“The coach must be a tailor, to try find the right suit for the team.”
Chelsea 2016/17 is an underappreciated team outside of West London. And it’s understandable why that’s the case. Historically, they are sandwiched between Leicester’s miraculous title win and Pep Guardiola’s record-breakers. The Blues’ triumph wasn’t as unpredictably romantic as the Foxes’ and not as dominant as Man City’s well-oiled machine.
However, Chelsea’s most recent champions are remarkable in their own right. Not least because their success hinged on perhaps the most effective tactical tweak in Premier League history.
Antonio Conte’s first season in England started brightly as Chelsea won their first three games in August. 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 at the Emirates. Until that turning point in the season, Conte had implemented a 4-2-3-1 formation, as was widely used throughout the league.
Defeat at the Emirates 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 points decided, the Italian tactician experimented with three at the back, introducing Marcos Alonso for Cesc Fabregas. 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.
The true effectiveness of the 3-4-3 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 for the title.
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. Whereas experienced players of note 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 try something similar. Most notably, Arsenal, as 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 tournament showing in since 1996.
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 squad 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 must go 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 Prem’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 while the season is in progress, Conte’s 2016/17 alteration is unmatched.