Chelsea went into the match against Tottenham having won its previous six matches in the Premier League. The Blues were undoubtedly the side in form, even though Spurs had not lost a match in the season, but the first-half of the encounter saw Mauricio Pochettino’s men command the game — a stark contrast to Chelsea’s dominating displays where it has overpowered its opponents in the first 45 minutes.
The reason for Spurs’ successful first half was Pochettino’s brave decision to play a 4-1-4-1 formation. With Victor Wanyama sitting back and protecting the defence, midfielders Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele (playing higher up the field) bossed the central midfield, pressing the Chelsea players in their own half. Son Heung-min and Dele Alli took up wider positions and were successful in keeping Chelsea’s marauding wing-backs – Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso – largely at bay.
For the first time since Antonio Conte had to switched to a three-in-the-back, Chelsea’s defence looked unsettled and conceded a goal — its first in 600-odd minutes. But having played in the midweek (Champions League), Tottenham ran out of the stamina required to play a high-pressing game and eventually let Chelsea claw its way back and win the match.
Importantly though, Spurs had revealed a way to dismantle the resolute Chelsea defence and through it, stifle its attack — something that would have made the tactician inside Pep Guardiola lick his lips. Even more so because it is a formation that he has already tried and tested to good effect at Manchester City.
The Sky Blues host Chelsea at the Etihad on Saturday and coach Guardiola will be eyeing to go one over Conte — a manager who has stolen the plaudits in the first-half of the Premier League season for re-shaping a side that failed miserably in its title defencelast season. Conte reveals admiration for Guardiola philosophy
Conte’s Chelsea plays a 3-4-3 formation that uses wide men to great effect. Moses and Alonso, make up the two extra men when Chelsea attack, taking up wide positions, allowing Eden Hazard and Pedro to cut-inside and go one-on-one with the central defenders. While defending, the two players occupy a traditional full-back position, making it a five-man back-line.
Such has been the efficacy of Conte’s system that he has played the same team and won the last seven matches. Ronald Koeman and Everton tried to counter the formation by playing a 5-man defense but the London team ran riot and scored a staggering five goals in the match.
Stability leads to predictability?
But there is a chink in the Chelsea’s apparently flawless defensive armour.
While Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill are incredibly gifted defenders, they lack the ball-playing skills and composure required to pave their way through a high-pressing attack. This was perhaps best highlighted in Chelsea’s matches against Liverpool and Arsenal — two teams who pressed early and had natural pace.
Chelsea likes to build play from the back but if the defenders are pressed early, they are prone to errors. This was highlighted by the many instances Azpilicueta was robbed off the ball by Tottenham. With Son and Alli marking the wing-backs tightly, the two defenders were denied the easy way out with the pressure the defenders to play aimless balls into the midfield or conceding throws.
City has natural width and pace in Raheem Sterling, Nolito, Leroy Sane and Jesus Navas. If the wide-men can keep Moses and Alonso busy, City’s central midfielders can then have a crack at Azpilicueta and Cahill, who also lack in pace. Sergio Aguero chases down everything in and around the penalty box and the Chelsea defenders will have a handful to deal with.
The problem for Chelsea is the lack of an alternative plan. The ‘keeper can’t clear the ball because winning high-ball is solely Diego Costa’s duty, considering how weak Hazard and Pedro are in that department. If John Stones or another central defender sticks to the Spaniard, Conte’s men might struggle to initiate an attack.
Considering how low young Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek — both considerably good in the air — are in the pecking order, the easiest option for Conte would be to push Nemanja Matic slightly higher up in midfield and mirror the 4-1-4-1 formation, with N’Golo Kante playing pivot.
While the tall Serb can be an outlet for the ‘keeper, it will leave a massive hole in the midfield which the likes of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne will exploit.
That said, the 4-1-4-1 will leave Fernandinho as the only line of protection ahead of the defenders, something the in-form trio of Hazard, Pedro and Costa will enjoy. Guardiola has used the 4-2-3-1 formation recently and has the option of playing a double-pivot of Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan. The tactics will allow more freedom to the Chelsea wingers though. But considering the Guardiola’s philosophy, he is more likely to take the attack to the opposition than try to counter.
An interesting proposition, albeit quite unheard of in football, would be for the ever-tinkering Guardiola to play a 3-2-4-1 formation.
The double pivot of Fernandinho and Gundogan will provide protection to defence and also aid in making play from the back. A three-man defence (John Stones, Alexander Kolarov and Nicholas Otamendi) will also be aided by the wide men in defence. The formation also follows Johan Cruyff’s idea of total football where the team has, while attacking or defending, at least one player more than the opponent. The tactics will also allow City’s best players to be on the field at the same time.
On paper, the flexible City side certainly has an advantage over Chelsea, which will in all-likeliness use the same set of players and the same formation it used against Tottenham last weekend . That said, when has football ever been about what’s on the paper.