Chelsea Have Been Worked Out - How to Beat Conte's Chelsea

I write almost exclusively in terms of tactics about Liverpool so I thought I’d share some thoughts on the current Champions and why I think they won’t have the same success as last season (aside from obvious Champions League involvement and issues that can bring).

The Lone Hardworking Striker

When teams deploy three at the back it has been a long held view that a lone striker occupying all three gives you greater advantages in other areas.

Chelsea struggled in four big games last season away against Spurs, home to us, away to United and in the FA Cup Final against Arsenal. In three of those games a lone hardworking front man was deployed. In the other against United two strikers (not typical number 9’s) were deployed but at times they alternated playing up against or dropping in space whilst using another tactic.

Possession at the Midfield Base

Liverpool pressed Chelsea intensively early season but the performance had significant elements of control after that point. It was an excellent performance from Henderson and Wijnaldum and showed a blueprint that would continue even after Chelsea’s transition to three at the back.

Chelsea’s defensive strength is centrally in three at the back. Two holding players in front of three centre backs and two wing backs tucked in as full backs is tough to break down. Spurs and Arsenal both went with wing backs and two holding central midfielders. With Kante and Matic focused on protecting the centre backs a fair amount of space and time in possession can be enjoyed with two holding.

Due to possession at the base of the midfield wing backs become active in possession higher up. Now there is a numerical advantage in this area of the field. Should Chelsea become impatient Kante or Matic can be sucked up of position and players moving between the lines pick up the space.

This tactic was exaggerated by Mourinho who played three central holding players (Herrera, Pogba and Fellaini) in the game against Chelsea and the opening goal was Matic being impatient and breaking shape seeing the space in front.

Three at the Back

Liverpool aside United, Arsenal and United all played with three centre backs, wing backs and at least two holding and there is a very simple reason why. Conte a typical Italian manager puts defensive strength first. They are disciplined and well drilled and often wait for the opposition to make mistakes tactically and punish.

This is partly the reason so many Italian managers find success in such an attacking Premier League. When opposition teams play a similar system three centre backs, wing backs, two holding Chelsea then are placed in a position of tactical impotence. They have a front three unable to press seven at the base and it would require wing backs to press or one of two holding which would cause problems.

If you read the media Chelsea are a machine and teams can’t work them out. In contrast Conte has actually struggled against quality opposition playing a similar system to work out another solution.

A caveat to this would be the three sides playing this system did so second half of the season when Chelsea were expected to win and full of confidence. That could be the reason they were caught out rather than simply accepting a stalemate.

The Moses, Azpilicueta, Alonso & Matic Problem

With every system any strength is also a weakness. Conte has developed a fantastic system where he utilises Moses energy and attacking ability from right wing back. Intelligently he uses Azpilicueta as the right sided centre back.

It’s intelligent for a few reasons. Firstly he’s quick and excellent one v one so if teams counter behind Moses he’s capable. Secondly offensively he can even support and has a decent cross almost like a right full back would.

On the other side should Chelsea advance down their right space opens up behind and the other side. In possession Matic and Alonso are assured and can find Hazard. If required both can defend their own box against crosses and as both over 6ft 3 when they join Cahil and Luiz the danger from counters behind Moses and Azpilicueta and crosses coming in are lessened.

It’s all good so far right? What if Hazard doesn’t track back or tuck in? Should the opposition manipulate possession in front of Matic and Alonso neither player particularly quick or effective at pressing. Is there a problem?

In short yes. With time and space to pick out a cross from right or inside right you can put the ball to Chelsea’s back post. The two defenders defending that post are Moses and Azpilicueta. Spurs exploited this beautifully with Eriksen centre right and Dele Alli mismatched at the back post scoring two headers.

Summary

This is not a criticism of Conte, his system or saying Chelsea is not that good. They’re a very strong side. Every system, any system has its flaws and faults to exploit. My honest opinion is that Chelsea was not even close to being as strong as made out.

They played a new system with older Italian tactics. Klopp managed to utilise early season energy and press Chelsea in a system they didn’t retain and control after that. Chelsea were proclaimed unbeatable by some in the media because of the magic three at the back.

In truth it took three top level managers (Wenger, Mourinho and Pochettino) just a few months to work out a solution. However I fully expect Chelsea to address some of their issues.

Matic is an interesting one. I’m not sure Conte trusts his quality in possession compared to the highest level players and he’s displayed a few deficiencies in Conte’s system. I am certain Conte will look to have better possession from the centre backs and build attacks better.

When teams played three centre backs and offered Chelsea the opportunity to build they were left seriously wanting. They didn’t register a goal against Spurs or United and a single one against Arsenal.

Conte will have improvements in mind. The current Chelsea side though are not as strong as most fans think.