Chelsea's three-man defence the most intriguing tactical decision of the year
The Premier League has never boasted such a fine array of managerial talent from across Europe, and, as a result, the tactical level of the division has already improved considerably. Amid talk of Pep Guardiola's emphasis on possession play and Jurgen Klopp's focus on counterpressing, however, it's Antonio Conte's switch to a 3-4-3 formation at Chelsea that has proved the most effective tactical decision in the Premier League so far.
Last season, a 5-2 thrashing at the hands of Arsenal prompted Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri to completely change his system, ditching his attack-minded full-backs for more defensive alternatives and focusing upon assembling a solid midfield. It proved the turning point: Leicester's approach changed considerably, and they went on to win the Premier League title.
History might be repeating itself. The turning point in Chelsea's campaign thus far is also a three-goal defeat to Arsenal. Conte found his side 3-0 down at half-time and decided to start experimenting in the second half, switching away from the 4-1-4-1 system he'd used with mixed success and trying a 3-5-2. The crucial change involved the introduction of Marcos Alonso, who regularly played left-wing-back for Fiorentina and was probably purchased specifically for that system, and the departure of Cesc Fabregas, much to the delight of the home supporters at the Emirates. Fabregas, incidentally, is even less likely to command a place in the 3-5-2 than in the 4-1-4-1.
The change has worked extraordinarily well. Since that switch, Chelsea have won five consecutive Premier League matches by an aggregate score of 16-0. Alonso plays wing-back superbly, and Victor Moses has been surprisingly effective on the opposite flank. Cesar Azpilicueta's conversion to a right-sided centre-back has been very effective.
More crucially, however, the switch in defence has transformed the nature of the attack. Eden Hazard has freedom to remain higher up the pitch and roam inside more while Pedro's role is more similar to his position at Barcelona, on the right of a three-man attack. N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic offer the energy to ensure they're not overrun in the centre of the midfield.
Conte popularising the three-man defence could prove revolutionary in the Premier League, especially if he ends up winning the title. Although the Premier League has moved away from the 4-4-2 system that dominated its first decade, there have been very few successful implementations of a three-man defence. Although the 3-5-2 system (then considered the natural alternative to the 4-4-2) enjoyed a brief spell of popularity in the mid-to-late 1990s with clubs such as Aston Villa, Liverpool and Arsenal all using the system regularly, no title winner has ever depended on a back three. In fact, one of Arsene Wenger's first significant acts as Arsenal manager was his decision to move away from a three-man defence, and he won the title in his first full season.
There have been spells of success: Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool were briefly outstanding in a 3-4-2-1 formation shortly after Luis Suarez's departure, although it felt as if opposition sides worked out how to exploit the space on the outside of the defence after a few weeks, which might yet happen to Conte's Chelsea. But there have been many more unsuccessful experiments.
After Manchester City's first title success in 2011-12, Roberto Mancini immediately tried a three-man defence, but the centre-backs didn't adjust and it was soon ditched. Louis van Gaal insisted upon using a back three when he arrived at Manchester United in 2014, having used the system somewhat effectively for the Netherlands at the World Cup. But the supporters weren't convinced, and they were proved right: Van Gaal soon reverted to the four-man defence witnessed more frequently at Old Trafford. Performances improved ... just about.
Incidentally, England have played the back three at various stages over the years: Bobby Robson, Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle all used the system with reasonable degrees of success, although the last time England used 3-5-2 in a significant game was away at Croatia in 2006, a 2-0 defeat from which new boss Steve McClaren arguably never recovered.
Conventional wisdom suggests that a three-man defence is particularly effective against two strikers: there are two players to mark with a spare man floating just behind. Traditionally, problems are encountered against a lone striker, which leaves a surplus of defenders, meaning a side is secure at the back but undermanned elsewhere -- particularly against a quick front three. That was Everton's problem when deploying a 3-4-3 against Chelsea's 3-4-3 on Nov. 5: their defenders simply couldn't cope with the sheer speed of Pedro, Hazard and Diego Costa and were caught out on the counterattack quickly after conceding possession. They went on to lose 5-0.
That's a simplification, however. In an era when systems are more fluid and more defenders are capable of stepping forward to act as supplementary midfielders, perhaps the nature of the opposition system has become less relevant.
Tottenham were quietly impressive with a modified 3-4-1-2 against Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 because the centre-backs are all comfortable in possession and happy holding a high line. Spurs probably held the ball for too long in defence, playing a succession of square passes without really penetrating Arsenal, but their approach at turnovers worked well. Mauricio Pochettino's side would quickly move the ball to find two strikers playing up against two Arsenal centre-backs, who missed the spare man they've become accustomed to as so many teams play a lone striker away at the Emirates. Spurs' system meant they could play two up front without being overrun in the centre of midfield.
Perhaps most intriguing is Guardiola's experiments at Manchester City. Sometimes he has played a system that appears something like a 3-2-2-3, most notably in the 1-1 home draw with Everton, when City were extraordinarily dominant. Even when City have started with a four-man defence, they've often subtly shifted into a three, with holding midfielder Fernandinho dropping back, but occasionally -- such as away at Barcelona -- with a full-back drifting infield to become an extra midfielder.
As ever, though, some of Guardiola's formations are almost too difficult to work out, never mind replicate. Conte's move from 4-1-4-1 to 3-5-2 was obvious, sudden and decisive. If Chelsea's success continues, expect more teams to follow suit.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.