All eyes were on the return of José Mourinho and the debut season for Pep Guardiola at the start of the football year. But the man everyone should have been looking at was Antonio Conte. Chelsea have been the team to beat all year and not many have managed to get one over the Blues at home or away.
Chelsea finished 10th in last year’s Premier League after a very poor term under Mourinho – who departed in December – and everyone has their own reasons why. Nobody would have expected such an impressive season following one of their worst in the history of the Premier League and they deserve credit because of it.
However, Conte has got his Chelsea career off to a great start – they play Arsenal in the FA Cup final at the end of the month and they’ve been top of the Premier League for the majority of the season. There’s no major secret to Chelsea’s success this season; Conte has come in and changed everything for the West London club.
After losing to Liverpool and Arsenal consecutively in the league, Conte changed his tactics, with the Italian switching formation to the 3-4-3 – and he hasn’t looked back since. The formation allows the wide midfielders to become wingers when attacking and full-backs when defending, giving them the freedom they wouldn’t otherwise be afforded.
Since the change in tactics, they have looked like one of the more well-rounded Premier League sides in recent years, managing to secure that title with a narrow 1-0 victory over West Brom thanks to a last-gasp winner from Michy Batshuayi. Not only that, but the bookmakers have installed the Blues among the favourites at 11/4 to retain their crown next season, with comparison sites such as Oddschecker compiling the best free bet offers for bettors to maximise their potential return.
The reason why many people tipped them early on is because of the winning history of the 3-4-3. The formation is credited to the formidable Ajax side of the 1970s that featured the legendary Johan Cruyff. Ajax manager Rinus Michels was named a tactical genius after the use of 3-4-3 won him three European Cups from 1970 to 1973.
Ajax used the formation in the best possible way; they used their depth in midfield to play around with the ball and because they had the reassurance of three strong central defenders, the rest of the team was encouraged to push forward. They dominated going forward due to the sheer amount of quality players attacking and when they lost the ball it would be an equal amount of numbers trying to win it back.
Cruyff explained the use of the tactic, saying: “We played a kind of football that was not normal at that time in Europe, we played our own style – something you did not see in other countries and that drew attention in Europe.” When you look at the side that made 3-4-3 famous and when you compare it to the teams that use it today, it’s clear that it wouldn’t work without quality players.
Every side needs a top-class forward, especially when using the 3-4-3, and Cruyff was a pivotal part of the 1970s Ajax side; he had amazing technical ability and seemed at ease gliding past defenders with his pace and trickery. Meanwhile, Chelsea have Diego Costa; while the two don’t share a lot of similar attributes, both are brilliant finishers and can do the job up top at any level.
When top sides with the world’s best players use this formation, it’s little surprise they are successful – but it isn’t just your Barcelonas and Ajaxs that have used this tactic in the past. Wigan used the 3-4-3 towards the back end of the 2011/12 season and it was vital in their relegation battle. They survived the drop and implemented the formation the year after, winning the 2013 FA Cup largely because of it. However, they failed to replicate that sort of form in the league and were three points short of avoiding relegation.
Roberto Martínez was in charge of the Latics for that season and used the 3-4-3 in exactly the same way the European giants had before him. Jean Beausejour and Emerson Boyce were deployed on the wings. Wigan’s non-stop running meant they could defend and attack with five at a time.
The pair were constantly up and down, sharing many similarities to Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, the latter of which has become a sort of journeyman in recent years and hasn’t nailed down a starting spot at any club but, like Boyce, doesn’t stop working. The pair tackle strongly and also have a bit of trickery and the ability to cross the ball to make a difference at both ends of the pitch.
However, fans shouldn’t heap praise on Moses for taking to Conte’s system so easily because it’s not the first time he has played it. The Nigerian was at Wigan for the first half of the 2012/13 season, and although he wasn’t involved in the side that went to Wembley, he gained valuable experience of the tactics in the run up to Christmas.
While the 3-4-3 is a constant formation for most sides, some teams only use the attacking tactic when they really need it. After AC Milan went 3-0 up against Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final, Rafael Benítez needing something drastic to change.
That change came in their formation: Liverpool set out in the second half in a 3-4-3 formation, with John Arne Riise and Vladimír Šmicer on the flanks, Xabi Alonso and Dietmar Hamann as holding midfielders and Steven Gerrard playing as an attacking midfielder. Liverpool took the game to Milan and used the tactics of those who have played the 3-4-3 to help them overcome a massive deficit.
Liverpool were dominant in the second half and managed to bring the game back to 3-3 before winning on penalties. It was one of the greatest moments in European football and it was all made possible thanks to the 3-4-3.
It’s difficult to say whether Chelsea will emulate the seasons of 1970s Ajax if they continue to use their tactics but it does make for exciting football from one of the best clubs in the world.