Chelsea’s old-fashioned defence
Antonio Conte has proved to be a schemer, deploying the now rarely used three-man defence to great effect
Euro 1996: Led by the brilliant Matthias Sammer, who crept up from his sweeper’s position to stealthily inject himself into the midfield whenever needed, Germany were crowned champions. Sammer was like one of those annoying flies one simply can’t swat.
World Cup 2002: Brazil’s attacking trio of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo were irresistible, but most of their supply came not from the midfield, but from Cafu and Roberto Carlos, their wingbacks, as they picked up a fifth world title.
World Cup 2014: Louis van Gaal let loose a Dutch side which crushed Spain 5-1. He also destroyed tiki-taka that day.
Euro 2016: Lowly Wales reached the last four, riding on the glittering left foot of Gareth Bale, falling only to eventual winners Portugal.
All these teams have one thing in common: They played a system with three defenders at the back, in a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3, a formation which has come back from the past like crop tops and denim jackets to suddenly become the in-thing. While it would be unfair to credit one man for its return to prominence, there can be little argument that Chelsea coach Antonio Conte uses it in the most sustained and effective way.
He used a three-man defence as Juventus won the 2012 Serie A unbeaten. Then he applied it to Italy at Euro 2016 in the group of death, beating Belgium and Spain en route to the quarter-finals, where they lost out on penalties. And now, he’s winning hearts with it at Chelsea as the club went on an incredible 13-match win streak (a joint Premier League record), decimating the likes of Manchester City and Manchester United on their path to a title that many believe is already won, before ironically falling to a similar formation that Tottenham Hotspur deployed on Wednesday.
Conte had a shaky start in the Premier League. In his first six games, he chose a back four, like the rest of the league’s teams. Chelsea won their first three games, but then drew against Swansea and lost to Liverpool and Arsenal. With his side trailing 0-3 against Arsène Wenger’s Gunners, Conte shifted his side to a 3-4-3 mid-game. It was a reaction to stem the flow of goals, which his side did, to come away from the Emirates Stadium in London slightly embarrassed, but not disgraced. In the next game, he started with that formation, and since then, Chelsea have lost just one game. In their winning run, they scored 32 goals, conceded just four and kept a staggering 10 clean sheets.
As a player, Conte was a midfield enforcer; just 5ft, 8 inches, but like a bulldog, running end-to-end, throwing tackles in defence and midfield and providing a handful of goals by reaching the edge of the box at just the right time. As a manager, he’s still relentless; on the touchline, in the dressing room and on the training pitch, hammering into his players a philosophy that few coaches believe in, and even fewer know how to execute.
Despite the recent loss, Conte’s Chelsea have brought back memories of the past in stunning style. But there’s one difference that makes his 3-4-3 more special than the ones used in international football: Conte’s application of it in a league which is quite easily the toughest in Europe, which is known for its pace and intensity and physicality, and the ruthlessness with which mistakes are punished. During Euro 2016, football commentator Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Guardian that the system is “unlikely" to “spread much into domestic leagues".
“There may be imitators, but as Van Gaal’s dabbles with a back three in his first season at Manchester United suggested, what has worked with a national side has little if any bearing on the elite level of club football," he wrote.
But Conte is not wedded to this philosophy. Unlike Pep Guardiola, whose Manchester City have suffered lately due to his obsession with tiki-taka and passing from the back, Conte is more pragmatic.
“I won two championships with 4-2-4 at Bari and Siena. Then I started that system with Juventus, went to 4-3-3 and eventually arrived at 3-5-2 because I had players better adapted for that system. But it’s not my ‘preferred’ system. My preferred system is the one that permits my team to win," he told the press in October.
Conte is a fine schemer, plotting according to his side’s strengths. At Juventus and Italy, he had three brilliant defenders in Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. At Chelsea, he is blessed with N’Golo Kanté, the man who was pivotal in Leicester City’s dream title win last year, whom the club’s head of recruitment, Steve Walsh, described thus: “People think we play with two in the midfield. I say, ‘No, we play with Danny Drinkwater in the middle with Kanté either side...’"
Conte’s 3-4-3 is slightly different from the older system that the great Johan Cruyff believed in. That famous Ajax formation kept wingers wide and allowed centre backs to join attack. Conte’s, to the purist, is a 3-1-4-3 in attack, morphing into a 5-3-2 while defending. Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses are the wingbacks, tracking up and down the flanks. Kanté roams the park, and Nemanja Matić sits deeper, protecting a back three made of David Luiz, Gary Cahill and César Azpilicueta. This leaves the front three of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Pedro or Willian to wreak havoc.
In Conte’s own words: “The players that play in the middle of the three defenders must be more tactical, must reflect more and find the right position, and also call the line up and down."
Spurs have now tried it multiple times—beating Watford 4-1 and Chelsea, but even Slaven Bilić has tried it at West Ham and Roberto Martínez for Belgium’s national team. Even Barcelona’s Luis Enrique has deployed his side with three centre backs. But none of them have done it like Conte.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and news editor (sport) at Scoopwhoop