There was an expectation from amongst some that Conte would bring a system built upon a back three with him to Chelsea. This expectation came from Conte using back three systems at his previous two jobs: the Italian National Team and Juventus. But in both of those examples, Conte made it apparent that he was playing that shape because of the personnel at his disposal – most notably centre-backs Barzagli, Bonucci and Chellini.
Since the end of the Euros and Conte’s time with Italy, he has publicly announced his intention to play what he describes as a 4-2-4, applying the system in pre-season friendlies against Real Madrid and Liverpool. So what his time with Italy and Juve teaches us is not his preferred formation but his willingness to adapt to context. Though, that in turn means that we may see instances of other formations, including back threes, if and when appropriate.
What Conte has shown us this pre-season is a system that is very comparable to that of current Premier League champions Leicester City and even more so to that of Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Not just in that they all operate in formations that can be described as 4-4-2 but the way they make a shape that was previously though as obsolete work for them.
4-4-2 becoming synonymous with old-fashioned comes from the weaknesses created by, offensively, a lack of players finding space between the lines, and defensively, two players being dedicated forwards who leave the defence outnumbered against single striker teams. In order to make the 4-4-2 work, Simeone and Ranieri have set up eleven-man defences that defend in very compact low blocks with the forwards creating the first line of defence – a 4-4-2-0. The focus on defending the centre leaves the opposition free to send in crosses from out wide, but as Conte looks to be embracing the physical nature of the Premier League by deploying strong and tall players all over the pitch in a man-orientated pressing system, they could prove very resistant to this method.
In attack, the two wide-men behave less like traditional wide-midfielders who look to hug the touchline and swing in crosses in the attacking phase, and more like attacking midfielders cutting inside onto their strong feet, occupying the half-spaces and getting in behind the opposition midfield with the full-backs providing the width.
This system has worked incredibly well for both Leicester, securing the league title, and Atleti, making it to two recent Champions League finals. It’s very strong defensively and enables lightning fast transitions from defence to attack. But it is a little limited outside of counter-attacking football. The 4-2-4 attacking shape puts a lot of defensive responsibility on the two-man central-midfield. Players who are both defensively strong and creative are a rare breed, which means the system will either be defensively weak, or lacking in creativity from deep, which is crucial for picking the lock of defensive teams.
Cesc Fabregas personifies this issue. He was already something of a defensive liability under Mourinho when playing a 4-2-3-1 and would be even more so under Conte, but without him in the team there’s question over Chelsea’s ability to break down parked buses. On the other end of the spectrum, Kante, with his absurdly high work rate and defensive reading of the game, is an outstanding counterattacking footballer, but that seemed to offer little to France at the Euros because they were forced to be the attacking team in the majority of their games. That’s surely likely to be the situation for Chelsea for the majority of the coming season.
Simeone has switched to a 4-3-3 shape when chasing the lead on several occasions, and given how we have already established Conte’s tendency for pragmatism we could well see an alternative shape from Chelsea that revolves around introducing Fabregas to a three-man midfield.