Shreyans Matani analyses the changes that Antonio Conte has made at Chelsea to lead them on a 13 game winning run.
Chelsea Football Club’s unbeaten run of 13 games in 2016-17 Premier League season has been a matter of much discussion recently. The arrival of Antonio Conte has revitalised the Chelsea squad and induced a sense of confidence among the players. The new manager has made some tactical changes to the way the team plays by adopting a different formation system and switching some players to different positions/roles. It is important to analyse what Chelsea have done differently to make things happen.
What is fascinating to note is, Chelsea have not been at the top of their game in all these 13 games but have still managed to translate it into the maximum points from each game. For example, in the game against Crystal Palace, which Chelsea won 1-0 was not particularly marked by possession dominance nor was there a display of the extraordinary quality of football we saw against Everton, Man Utd or Leicester in the previous games. But an assist by Cesar Azpilicueta to pick out Diego Costa, who scored with a header directed to the bottom right corner right before half time enabled Chelsea to secure a lead. The second half saw Marcos Alonso’s freekick hit the woodwork but apart from that there weren’t many serious chances created.
This skill by Chelsea to hold up their level of performance when they are not at their best is the quality or trait expected of a Premier League champion. This is the value Conte brings to the West London Club which helps them consistently win games even when they are not at the top of their game. Putting up a 13 match winning streak is by no means a cakewalk. Every next game would require the same intensity and hunger to win as the previous one. Maintaining that level of hunger, patiently taking up one game at a time would require a lot of discipline from the entire squad. The Chelsea squad has undergone rigourous and constant practice on the training field. And when the hard work pays off, it is visible in Antonio Conte’s passionate goal celebrations at the Bridge. The energy level and passion displayed by the manager goes a long way in maintaining such consistency in performance. This might, eventually turn out to be the differentiating factor between a league champion and runner-up.
Antonio Conte adopted the 3-4-3 formation after Chelsea lost 3-0 to Arsenal back in September and since then, it has yielded an uptick in their performance. Evidently, Chelsea have worked hard in training to adopt to this new formation and this is indeed reflected in their performances in the matches. Several players have found new roles/positions in this new formation system — Cesar Azpiliceuta has shifted his position to right back and has excelled in this new role. He spent most of the last two seasons as a left-back, performing with real elan there without quite reaching the heights of peak Ashley Cole.
This new system also brings in a role for Victor Moses, who has not been in the first team most of the time, but has rediscovered himself this season. Further, there is not much room now for Oscar or for that matter Branislav Ivanovic in this new formation. This has forced the exit of Oscar to China in a big money transfer move recently. There is a choice in the central midfield between Matic and Fabregas with Matic generally being the more favoured one. However, Fabregas’ recent performances, especially against Stoke City might earn him a place in the central midfield more often. Pedro and Willian have both been phenomenal this season, thus keeping the third forward position open for both these players. All in all, the point here is, this new formation system has given rise to the concept of “survival of the fittest”, thus requiring the players to keep up their performance if they want more match time. This in turn, has helped enhance the performance of the squad as a whole. One wonders whether John Terry will return to the heart of Chelsea’s defence anytime soon!
Chelsea used to play a 4-3-3 earlier in the season. This is how they lined up against Arsenal back in September 2016:
The central midfielders were forced to play a bit of a wider role leaving some space unoccupied in the centre of the field. Thus, when Chelsea played on either of the wings, it became difficult to switch play through the centre to the other areas of the field by ground passes. More often, the play was shifted through lofted passes which become difficult to control, when under pressure, thus forcing the attack to break down. The connecting link function, which the central midfield is expected to yield, was not very convincing.
The below figure shows Nemanja Matic’s passing statistics against Arsenal which Chelsea lost 3-0 back in September 2016 and then changed their formation to a 3-4-3. The green arrows are the successful passes and this very evidently suggests that he was working more in the wider areas and there was less effective switching of play from the wider areas to the other areas of the field by the central midfielder. The passing is skewed more towards the wider areas.
Now let’s look at the 3-4-3 formation and how it helped.
This whole system provides a much wider option of attack for Chelsea with the two wing-backs, Alonso and Moses, providing width to the attack while allowing the forwards ie. Hazard, Costa and Willian to move around the box and wreak havoc. Further, the two central midfielders act as connecting links for switching play and enhancing attacking capabilities of the side. Further, the width from the wing backs releases Hazard and Willian to support Costa and reduces the space between the Chelsea attackers enabling them to form diamonds for effective passing.
Let’s look at Nemanja Matic’s passing statistics in the 5-0 win against Everton. From the below figure, it can be made out that though there was focus on the wings, there was much better movement of the ball in the midfield and the passing is not majorly skewed towards the wing.
The width offered by the wing-backs has reinvigorated Eden Hazard giving him the freedom to move inside the pitch rather than on the wings, thus enabling Chelsea to create more chances and supporting Diego Costa upfront. When Eden Hazard is in top form, it becomes very difficult for the opposition to break the attack. Freeing up of Hazard and Willian has led to better dribbling evident in the below numbers:-
Chelsea have brilliant dribbling statistics averaging 13.8 dribbles per game, Manchester United average 10 per game, and Liverpool average 11.6, allowing Chelsea good movement of the ball upfront.
The Disciplined Formation
Adopting this system, I feel requires a lot of defensive discipline. With just 3 defenders at the back, it would require Alonso and Moses to drop back frequently to makeup a five-man defense. The width in a five-man defense is tremendous and effective in restricting the opposition to break through in wider areas and send in the crosses.
But when the opposition is on the counter attack, it might be difficult for the wing backs to fall back quickly. This makes the role of the central midfielders very important. It requires the two central midfielders to cover plenty of ground from box to box, which has been done very effectively by the Matic-Kante duo. A comparison of some key statistics of defensive midfielders of the top three sides in the league currently is shown below:
One would expect holding midfielders to stop attacking attempts by the opposition and Kante displays superiority in this role. The number of ball interceptions i.e where a player intentionally intercepts a pass by moving into the line of the intended ball, by N’Golo Kante is far superior to that of Fernandinho (with 2 games less but almost half the interceptions) or Jordan Henderson. Also, Kante displays better statistics in terms of blocked shots than others. The France international does the running of two men in midfield. He was truly instrumental in Leicester’s triumph last season and keeps up the good work at Stamford Bridge. However, he has not been so good in the air as evident in the below statistics where the ratio of aerial battles won to lost is just 0.6 is to 1.
||Aerial battle won/lost
||Duel won/Duel Lost
A duel is a 50-50 contest between two players of opposing sides in the match. For every duel won there is a corresponding duel lost depending on the outcome of the duel. This challenge shows how good Chelsea have been in winning the ball back from the opposition with Kante winning 1.21 duels to losing 1 and Matic winning 1.10 duels to losing 1. Interestingly, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson also displays attractive numbers with respect to this stat. A disciplined defensive display by Chelsea has helped them keep 10 clean sheets in the last 13 games, optimizing on the offensive display and maintaining consistent performance.
Thus, the 3-4-3 formation seems to be a very well planned strategy to suit the current player abilities at the club and seems to be working well. Eden Hazard has become a devotee of this new formation and seems to be enjoying his time at Chelsea. The hard work on the training ground seems to be paying off, atleast at the moment. But tough away matches lie ahead in Tottenham (A) and then Leicester (A), Liverpool (A) and Arsenal (H).
Whether Chelsea can extend their record of unbeaten games beyond 13 games to set a new record and continue their consistent performance, will depend on how well they address the new challenges that lie ahead in the 2016-17 season. Till then, the Chelsea fans can continue chanting!
Shreyans Matani is a finance professional with keen interest in football and supports Chelsea FC since the past 7 years. He is a true Blue fan and writes analytical pieces frequently on the Beautiful Game.
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