“The coach must be a tailor, to try find the right suit for the team.”
Chelsea 2016/17 is an underappreciated team in the pantheon of Premier League history.
And it’s understandable why that’s the case. Historically, they are sandwiched between Leicester’s miracle-makers and Man City’s record-breakers. The Blues’ triumph wasn’t as wildly romantic as the Foxes’ achievement and not as dominant as Pep Guardiola’s well-oiled machine.
However, Antonio Conte’s title-winner are remarkable in their own right, not least because their success hinged on perhaps the most effective tactical tweak since the top flight was rebranded in 1992.
The Italian tactician’s first season in England started brightly as Chelsea won their first three games. However, aside from a comfortable 3-0 victory over Burnley, the performances didn’t suggest they would go on to break the record for most wins in a Premier League campaign.
Question marks were replaced with exclamation marks in September when they drew to Swansea and lost to Liverpool before finding themselves 3-0 down after 45 minutes against Arsenal at the Emirates.
Until that point, Conte implemented a 4-2-3-1 formation, as was widely used throughout the league.
Defeat to the Gunners was Conte’s biggest loss in league competition since 2010. While a bitter pill to swallow, it was the key that ultimately unlocked Chelsea’s potential.
With the game over as a contest at the halfway mark, Conte switched to three at the back, introducing Marcos Alonso for Cesc Fabregas as part of the reshuffle. And he saw enough of an improvement in the game’s latter stages to start with 3-4-3 from the first whistle against Hull in the next fixture.
The switch required a change of personnel. In came Victor Moses to play as a wing-back, a new role for the Nigerian. Cesar Azpilicueta moved from left-back to a right-sided centre-back alongside Gary Cahill and David Luiz. This back three mirrored Conte’s preferred Juventus trio of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
Moses was named Man of the Match as Chelsea stopped their rut with a 2-0 win in what proved to be an almighty turning point.
The true effectiveness of the 3-4-3 system was evident in the next two fixtures, against Leicester and Man United. Chelsea beat the reigning champions 3-0 before going one better against Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils. The Blues won 4-0 with Pedro opening the scoring after 30 seconds. The decorated Spaniard had replaced Willian in the starting line-up against the Foxes and would establish himself as Conte’s favoured option on the opposite flank to Eden Hazard.
Transformed, Chelsea won 13 consecutive league games in a run that stretched until the end of the year. They also won their last six games of the season to hold off an admirable challenge from Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs to win their fifth Premier League crown.
Moses’ willingness to run shuttles up and down the right flank was a key factor in the Blues’ success, while Alonso proved to be a potent threat in the final third, contributing six goals and three assists in the league alone.
Experienced players such as Terry, Willian and Fabregas were forced into subsidiary roles, with the latter only regaining his place in the starting line-up at the back end of the season.
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 was so effective it prompted several other clubs to mirror their approach. Most notably, Arsene Wenger moved away from a four-man defence for the first time over a decade. The influence even extended to England as Gareth Southgate embraced wing-backs, using Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young at the 2018 World Cup for the Three Lions’ best showing in the competition since 1990.
However, no team enjoyed such drastic improvements as Chelsea, proving that quality management is not about selecting a certain formation, but identifying the right system to bring the best out of the specific players at your disposal.
Naturally, the players deserve equal credit. 2016/17 was both Hazard and Diego Costa’s joint-best Premier League campaign in terms of goal return. N’Golo Kante scooped the individual awards after cementing his status as a world-class midfielder. The Frenchman was signed from Leicester after Chelsea had three bids rejected for Roma’s Radja Nainggolan. It’s not clear whether the club wanted both players as part of a new-look midfield or if Kante would have gone elsewhere if the Belgian had moved to Stamford Bridge. Whatever the case, it worked out well for Conte.
Conte’s switch of formation and utilisation of players who were not previously considered first-team regulars goes down as a masterstoke. His job was made easier due to a lack of European commitments but such an advantage does not make the league title a formality, especially not one achieved with one of the highest points tallies since the Premier League’s inception.
Sir Alex Ferguson, Wenger, Mourinho and Guardiola have all implemented all-encompassing philosophies and tactics that were mightily decisive. But when it comes to making a key change from one defined idea to another during the course of a season, Conte’s 2016/17 alteration is unmatched.