Exploring Antonio Conte’s variation of positional play

The prolific combination between Cesar Azpilicueta and Alvaro Morata is a superb example of how Antonio Conte’s positional play gets the best out of his key players

The success of Antonio Conte’s Chelsea in the Premier League is thanks to his clear, detailed organisation and positional play.

Eden Hazard was asked about the major difference between Conte and his predecessor, Jose Mourinho. Hazard said:

In tactics and training we do more with Conte. We work a lot of tactical positions and we know exactly what we have to do on the pitch, where I have to go and where the defenders have to go. We know exactly what to do. With Mourinho, he put in a system but we didn’t work lots. We know what to do because we play football, but maybe the automatisms were a little bit different.

Hazard’s description of ‘automatisms’ is apt, as the tasks and cues of Conte’s system of play are easy to observe when watching Chelsea play.

Perhaps the most obvious automatism is the famous Cesar Azpilicueta-Alvaro Morata combination. The two Spaniards have now combined for six Premier League goals, nearly all of which have been identical. The ‘move’ is based on Azpilicueta moving forward from the right centre-back position into the midfield zone, and delivering a lofted cross towards Morata in the penalty box.

Watch the most recent goal originating from this combination as an example.

In this moment, Chelsea’s attacking build up starts on the left hand side of the pitch. As the ball goes into the front third, we see Azpilicueta moving on the opposite side into a position level with Kante, the holding midfielder. This is possible because of Brighton’s 4-5-1 system – with only one upfront, a Chelsea centre-back can move forward and still maintain a 2v1 advantage at the back if the ball is turned over. This, in itself, is an automatism – Azpilicueta recognising the numerical superiority, and moving into a position where he can receive a horizontal pass from Kante in time and space.

When Azpilicueta receives with time and space on the ball, this becomes another cue for the players ahead of him. Morata moves into a position in between defenders, on the blindside of the centre-back nearest the ball, while Bakayoko, makes a forward run into the box from a midfield position. The key, obviously, is Morata’s starting position – where he is free away from a direct opponent, with the centre-back who can see him and the danger he poses occupied by the forward run of Bakayoko.

A similar moment occured for Morata’s goal against Manchester United. Azpilicueta gets level of United’s first pressing line (a front two), and receives the ball where he can push forward into the space in front of United’s second line. When this occurs, Bakayoko moves forward into the box, with Morata moving into a position where he can attack the delivery.

You can see in both goals how ‘robotic’ the actions of the Chelsea players are – they are automatic. Clearly, Conte has spent significant time teaching them the specific moments and cues they must look for or create, and the accompanying actions. The Morata-Azpilicueta example can be distilled into a simple three-step process:

  1. Shift the opposition to one side of the pitch (e.g. get a single 9 to press one of the centre-backs; move the far-side player in a front two into a central position so the wide centre-back is free)
  2. Move the ball across to the opposite side
    1. Azpilicueta, as the ball is circulated, move forward, level with the nearest opponent
  3. Find Azpilicueta in time and space where he can deliver a cross into the box
    1. When this occurs, can Morata get in between defenders inside the box, able to attack any cross.
    2. Can Bakayoko make a forward run to occupy a central defender

There are likely many more tasks, cues and actions than discussed here, but nevertheless, the process is obvious. I have written about this before, explaining the tasks for the automatism where the back three plays directly into the feet of the 9.

As is evident from that article, the 9 is a key reference point in Conte’s system of play (which probably explains the bizarre targeting of Andy Carroll & Peter Crouch in the January transfer window). Often, Conte’s build up patterns involve a long, flat pass into the feet of a 9 who has their back to goal as a target, or ‘escape route’, when building up from the back. A very common automatism, for example, is the around-the-corner pass from wing-back into the feet of the 9. This was crucial in creating Morata’s winning goal in the Carabao Cup match against Bournemouth.

The key cue here is if the ball is played into the wing-back, and they are pressured by an opponent with an angle of approach that prevents the wing-back from facing forward on their first touch. When the opponent presses in this way, the wing-back automatically plays an around-the-corner first-time pass on their closest foot into the feet of the 9.

Following this pass is another sequence of cues and tasks – can the opposite 9 make a run in behind, can the far-side wing-back move into the final third – which again highlights the depth and detail in Conte’s system of play. Furthermore, it shows how much information there is for the players to know, understand and execute, which also explains Conte’s preference for a settled starting XI. (He used just 18 players in the 2016-17 title win).

As Hazard says:

There’s a lot of tactics. It’s not always nice as a forward as you have to run, defend and everything, but at least at the weekend, you know exactly what to do, you can even close your eyes and play. That’s good.”

What is interesting about Conte’s coaching approach is that while not as obvious, he is an exponent of a similar style of positional play to Pep Guardiola. Like Guardiola, he focuses on the specific organisation and positioning of players in each zone of the pitch. He also emphasizes the occupation of certain zones to enable penetration in the final third. As discussed in this article, it is possible to guess at some of Guardiola’s zone rules, and similarly, Conte appears to have zone rules of his own.

For example, sometimes when left wing-back Marcos Alonso moves inside, the left inside-forward (usually Pedro or Hazard) will move out into the wide zone (Alonso’s position). Whilst a simple and rudimentary movement, it demonstrates that there are certain rules the players know they have to follow to bring Conte’s model of play to life.

Where Guardiola and Conte differ is in the extremes to which they apply their principles of positional play. For example, Guardiola’s positional play principles focus heavily on dominating the ball to penetrate the opponent, and so often record high amounts of possession (they average 66% this season). Conte is less focused on these principles, so his team does not generate these sort of statistics. Similarly, Guardiola wants to regain the ball as quickly as possible, so his team will press high and immediately – whereas Conte is happy to defend for long periods in an organised defensive block.

This does not make one coach better than the other, but it does demonstrate variations in positional play. The fundamental concepts of positional play are the occupation of specific positions and accordingly, ball circulation to get players free and on the ball within these positions. As we can see in the example of the Azplicueta-Morata combination, when this plays to the strengths of the individuals, it can be highly effective.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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