Chelsea are Premier League champions in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge, after the Italian’s inspired tactical switch to a 3-4-3 system.
While the formation change has, rightfully so, become the key narrative in the success of the season, it is first important to note that it was only successful because Conte had spent significant time prior to the change introducing the key principles of his style of play to the squad. Formations are merely a positional framework which allow a team to play with certain principles. Therefore, it was critical that in the period where Chelsea used a 4-3-3 and 4-2-4, Conte was clearly implementing certain tactical themes, such as build up, collective pressing and attacking with width.
Regardless of the formation, these concepts have been clear in Chelsea’s style of play throughout the season. Therefore, the 3-4-3 was particularly successful partly because Chelsea had used a 4-3-3 beforehand. Incidentally, the concepts Conte was trying to implement while using a 4-3-3, married happily with the positional and role changes that occurred as a result of the 3-4-3.
A practical example of this is Chelsea’s build up. In the 4-3-3, it was surprising to see then centre-back pairing John Terry and Gary Cahill splitting and looking to receive short ground passes from Thibaut Courtois. When in possession, the centre-backs looked to find the 10s or the 9 with passes to feet, with Oscar and Nemanja Matic instructed to split wide themselves into wider zones to receive passes.
A recurring issue within this setup was that the 10s were constantly receiving the ball in front of the opposition midfield line, or, when a centre-back played into the 9 (Diego Costa), he would be isolated with little support as the wingers, Willian and Eden Hazard, were asking to stay wide to maintain the width in the attack. It was difficult for Chelsea to progress the ball up the pitch as they did not have players able to receive between lines. However, the behaviours of the centre-backs in looking for passes into this zone, and into the feet of teammates ahead of them, was obvious, and this would prove important when Chelsea switched to the 3-4-3.
As aforementioned, the 3-4-3 created a happy blend of bringing the tactical concepts Conte had introduced to life, while getting players into more appropriate positions to allow this to happen. Continuing with the example of build up, a key task of the centre-backs was to look for passes in depth. With Cahill, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta now in the first line of build up, Chelsea were now able to circulate the ball more effectively across the backline to shift the opposition defence, which in turn gave a back third player the opportunity to carry the ball forward and look for passes in depth – knowing they had the cover of two centre-backs if they lost the ball while carrying or with the next pass.
Azpilicueta particularly thrived in this role. Early on when Chelsea first changed to 3-4-3, Courtois would deliberately circulate to his left, in order to shift the opposition first pressing line to the left hand side of the pitch. Therefore, when Chelsea shifted the ball quickly across to the right, there was space in front of Azpilicueta for him to carry the ball into and look for Costa with passes to feet.
Additionally, the 3-4-3 meant when a back third player did find Costa with a penetrating pass to feet, the 9 now had support from teammates positioned near the ball. This was, of course, Hazard and Pedro, now playing as inside forwards where they could either support under the ball or make runs in behind to receive layoffs from Costa moving short.
These two variations of a similar move have been pivotal to Chelsea’s season. Conte’s approach to coaching is, in the words of Hazard, about teaching “automatisms”. “We work a lot of tactical positions and we know exactly what we have to do on the pitch,” says the Belgian, “where I have to go and where the defenders have to go.” This is obvious in the way Chelsea players faithfully repeatedly make the same movements in certain situations, as Conte drills them in specific patterns he wants to see when the certain situations presents itself.
Therefore, on a purely hypothetical level, his instructions in a training session focusing on build up might have sounded something like this:
- “Azpilicueta, when you get the ball with space in front, can you drive forward with the ball quickly and look for a pass into the feet of Costa”
“Costa, when Azpilicueta gets the ball with space in front, can you move quickly into a position where you can receive a long ground pass to feet as high up the pitch as possible”
- “Pedro/Hazard, when Azpilicueta plays a ground pass into Costa, can you move quickly to support”
- “If, as the ball travels to Costa, you see that he cannot play forward or receive facing forward on his first touch because he is marked tightly, can you support under the ball so he can lay-off quickly to your feet”
- If, as the ball travels to Costa, you see that he can play forward on his first touch because he is not marked tightly, can you make a run off the ball in behind the opposition defence where Costa can find you with a first time pass”
If these instructions are presented clearly in the moment of which they occur (i.e, in the build up) during a training session, then the player can see, hear and ‘feel’ the moment as it occurs and understand the tasks Conte is asking of them. Give the players consistent messages over time and give them consistent opportunities to practice in the moment, and eventually they will produce consistently in the game.
This is why it was actually important that Chelsea started with a back four, as it meant the players could first assimilate the tactical concepts Conte was trying to implement without being overloaded with the mental strain of learning new positions in a formation they had never used before as well. Gradually adapting to these tactical concepts, however, meant when they did switch to the 3-4-3, they had both an understanding of the key principles of Conte’s style of play, and were in positions in a system that was better suited to actually bring these key principles to life.
Therefore, the key takeaway from Chelsea’s success this season for coaches is the importance of consistency and clarity in the style of play, and in the delivery of messages according to this. Although Chelsea used different formations throughout the season, the underlying principles that governed the players actions in these systems has always been the same. The formation simply changed where the players stood on the pitch in relation to making these actions, and moved them into positions that better suited their individual qualities and allowed them to do more effectively what Conte was asking of them.
Once he found the right formation, Conte was then able to consistently “automate” his players movements and behaviours within the system, and according to the key principles he had embedded from the start of his regime. As a result, everyone knows exactly what Chelsea do in all phases of the game – but the Chelsea players know it better than any of their opponents, and have been able to execute it consistently and effectively across the season. That is a direct result of the clear messages Conte has given his team.
Clear pictures and clear messages create clear actions according to the way Conte wants the team to play.