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Resurgent Chelsea will pose problems on both sides of the ball

Can Everton deal with Conte’s 3-4-3?

Chelsea v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After one of Everton’s most complete performances of the season, they head on the road to Stamford Bridge to face 4th-place Chelsea. The 2-0 win over West Ham was Everton’s first in a month and a half. Meanwhile Chelsea are riding a four-game winning streak in the League where they’ve outscored their opponents 11-0. More on that in a bit.

Chelsea overview

We all know what happened to Chelsea last year. They came into the season as title defenders and contenders—though not without some warning signs—and ended it in 10th place, their lowest finish in two whole decades. The poor form from the end of 2014-15 crept into the beginning of 2015-16, Jose Mourinho completely lost the team, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa disappeared, and they leaked goals at an alarming rate. Ultimately Chelsea finished with goals, shots, and shot on target numbers in the top 8 on the attacking side, but on the defensive side conceded more shots on target than the entire league bar Aston Villa, Sunderland, and, um, Everton.

Mourinho somehow managed to last until December, but by April Antonio Conte, whose contract with Italy expired at the end of the summer’s European Championship, had signed up to take over at Stamford Bridge. Conte brought with him 3 Serie A titles from his Juventus days and a reputation of tactical flexibility and sterling man management, all sprinkled with just a bit of controversy.

Now ten games into the season, it seems things are back in order at the club. Chelsea are just a point off of the top of the table and have tightened up significantly at the back, ranking 3rd in goals against, 3rd in shots against, and 1st in shots on target against. On the attack they remain in the top 5 in those categories.

From a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-3-3

During their first four matches, Chelsea played in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 with N’Golo Kanté the deepest midfielder, a resurrected Nemanja Matić just ahead of him, and Oscar as the number 8/10. Eden Hazard and Willian or Pedro roamed the left and right wings respectively with Diego Costa the center forward. The Blues flew out of the gates in this system, winning three, drawing one, outscoring their opponents 9-4, and registering 8.1 expected goals for to 2.0 against according to Michael Caley’s model.

Frequent readers here will know that I love Sander Ijtsma’s pass maps, and they tell an interesting story here. In the 4-1-4-1, Chelsea mainly attacked up the wings, using combinations between their skill players and central midfielders in the flanks and half spaces to advance the ball. There is little attempt to penetrate directly through the middle. This tendency was noted by Tom Payne in his Spielverlagerung review of Conte’s first league match with Chelsea, it’s something that is borne out well in the pass maps (you can also see how it’s more of a 4-3-3 going forward, but the name of the formation is less important than what’s actually happening):

Note the emphasis in wide areas and lack of activity in the middle. As noted above, this system did pretty well, and immediately Hazard and Costa both looked to be back to their normal 2014-15 selves.

Conte tweaked the tactics slightly for their home match against Liverpool, deploying a 4-2-3-1 against Jürgen Klopp’s hyperactive high-pressing 4-3-3. They were a bit sloppy but ultimately had a good second half and perhaps deserved a draw rather than the 1-2 loss. In Chelsea’s next match against Arsenal though, this happened:

Chelsea were back in their 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 and Arsenal in their customary 4-2-3-1. The Gunners were very positive in possession and had an absolute field day through the middle:

Arsenal’s first goal came from a silly Gary Cahill mistake, but their second came from a more tactically interesting scenario. On Monday Night Football this week, Thierry Henry discussed the play:

To summarize, Hazard needed to track back more than he is used to or willing to, and the combination of Theo Walcott’s pace/intelligence, and the natural passing ability of Arsenal’s central players wreaked havoc.

The Arsenal loss was Chelsea’s second in a row, and it was a pretty bad one. So, in typical Conte fashion, Chelsea switched things up. Against Hull they came out in a 3-4-3, bringing in former Bolton (lol) and Fiorentina left back Marcos Alonso as the wing back. Victor Moses has also been reborn in the right wing back role, and his tireless running has given Chelsea an extra body in attack, while providing additional support for defence. The result is that Eden Hazard now has the cover that he did not have for Walcott’s goal, and the team in general is more solid across the back.

In the four games since the formation switch, Chelsea have scored 11 and conceded 0. Hull may not be an impressive team to beat, but the other three were Leicester, Manchester United, and Southampton. Note the much larger roles being played by Kanté and Matić:

Interestingly, Chelsea have passed with less accuracy, possessed the ball less, and played slightly deeper in the 3-4-3, but clearly Conte is okay with sacrificing certain stylistic aspects to reinforce the midfield connections and make sure that Hazard has the freedom to do his thing.

Speaking of Hazard, if you hadn’t gathered by now, the dude is back. Conte, in keeping with his reputation of designing systems to get the best out of his players, has unleashed the Belgian winger. One of the aspects of his game that makes him so dangerous is his ability to dictate the game from wide areas, combining pure skill with intelligence and a killer instinct to almost single-handedly create chances. A good example of what I’m talking about is here, from the Arsenal game.

Chelsea’s game is designed largely around isolating him against defenders, and Everton can expect to see a lot of this on Saturday.

Matching up with Everton

Everton faced a similar dilemma a few weeks ago against Manchester City. They were away from home, facing a top team in a 3-4-3. Ronald Koeman’s answer was to go conservative, fielding a defensive midfield trio of Idrissa Gueye, Gareth Barry, and Tom Cleverley behind a counter-attacking trio of Gerard Deulofeu, Yannick Bolasie, and Romelu Lukaku. It...sort of worked? They drew the game, and while City definitely had more chances (and two saved penalties), only Southampton and Tottenham have done that well, holding them to just 1.1 expected goals.

Thing is, Chelsea’s 3-4-3 is a bit different than City’s. Henry and Jamie Carragher address this in the video above but essentially City play with wingers and Chelsea play with more defensively-minded wing backs who will sit back and help combine with the central midfielders. Combine that with the fact that Gueye is suspended for this match, and you’ve got a recipe for absolute midfield domination. I’m not saying that Koeman should do anything drastically different here than what he did against City, just that he needs to worry extra hard now about being overrun in the midfield. Gueye’s ability to be the water-carrier will be sorely missed, and any poor touches in central areas will be punished mercilessly by Chelsea, as in their last match against Southampton:

With Gueye, James McCarthy, and Muhamed Bešić all out of the squad for this match, it’s unclear what the answer is in the middle alongside Barry. Cleverley will likely get the nod again, but the only remaining central midfielder is Darron Gibson. Koeman could use Barkley in a deeper role, or just roll the dice and let Barry play in a midfield two alongside Cleverley. That seems a bit suicidal though, especially in light of Paul Riley’s recent keen insights into how Barry and Gueye have been dragged wide more often than any other midfield pairing in the league. How they can keep this up given the available personnel is uncertain.

In any case, I’d expect Koeman to again be conservative and try to play compact. I think Deulofeu is again a good fit for this match due to his counter-attacking ability, at least off the bench if not to start. If Chelsea have looked weak anywhere this season, it’s been when their own defence has been stretched wide.

The fact that only Arsenal have truly given Chelsea defensive problems, and that Conte has adjusted since then, doesn’t exactly bode well for the Toffees. With that being said, Everton are coming off a solid performance and have an intelligent, pragmatic manager. I’d be surprised if they were run over, but I’d also be surprised if they won.