How can Antonio Conte's Chelsea stay a step ahead of Tottenham in double quest?
Antonio Conte has had a huge impact on Premier League tactics this season, writes Richard Jolly, but can he stay ahead of the pack in Chelsea's bid for the double?
Antonio Conte is pioneer and trailblazer, the man who may not just have changed Chelsea, but the Premier League. His influence is apparent in the league table, but also on teamsheets across England. He is a tactical revolutionary who is suddenly encountering the difficulties radicals sometimes face when their unorthodox ideas filter into the mainstream.
Without Conte, it is hard to imagine that 17 of the 20 top flight clubs would have played a back three at some stage this season. Without Conte, it is less likely that all of the top seven would have done. Even Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, those obstinate devotees of a back four, have borrowed from his blueprint. The 3-4-2-1 formation Arsenal used at Middlesbrough on Monday was Conte-esque. Mourinho studied Conte’s handbook and concluded it was the best way to beat him on Sunday.
Jose Mourinho manager of Manchester United signals as Antonio Conte manager of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on April 16, 2017 in Manchester, EnglandGetty Images
Mauricio Pochettino was the first to prove that imitation could be the sincerest form of victory. When Tottenham and Chelsea reconvene at Wembley on Saturday, it may be with Spurs again playing 3-4-2-1, looking to defeat Conte’s charges by mirroring them.
Tottenham’s January win helped illustrate that, commanding as Chelsea’s lead has been for much of the season, their players are not necessarily vastly better. Their squad is certainly not deeper. Theirs has been a triumph of mystery, strategy and geometry. They have got their angles and distances right, camouflaging individual shortcomings, confusing opponents, liberating flair players.
Rewind 20 years and British football, trapped in its 4-4-2 straitjacket, was baffled by the invasion of the No. 10s, materialising between the lines to wreak havoc. Quite apart from the considerable individual qualities of Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola, the tactical failings of many a manager permitted them to excel.
Advance to the current day and Conte took that a stage further. Teams may now be accustomed to facing one No. 10, but not two. The freer roles afforded to Eden Hazard and Pedro, with fewer defensive responsibilities, have since been granted to Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, even Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Conte’s scheme was too compelling, his results too convincing.
Hazard v Walker and EriksenPA Photos
Given the way his Italy and Juventus teams played 3-5-2, it is unfair to say Conte stumbled on a solution. But it is logical to conclude it has gone far better than he could have envisaged. Twenty-one wins in 26 league games represents a stunning return, especially considering Marcos Alonso initially seemed a squad player and Victor Moses a makeshift wing-back.
His ideas were not actually new as much as newish to English football; Roberto Martinez actually played 3-4-2-1 at times with Wigan, but everyone just assumed he was a smiling oddity and no-one cloned his idiosyncratic side. When Conte introduced it, others were swifter to take note, and not just at the top of the table. Joe Allen took up the Hazard role for Stoke. Mame Biram Diouf became the Moses of the Potteries. Even Leicester, who practically trademarked 4-4-2 on their improbable title march, threatened to reach the Champions League semi-finals with an impromptu switch to 3-4-2-1. It was proof success is studied. Lessons are learned. In the process, sides can be stopped.
Conte seemed to configure his recalibrated team in record time. Chelsea only conceded two goals in their first 12 league games with a back three. Now they have no clean sheet in the last 10. The machine looks less well-oiled. Others are looking to put spokes in the wheels.
Part of the reason Conte was copied is that 3-4-2-1 has trumped 4-2-3-1 consistently this season. Yet Pochettino proved that mirroring it can beat it. While using different shapes, Sam Allardyce and Mourinho have made the Chelsea defence look fallible by counter-attacking with two quick strikers. Eddie Howe tried the same approach. Dele Alli almost operated as a second striker in January and may do so again on Saturday. Apart from Mourinho’s decision to man-mark Hazard with Ander Herrera, there have been common denominators in defeats and difficulties.
Which means attention turns back to Conte. Beyond a couple of mid-match switches in search of winners or equalisers, his tactics have been set in stone since October. Yet he has proved more flexible in the past than that suggests: an agile mind has not changed simply because of a lack of need.
Chelsea's Michy Batshuayi in actionReuters
Conte seemed quick to conclude he does not have the players for the 4-2-4 he favoured at Bari and Siena and which he initially spoke of using with Chelsea. The perennial replacement Michy Batshuayi represents a reason why he never starts with two strikers. But he did play 4-3-3 at times with both Juventus and Italy, and that may be an option.
Or such plans could be postponed. Chelsea have probably got enough leeway in the title race, especially given Tottenham’s tougher fixture list. But the double is on the line on Saturday as Conte contemplates the problems all great influencers face sooner or later: after one wonderful idea is widely adopted, what do they do next? How do they keep on innovating and stay a step ahead of everyone else?