By Saturday at Stamford Bridge, Mauricio Pochettino must try and figure out what is currently the most puzzling and difficult challenge in the Premier League right now: how to stop an utterly rampant Chelsea. It is a challenge, however, with a considerable degree of irony behind it – writes Miguel Delaney.
Because, for most of the past 20 years, the three-man defence that has worked so devastatingly for Antonio Conte was close to ineffective in most of the football world. It had fallen badly out of fashion, to the point that any team that temporarily used it – like Napoli in 2011-12 or, indeed, Juventus in 2011-14 – caught attention, but it still never really caught on.
In England, in fact, it perhaps wrongfully conjures images of Alan Wright at wing-back in Brian Little’s relatively dull Aston Villa side; an unremarkable Germany winning Euro 96 and Steve McClaren’s ultimately farcical attempt to reheat it in a 2-0 defeat to Croatia in 2006.
It was, in other words, passé; outdated.
It is now nothing of the sort.
It has made Chelsea the most complete team in the league of late
If that sounds like overstating the importance of a formational change, consider the details. By half-time of their 3-0 away evisceration at Arsenal, Chelsea had been in utter disarray for the second successive defeat. There were vast tracts of the pitch between their meek midfield and isolated attack, just had been the case in the 2-1 loss to Liverpool, and it just seemed like very little of the team actually fitted together. So many players were just in the wrong places. So, Conte went to something he knows well. He went to three at the back at half-time, and they immediately stifled Arsenal’s frequent surges through their half.
The signs were already there. This was something to work with, and it worked very well in the very next match, away to Hull City. Chelsea won 2-0, and haven’t really stopped. They’ve only escalated: 3-0 against Leicester City, 4-0 against Manchester United, 2-0 against Southampton, 5-0 against Everton, 1-0 against Middlesbrough.
It is not just that Chelsea have won six games in a row to go top of the league, or that they haven’t conceded a single goal in that time.
It is the performances that have produced those figures. Chelsea have made a series of awkward games so strikingly easy.
What is also so conspicuously impressive is how they have so much of the pitch covered, striking some contrast to those matches with Arsenal and Liverpool. There is a near-perfect balance to the team right now, allowing easy adjustment to whatever the opposition throw at the team. If a team goes high, as Southampton did, Chelsea can just step back and then catch them in fluid waves on the break. If a team try to be more calculating, as Everton or Leicester tried to, Chelsea can just overwhelm them.
While Conte’s fitness work and general management are obviously key elements in this, it is the formation that has brought them all together to produce something brilliant at the moment, because the players available fit so well; and because it is something that no other team yet knows how to counter.
It is one of the stories of the season so far.
And it’s also one of the key driving forces in football history – how old ideas are suddenly reconfigured and reinvigorated to resounding effect. It has happened with everything from pressing to playmakers, where opposition managers were suddenly posed problems they had forgotten how to solve.
Yet, it feels like there’s something more with Chelsea. It is not really that he has restored a three-man defence, since we have been talking about him doing this with Juventus and Italy for the last five years. It is how badly Premier League teams have struggled with it.
It is not just that they’ve forgotten how to solve it. It’s that they have no reference point on where to begin. Chelsea have been too mobile.
That is someway remarkable for anyone that remembers how dull a three-man defence became, and exactly why it went out of fashion. It is only a decade, after all, since former Valencia defender Miroslav Djukic dismissed the use of the system in a world where so many sides were playing 4-2-3-1.
” There’s no point having three defenders covering one centre-forward, he said in 2007.”
That was one of the fundamental problems, and the waste of one if not two players meant that teams playing three-man defences were usually outmaneuvered in almost every area of the pitch.
There just seemed no advantage to it. The game had changed too much in the space of a decade, from the days when Robert Jarni was storming up the flank as a wing-back to drive Croatia to the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup. That space was no longer there.
Now, it is the opposite. Chelsea have so far outflanked everyone else… against either one striker or two. It hasn’t mattered. Because, while Southampton, Everton and Leicester all started with a two-man forward line against Chelsea, all of Middlesbrough, United and Hull went with a sole striker. Chelsea still hit 10 against the first three, and seven against the second three.
As to why that is, it’s probable that the other defining traits of Conte’s management – his physical demands, his intensity and his meticulous man management – have actually made the old three-man defence into something genuinely new; something that it wasn’t before. Even the most exciting exponents of the system, after all, didn’t have the energy or power that this Chelsea do.