Playing three-at-the-back has long been a conundrum for many Premier League managers.
It’s been tried and tested but many have failed to grasp the concept – until Antonio Conte came onto the scene.
The Italian has transformed Chelsea this season, particularly in the last five games, and his decision to play three at the back is paying dividends - judging by the statistics.
The Blues didn’t start the season badly, by any means, but a heavy 3-0 defeat at the hands of London rivals Arsenal saw Conte revert to his preferred formation – 3-4-3.
Five games later, it’s been proven to be a shrewd move by the 47-year-old, with Chelsea seeing vast improvement both defensively and offensively – scoring 16 and conceding none.
Six games into the season, Chelsea were averaging 16.7 shots per game prior to Conte’s tinkering and the Londoners are now up to 17.2 – with 7.4 of shots now hitting the target up from a lowly 5.5.
While the Blues may be down to an average of 52.6% in the possession statistics, it shows that Conte’s side are doing more with the ball when they have it.
Pass succession is up to 83.2% from 81% and their unpredictability is proving hard for teams to handle.
Chelsea are mixing up their game; defenders aren’t afraid to go long to Diego Costa or hit the wings with the free-flowing Eden Hazard and Pedro.
An average of 66.2 direct balls per game is already higher than the 62.5 accumulated during the start of the season.
But that’s not to say the Blues are a ‘long ball team’ as they’re topping the table in most goals from open play - 20 in total - and are already 19 behind last season’s tally despite not even being a third through the season.
This fluidity across midfield and attack is helping them create chances at will; with the wing backs also getting involved in the action.
Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso’s width allows Hazard more freedom and Chelsea have completed an average of 15.1 dribbles per game using the new formation, which is the second highest in the Premier League.
The Belgian is relishing life under Conte and has really come to life since the 3-4-3 was brought in.
But let’s not forget the improvement in defence, which something to be admired, with summer signing David Luiz relishing his sweeper role among the Chelsea back three.
Conte has brought immediate defensive solidity to Stamford Bridge with the Blues conceding just an average 8.4 shots, compared to last season’s 12.7.
They’re also averaging 21.8 tackles, 17.2 important interceptions and are showing their combative side with more 9.8 fouls since reverting to 3-4-3 – which is considerably higher than last season and the first six games.
Midfield engines Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante are key to these statistics, with the duo doing the dirty work and allowing the attacking players more creative freedom.
It’s a proven recipe for Conte, who won three Serie A titles in succession with Juventus using this tactic, while also taking Italy to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
Everton attempted to go toe-to-toe with Chelsea by playing three at the back during their last game but to say it backfired was an understatement.
The Toffees recorded just one shot on goal all game as Conte’s well-drilled side swarmed all over them to completely dominate proceedings in west London – registering 21 shots and scoring five goals.
But Chelsea are not the only side who have resorted to a three-man defence this season.
Pep Guardiola has toyed with a three at the back system on two occasions but has seen his Manchester City side held to two draws, while struggling West Ham have used it four times, winning twice, and, like Chelsea, benefited from having more fluidity across the pitch – allowing Dimitri Payet and Manuel Lanzini to roam.
Brendan Rodgers used the tactic back in 2014, and while his Liverpool side picked up an impressive 33 points from 13 games and scoring 21 goals.
But from the statistics and Chelsea’s unstoppable form, Conte has brought a new dimension to three-at-the-back – so don’t be surprised to see other Premier League gaffers following his lead.
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