Chelsea have made an explosive return to form in recent weeks after an indifferent start to life under Antonio Conte. Since the beginning of October, Chelsea haven’t allowed a goal in the league, while scoring 16. What could possibly have turned them around so dramatically?
Could it be the teams that they have played in this run? Well, at first glance, you can’t really argue that. In the last five league games, they’ve played Hull, Leicester City, Manchester United, Southampton, and Everton. These aren’t bad teams. Maybe one or two that aren’t in the best form, but that doesn’t lead to a monthly goal differential of 16.
Maybe the players are simply performing to their full potential? Remember, this is the still most of the team that waltzed to the league only two years ago. They are quality players. While players like Eden Hazard and Diego Costa are definitely playing to the best of their ability, it’s not the full story. There’s a definitive reason as to why they are finally performing.
This reason is the new formation that Conte has settled on for these games. Of the five league games mentioned above, only the Hull City win, coincidentally their least convincing one, that wasn’t played in a 3-4-3 formation. This is no accident. The 3-4-3 that Conte has utilized both plays to Chelsea’s strengths and covers for their weaknesses.
Looking at this lineup, we can see one thing very quickly. It would appear to be a very defensive lineup. In the midfield alone, Marcos Alonso is really a fullback, Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante can both be described as defensive midfielders (though with different attributes). That leaves Victor Moses as the sole attacking outlet in their midfield four. Then in defense, they have Gary Cahill, David Luiz, and Cesar Azpilicueta. This was essentially the defense that Chelsea used during their poor form earlier in the season. What has changed?
Well, to put a complicated subject in a simplistic light, the system has changed. This new setup allows Luiz to step into midfield when needed, giving Kante and Matic the support they needed. The setup also pulls Alonso and Moses back to assist with defending, essentially creating a 5-2-3 or a 4-3-3. The fluidity of this defense is as difficult for attackers to read as a fluid attack is for defenders to handle. It also brings 7 players into the defense, while requiring Alonso and Moses to be willing runners to act as outlets from defense.
The added benefit of this defensive stability is that it gives the attack some serious license to do what they do best. Both Hazard and Pedro are great attacking wingers that fade a bit when required to do too much defending. This system, in essence, says “Go, attack, be free.” Hazard and Pedro could not be any happier to oblige. In Costa, Chelsea have a very talented striker who is skilled at holding the ball up. This gives time for the midfield to move up the pitch to support the attack.
While all systems of play have weaknesses, this formation is leading to a mini-Renaissance for Chelsea. Even if the weaknesses get picked out, the points they gain until then are valuable. Right now, though, Conte has found a way to get the most out of his players and knock in a handful of goals. He won’t be complaining.