When Chelsea were humbled at the Emirates not too long ago, things were looking bleak. The shape was all wrong, players were not performing up to their usual high standards and the defence was being cut open like a knife through butter.
Antonio Conte realised he had the task of his managerial career so far.
“I think that we didn’t have the right attitude from the first minute, explained a disgruntled Conte at full-time. “We have not got the balance and now is the moment to consider everything. It is incredible to concede three goals. We must have last season present in our mind to not repeat the mistakes. We must reflect a lot to find very soon the right way.”
Change of formation
It was clear that for both Conte and his Chelsea players, the 4-2-3-1 formation was not going to work.
The Italian had endured such success implementing a 3-5-2 during his time at Juventus, such so that he won three league titles in just as many years in Turin, that it would be silly not stick with what gave him the achievements he has today.
Also, it was evident that the players were not buying into a system that was the catalyst in such a weak defence of a Premier League title last year. Conte needed the players to be on board, but it was just not clicking. Something had to change, and fast.
So the Italian decided to stick to what he knew best: making his teams very difficult to beat. And if that meant conceding considerable amounts of possession and having to rely on his forward players to be extra clinical, then so be it.
Since the change of formation, fortunes have changed dramatically. Not only have Chelsea won their last four games since switching to a 3-4-3 system but they have been imperious in doing so – scoring eleven times and conceding zero goals.
As a result, Conte’s men look serious contenders for the title once again.
Their latest victory, a 2-0 triumph at Southampton, was a masterclass in absorbing pressure and taking the chances that came their way. It was like watching Conte’s Juventus at their peak all over again.
The Blues were willing to sacrifice periods on the ball for more defensive solidarity. The Saints had 55 per cent possession but only managed to muster one shot on target, such was the supreme organisation of the Chelsea midfield and backline.
And while Southampton dominated the passing side of the match, it was a Chelsea player finished top of ball recoveries (Victor Moses), tackles (Cesar Azpilicueta) and interceptions (N’Golo Kante). It emphasised the four-time league champions’ control of the match in perhaps the apogee of Conte’s new system so far.
“Conte’s got them well-drilled,” said Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness. “They sit in and defend their box. They have a lot of players who are good at defending in the air and on the ground.”
Chelsea now have four clean sheets in a row and while the defensive trio of Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill are becoming more impressive game by game, it is the work of midfielders Kante and Nemanja Matic that arguably holds the key.
The protection they provide is paramount to the system. Kante tops the list for the most interceptions (31) by a Premier League midfielder this season and his endless energy and tenacity currently complements Matic’s power and presence in midfield well.
The Kante-Matic axis
Their ever growing partnership was evident on Sunday at St. Mary’s, with Kante making more than twice as many interceptions (9) as any other player on the pitch, the pair also made a combined 13 ball recoveries in the match.
Kante and Matic didn’t give Southampton an inch in the final third. Their improvement has been symbolic of Chelsea’s resurgence after the drubbing at the Emirates, where the pair were run ragged.
Yet while Kante and Matic’s recent displays were to be expected, another vital element to the successful start of Chelsea’s new system has been much more of a surprise.
To say, Victor Moses had been on the outskirts of the the Blues’ side over the past four seasons would have been an overstatement.
Since his arrival from Wigan Athletic in 2012, the Nigerian failed to break into a side with a plethora of talent resulting in three loan spells away from Stamford Bridge. It looked like he was not going to get a proper chance while the more attacking 4-2-3-1 formation was in place.
However, Conte realised that certain qualities made Moses the man for the wide-right position of his 3-4-3 formation.
‘This role is very important in this system,’ explained the Italian after the win against Southampton. ‘You must have good stamina and quality to play as wing-backs. I ask my wing-backs to do offensive and defensive work. Moses is a great surprise in this aspect. We know Moses as a winger, but he’s playing in a fantastic way.’
Conte’s adulation for Moses has been justified. Against the Saints, the Nigerian starred at both ends of the pitch.
He made the most ball recoveries in the match (9) and also offered attacking support, completing the game’s most take-ons (4) as well as creating two chances for his side in an excellent all-round display.
It now looks like Conte’s ideas are finally having the desired effect.
And with the current form of his attack, as well as having no European commitments, Chelsea are back in the running for the Premier League in what looks the tightest title race to date.
Written by Sean Wilson
Follow Sean on Twitter @WilsonFC2012
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