Antonio Conte has shown no sign of abandoning the back three that has brought Chelsea such success. Even in the depths of defeat to Crystal Palace and domination at the hands of Manchester City, the Italian has stuck to his formation guns.
The middle third has been the area of change. With Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard left as a front two, Conte has secured the middle of the field by fielding Cesc Fabregas, N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko together.
Fabregas has drifted, but has primarily sat deeper than his midfield partners, spraying passes in a way only he does. Kante has continued to perform at an otherworldly level.
Bakayoko is the key, though, with his third man runs dragging opposing defences apart. This was most clear for Morata’s goal against Manchester United, and – with a bit of finishing improvement – he could find himself scoring on a regular basis.
The change has worked for Chelsea. In position to top their Champions League group and firmly in the hunt for a top four spot in the league, the Blues are having a solid season despite a couple of alarming blips.
This formation does not suit the squad, however. It suits the eleven on the pitch, but Chelsea’s summer shortcomings loom large. Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater and N’golo Kante have all missed periods with injury this season, and another spell on the sidelines could force Conte to leave the five man midfield regardless of it’s success.
The departures of Lewis Baker, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are a long debate for a different time. Being rejected by Ross Barkley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, though, has left Chelsea limited. It was always likely that 3-5-2 would become a necessity this season, meaning that allowing so many players to leave with only two midfield arrivals was an error.
Chelsea are a midfield injury away from a challenging dilemma. Signing a midfielder in January will be costly, and challenging, but they might be left with no other choice. That is, of course, unless Ethan Ampadu is a lot closer to first team football than anyone expects.
For all the benefits of the change of shape, Chelsea cannot escape what was a 6 out of 10 summer. While their defence has plenty of options thanks to the signing of Antonio Rudiger and emergence of Andreas Christensen, an injury to Marcos Alonso would perhaps be the most detrimental of all.
Conte’s change of system has been a success to date, but the paper thin middle of this Chelsea side remains a glaring weakness.
Written by Sam Cox
Follow Sam on Twitter @SamRCox_
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