Antonio Conte brought in the old-school Catenaccio flavor all the way from the Italy of 1980s to London of the current era. A solid 3–5–2 which thrives largely on discipline, organization and solidity seems to have fixed Chelsea’s woes.
The Italian tweaked his usual 3–4–3 to a 3–5–2 for the first time playing away against Spurs wherein he slotted David Luiz into the midfield, which proved to be a master stroke given that he had to deal with the physicality of Dembele & Wanyama. Since then, the thought of 3–4–3 vs 3–5–2 had always been lingering in everyone’s mind and the answer to that seems to have become pretty obvious over time.
There were 2 major problems that Chelsea have undergone since the beginning of this campaign:
a) Lack of defensive diligence/ focus
b) Lack of creativity when going forward
Both of these problems have been address as a one stop solution by Conte with the introduction of 3–5–2 and in this article let’s look at the first part- defending:
The Blues have been extremely organized as a unit while they are not on the ball forming 3 lines of defense in the form of a 5–3–2.
- The wing backs join the back three to make it 5.
- Kante in the middle is accompanied by Fabregas & Bakayoko on either of his sides
- Morata with Hazard forms the front two.
The shape has brought discipline, focus and clarity to the players as to what each one is supposed to be doing on and off-the-ball. We saw a carbon-copy of this system with Italy in Euro 2016 and no wonder it has worked wonders for Conte yet again.
The priority off-the-ball is simple yet one of the hardest things to do and that is to protect the middle. Conte’s men try to screen the opponents from playing through the center in an attempt to force them wide and cut down the space available to create an attack.
The priority off-the-ball is simple yet one of the hardest things to do and that is to protect the middle. Conte’s men try to screen the opponents from playing through the center in an attempt to force them wide and cut down the space available to create an attack. For this purpose, we can see the front two of Morata and Hazard cutting off passing lanes from the center back to the central midfielders. Chelsea go one step further and leave the opponent full backs completely free to allow them to receive the ball from the center. Once the ball goes wide, the Blues change shape and become more active in closing down space.
As you can see, once the ball goes to the opponent right back (Bruno Peres), the near-side central midfielder (Bakayoko in this case) goes from the center to close down the space.
Both Morata & Hazard hold their positions to avoid the ball entering the central area. This leaves Peres with one option to move the ball forward and that is by linking up with the right winger (Gerson).
But since it’s Bakayoko who goes to close down Jesus, Alonso is available to mark Gerson tightly. It wouldn’t be an easy task for Gerson to receive the ball with Alonso’s tight man-to-man marking, thus leaving Peres with the safest option being a pass back to the central defender from who he received.
The same is the case when the ball goes to the other wing back (Kolarov). Cesc (circled red) comes from the center to close down the space, Morata & Hazard hold their positions.
This is a method through which Conte tries to disrupt the opponent’s build-up play, forcing him to be more adventurous and risk losing possession while trying to attack.
This is exactly what happened even in the game against Roma. The second goal of the 3 they had scored came from an adventurous ball surpassing Chelsea’s midfield and defense to find Dzeko, who found the net with his first touch.
The third goal came from a sublime set-piece routine and despite Chelsea switching off in blips, Roma never really broke down Chelsea’s defense as the score-line suggested.
The principle remains the same, not allow the ball to enter and be played through the center and force the opponent wide. Once the ball is forced wide, the triangular shape formed by the wing-back, near side center-back and near side midfielder team up to squeeze the space available.
The image above is from the 1–1 draw against Liverpool. Here, Oxlade-Chamberlain (circled red) comes short to open a passing option and pull Chelsea out of Shape but Azapilicueta does not follow him and keeps the triangle along with Zappacosta and Drinkwater intact.
This is the triangle which is key to Chelsea’s defensive system as after the ball is forced wide, it is a challenge for any attack to outnumber three players defending the wide areas as the attacking team would already lack space when they go wide with the touchline serving as a boundary.
Flexibility against a different opponent:
Impressed already? Well there’s more to come in case we deep dive into the game against Manchester United where Chelsea triumphed 1–0 and arguably were in command across all departments.
Here it was a different beast that Conte had to handle as Manchester United decided to field a 3–5–2 of their own and hence the game was tactically poised.
Chelsea changed their shape and movement off-the-ball this time and this is how:
Morata & Hazard sit in the middle to block the passing lanes from the center backs (Bailly, Smalling & Jones) to the central midfielders (Matic & Herrera). The back-three of Manchester United hence had a much safer option of using the wing backs (Valencia & Young).
As you can see in the picture above, right wing back (Valencia) receives the ball out wide from the center back and now he isn’t closed down by a Chelsea midfielder but Alonso himself decides to come out of position all the way to close him down.
In this case, there was no need for Alonso to stay back like he did in the Roma game as he had to deal with a winger then. While here Manchester United had a front two and the wing-backs being the only source for width.
As you can see, Zappacosta & Alonso advancing to mark Young & Valencia would still keep Chelsea out of danger as they have an extra man advantage at the back with 3 central defenders.
The midfield (red box) have been clearly outnumbered by Chelsea with Morata-Hazard dropping in front of Matic-Herrera and their midfield trio is also intact, leaving no space for Man United to attack through the middle.
These are examples as to how Conte has taken care of the Blues as far as the defensive unit of the 3–5–2 is concerned. To sum it up, it has been all about being organised, disciplined and playing the respective roles precisely to maintain the shape and force the opponents wide and deny them space.
Having dove deep into the defensive system, let us look at how the Blues fare while going forward with Antonio “Catenaccio” Conte The 3–5–2: How do Chelsea attack?