Antonio Conte’s tactics today give us a hint of where he’s heading and the result was positive. Still, many questions remain.
This morning’s 2-0 win over Hull was a decided improvement over our last couple of league outings, the most recent of which provoked a detailed critique from me last weekend. That posting proved highly controversial, as a number of people were outraged at my argument despite having clearly not read it.
The main development today was the deployment of a three-man back line. Sort of. The goal seemed to be to keep Gary Cahill out of the way so he couldn’t do any damage, and that tactic was largely successful. Kudos.
Of course, it wasn’t a full-throated three-man back line because Marcos Alonso, a fullback, was positioned on the left wing. It was a CCA (cover Cahill’s ass) ploy, and nobody who has been watching this season can much blame Conte for that bit of defensive hedging.
In a three-back system, playing Matic and Kante together makes a little more sense than it has in the past. Sort of. If your lineup dedicates more resources to pushing the attack, and if two of your three backs are David Luiz and Gary Cahill, then that extra stopper at the base of the midfield can be extremely useful at keeping the opponents off a weak defense. However, this is only the case, really, if the rest of that midfield is genuinely being committed forward. In other words, it would have made more sense had Chelsea fielded a true back three (maybe sit Cahill and play Alonso at LB) and spent that extra mid slot on an attack-minded player – say a Fabregas, or Oscar, or preferably Batshuayi in a forward role sitting just off Costa. The insertion of Victor Moses also hints at Conte’s dream lineup – a player like him is ideal for a three-man back line because he covers a lot of ground, is a good defender and he cause real problems when he’s bombing down the wing at backtracking fullbacks. (No, Moses wasn’t at his best today, but what we saw illustrates the idea that Conte has in his head.)
What we saw in practice looked more, at times, like what we had last week – four backs (with Alonso in for Ivanovic), no Batman and Matic again being asked to range forward in that holding 10 role.
The results were exactly what you’d want, though, even if Hull is nowhere near the quality of Liverpool or Arsenal.
And it’s hard to argue the timing. If you’re going to begin feeling out the viability of a three-man back line, Luiz in the middle against a top opponent may not be the best time for the experiment.
Clearly Conte has not abandoned the idea that he can play with three in the back against Premier League quality, and we’ll learn more on that theory once the we get Zouma and Terry back in the side. We won’t really know the verdict before Chelsea is able to buy another CB or two. It’s hard to imagine that we can reel in the sort of A-lister Conte wants in the January window, although there’s no reason not to try.
The verdict: Nice win, successful early experiment. However, the approach was tentative (out of due caution, no question) and the opponent was … manageable.
And, of course, he hasn’t abandoned the idea that Matic is better in the attack than Oscar, Fabregas or Batshuayi. This remains the most baffling part of the equation.