All three of the so-called ‘fringe’ players in Chelsea’s side found the net and performed well against Huddersfield last night, in what was an encouraging display of our versatility and efficiency.
Chelsea returned to winning ways away at Huddersfield Town last night with a comfortable 3-1 win against the Premier League new-comers. At a ground where other top sides have already struggled this season, Conte’s men were home and dry shortly into the second half with goals from Tiemoué Bakayoko, Willian, and Pedro.
In what is such a congested part of the season, Conte unsurprisingly made a number of changes from the weekend’s defeat at West Ham, but the new-look side looked as comfortable and as fluid as ever. Given how much rotation we can expect to be coming over the next few weeks around Christmas, this performance was not only vital for the three points, but for the confidence it has now given the players, manager, and fans, that we have a squad big enough and capable enough of dealing with the festive schedule ahead.
What was great to see was that all three of the so-called ‘fringe’ players in the side found the net and performed well, so this week I’ll be focusing on just how encouraging our display of versatility and efficiency was last night.
Versatility in shape
As I have written about on a number of occasions in recent weeks, our move to a 3-5-2 has worked wonderfully. However, what was evident in this performance, is that the 3-4-3 is far from gone, and can still be used to devastating effect. As we know, the 3-5-2 allows us to sit back and play on the break, but what Conte wanted last night against a ‘smaller’ opponent was a more authoritative 3-4-3 shape which has us execute a relentless high press that our hosts simply couldn’t deal with.
Different types of opponents will demand different shapes, I have no doubt that when Barcelona visit Stamford Bridge next year, we will see Hazard in behind Morata again, but in tricky mid-week away league trips such as this one, the pace and pressure that we can use in a 3-4-3 worked perfectly.
OFFICIAL: Today's Chelsea team to take on Huddersfield! 🙌 COME ON YOU BLUES 🔵
— Breathe Chelsea (@BreatheChels) December 12, 2017
What was also mightily impressive from last night’s performance was the way we adapted in this shape. Every manager strives for defensive consistency and solidity, and in knowing how difficult that can be, Conte has been sure not to confuse or adapt our defensive tactics between the two systems. We essentially play with a back five for both. When Huddersfield went 3-0 down last night, they switched to a back three of their own and adopted two wing-backs. Whilst they offered a slightly bigger threat momentarily, we soon adjusted our shape accordingly, dropping our wing backs to cover their crosses and tightening up centrally to suffocate Tom Ince and Mounié when they tried to run the ball through the middle.
All marshalled brilliantly by Andreas Christensen, the quick alteration that was executed within minutes proves just how comfortable this back five are in this system. And given how many players in those positions we have in the wings waiting to take their place, it seems we currently have at least seven top defenders all on the same wave-length at the moment which will be vital going into Christmas.
Versatility in personnel
It’s all very well for Conte to simply draw the team out in a different formation in the dressing room, but the real versatility of the system is that in changing our shape, we’re changing the personnel, and at this time of year, that is of course essential. Regardless of how well Pedro is playing, there is simply no room for him anywhere in the 3-5-2, but in the 3-4-3, he and Willian are the essentially the only options we have for those two wide forward positions aside from Eden Hazard – who we’ll get onto in a minute.
In their free roles last night, I thought both Pedro and Willian were outstanding. Put Willian purely on the wing in a more rigid shape and he struggles. He lacks confidence, he’s not sure what to do with the ball or where to move himself, but give him complete freedom to play in between a weak and slow midfield and defensive line, and he’ll cause havoc. Pedro likewise. The fact that they are such similar players who incessantly pick up positions where the other has just been, makes defending against them a nightmare, and man-marking them impossible.
As for Hazard, playing our star man up front yesterday and knowing Huddersfield’s defenders weren’t the quickest meant we looked to play through them a lot more rather than around them looking for crosses. The fact that we were caught offside ten times in the match not only proves exactly that, but it also proves that we didn’t quite get it right. Compared to our season average of 3.25 offsides per game, this stat was noticeable. The reason this came about was down to the fact that we played without a proper striker.
Going into the game, the three forwards know that in this system any one of them was allowed to make those runs in behind. Whilst that tactic was intended to confuse and frustrate our oppositions, it actually ended up doing exactly that to us. Yes, the hosts stepped up well, but especially Pedro wasn’t giving himself enough time to judge his runs, because his decision to make them was coming too late. He was caught offside four times.
The obvious answer would be to play Michy Batshuayi and have a focused striker to play into, but that would be all too easy for the opposition defence. Having Michy in the side last night would have almost black-mailed us into playing it wide, getting crosses in, or trying to walk it when we attacked centrally. In not picking the striker, Conte is sending a clear message of how he wants to attack with pace from deep, regardless of whether we are consistently successful in doing it or not.
The false 9️⃣ formation seems to be suiting Chelsea OK 😎
Key players rested
Returning to the main focus of this week’s article, which is the fact that the quality of this performance will now give Conte belief in his squad which will allow us to rotate without losing too much quality in the coming busy weeks. In being 3-0 up after just 50 minutes yesterday, that quality was already allowing us to do exactly and crucially Hazard, Kanté, and Christensen all made way for worthy replacements.
The first two replacements explain themselves as they are probably our two most important players, however the third in Christensen says an awful lot about how Conte sees our young Dane at the moment. The fact that he was rested ahead of the other two centre-backs hints heavily at the fact that he will be in the team consistently over the rest of this season, and probably decade.
Up next is Southampton at home on Saturday where it’s anyone’s guess whether we will return to a 3-5-2 or not. If we’re struggling to predict that, then hopefully Mauricio Pellegrino is too, such is the beauty of being able to play two different systems so well at this time of year.