front of the Chelsea’s backline in the coming season.


The midfielder role in Conte’s tactical setup

However, how well Bakayoko or Fabregas would fit into Conte’s center midfield role depends on what the Chelsea boss expects of his midfielders given the technical and tactical paradigm of the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 system he tends to employ.

The current back 3 of Chelsea are good enough to provide the horizontal compactness to the opposition.

To provide a brick wall to the backline, there are two center-mids who are supposed to excel both in defence and attack. However, it is their strong partnership which can provide balance and flow to the team.

One of the center midfielders – the role assigned to Kante – is supposed to win the ball when defending and to roam around the opposition’s box so as to stretch and distract their defence when attacking. Kante is perfectly fit for the role possessing strong concentration, tackling, passing, stamina, and positional understanding.

The other center midfielder – the role assigned to Matic last season – is supposed to protect the area when defending and to come deep to win the ball so as to attempt creative passes and through balls to the attacking players in between the lines to lock pick the opposition’s defence.

Matic had successfully adapted to this role under Conte while making 0.7 key passes and 0.1 accurate through-balls per game played during the last Premier League season.

He was an amazing destroyer. He also made seven assists in the last Premier League season. His long-stride runs into the box was reflective of his slightly more forward or attacking role than Kante who is more relied upon for stability.



Now with Matic gone, Conte has tried to make Fabregas fit to that role.

However, it is clear that Fabregas is a liability off-the-ball and when it comes to positional intelligence especially when Blues’ defence will be facing high pressure during the intense Champion League fixtures.

Fabregas is an effective link between the attack and defence but Conte wants him to be more active off the ball than he is potentially able to. Conte’s emphasis on defensive solidity by the center mids won’t really allow Fabregas to use his imagination and creative playmaking.

Being a playmaker who is inclined to move from the back to high up the pitch to create, he shouldn’t be in Conte’s Plan A as a midfielder whom he expects to serve box-to-box without compromising on positional discipline and off-the-ball tactics. He is simply not even as solid as Matic as his replacement in his present form.

Besides, Conte prefers attacking more from wide and in the half spaces than from the middle of the park as seen in the last season. Our wing backs and forward wingers are there for the attack which restrict the midfielder’s role mostly to provide stability and an engine to facilitate the attackers.

In such a scenario, Fabregas is not a suitable choice – due to his lack of physical attributes and positional sense – unless Conte wants to create more from the middle; in that case he can have the midfield trio as Kante-Fabregas-Bakayoko, which would also bring about a remarkable change to Chelsea’s midfield and playmaking.



However, if Conte continues with the style which requires midfield to provide more stability than control, there should be another fellow destroyer to partner with Kante with strong physical attributes, not any non-defensive playmaker like Fabregas but a powerful, defensive minded destroyer or box-to-box midfielder like – even more than – Matic.

Unfortunately, Bakayoko despite being a destroyer is currently not as perfect for this role as was Matic and would need time and hard work to grasp and adapt to Conte’s style midfield.

No doubt, the French destroyer does have many notable attributes and has made significant defensive contributions which could still make him stand out of many. In the last Ligue 1 season, he won 73.3 percent of his tackles, made 1.8 interceptions and 1.7 clearances per game played, won 67 percent aerial duels, and made 69 percent successful dribbles.

This implies his dominance in one-on-one duels especially the aerials which Chelsea needs surely – he is even better than Matic in these stats despite being shorter than him.

Besides his dribbling, also better than Matic, he is a huge asset to counter the press. He can guard the really ball well using his body – he averaged only 1 dispossessions per game during the last Premier League season which is impressive for a center midfielder.

However, Bakayoko is not that impressive in passing and vision in his current form when compared with Matic – something which Conte wants from Kante’s partner.  In his last Ligue1 season, he made just 0.4 key passes constituting only 0.9 percent of his total passes per game and made zero through-balls.  

He is a rough diamond, very young in age, and would turn out as a great midfielder but given the absence of the Frenchmen in the pre-season friendlies, his inclusion in Conte’s Plan A can be risky for the starting fixtures of the coming season.

He has very strong defensive properties and his aerial dominance can be a threat to oppositions’ long balls but to fit as Conte’s destroyer in a tactical and positional partnership with Kante, he needs time.


Chelsea’s vulnerable midfield

It all relies on Conte’s training and his team strategy to furnish both Bakayoko and Fabregas to get the best out of them depending on the opposition.

With that in mind, Chelsea’s midfield remains a bit vulnerable with most of the options not powerful enough to provide enough balance and destroy the oppositions’ threats – other than Kante obviously.


Three center-midfielders: Kante-Fabregas-Bakayoko

One possible option left with Conte is to use the two destroyers – Kante and Bakayoko – acting as engines with Fabregas acting as a pivot to dictate things from the center in a 3-5-2 formation.

This change in approach to create and initiate attack mainly from the center will also make the team less predictable in the coming season.


Need for a solid defence plan

All in all, Chelsea currently lacks the creative defending and game reading needed to compete against European defending giants and so Conte would have to come up with a solid defending plan.

There is also a need to add richness to the wide areas by signing at least one more wing-back or wide center-back with greater positional discipline and stronger one-on-one attributes to provide back-up to Chelsea’s possibly exposed midfield.


Written by Farkhanda Jabeen

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