Conte Tactics and the Wisdom of Mike Tyson

By, Aldemaro Narvaez

The start of the new Premier League term is literally weeks away, and while the club is expanding its “brand” in Asia and side-stepping questionable delicacies found only in the Arsenal buffet line, the squad is still very much a work in progress.  Some players have departed the club looking for their big chance (Chalobah and Solanke), some found their next opportunity (Ake, Begovic, Cuadrado), and some kept hacking at the problem until they managed to find a way out like the football version of James Franco in 127 Hours…while bleeding and celebrating all over an Atletico shirt.

The transfer window still hangs open and deals—along with some inexplicably long medicals—will be worked out all the way to deadline day.  It is inevitable the squad will continue to change, and the fabric, buttons, and stitching of the suit will once again need to be exquisitely tailored by Antonio Conte and his backroom staff.  Although the ultimate components of the squad, like Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, remain a mystery, the cut of the suit—or tactics—that will be deployed by Conte are beginning to take shape.  This is the Italian’s first full summer transfer window at Chelsea and, price gouging aside, the type of targets the Blues are tracking say a lot about what we will be doing on the pitch, the modes of attack, and the shape of the defense that will be used to repel the chasing pack.


In the words of “Iron” Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So, what are our plans, how will we punch, and how are we likely to counterattack if the punches come our way? To me, Conte is apt to switch formations at least once in each game, and the players in the squad will need to adapt to their morphing responsibilities without missing a beat (or face the wrath of an Italian’s words and hand gestures).

Spiegheremo le formazioni! Onward to the formation breakdown!

3-4-3 (Or 3-4-2-1): Our Current Significant Other


Chelsea hobbled with a 4-3-3 for the first few match days of 2016 until the first half of that faithful September 24, 2016 Arsenal defeat.  Midway through the 3-0 loss and with Gooners elated at what they were seeing on the pitch, Conte switched to three at the back and threw caution to the wind. The gamble amassed 27 wins out of 32 games; punctuated by a 13-game winning streak using the 3-4-3.

Most successfully implemented in the 1970s by Ajax, the 3-4-3 focuses on a strong attack and a strong defensive control in the center of the pitch.  This formation benefits tremendously from having a good pair of central defenders (Kante and Bakayoko) and a forward (Morata) that drags defenders into the box to open the flanks for the two wingers (Hazard/Pedro/Willian/Musonda).  The 3-4-3 also requires the fullbacks (Alonso/Moses/hopefully someone else…please…pretty please?) to push up and wide and pin opposition defenders in their half of the so they’re unable to easily bring the ball out and/or cause turnovers.  This formation does require the central midfielders to recover quickly and transition from attack to defense, which is something that Bakayoko may be well suited to perform with the security blanket that Kante provides to the three center-backs.

With regard to the Chelsea back line in the 3-4-3, the three central defenders tend to have good knowledge and feel for the space between them and will plug the center of the pitch in the event a counter comes at the heart of the line.  The CBs may at times spread or shift their defense to adjust to the incoming threats with the knowledge that the wingbacks can provide additional numbers along the flanks. However, as we learned in several games last term, not all is perfect with this formation. With the wingbacks up raiding the edges of the pitch like pirates and privateers, they can leave the back three open for the counter along the wings.  This is even more of an issue if one of the CMs gets caught upfield with his hand in the cookie jar.  Man City had a field day with this during our first meeting last year.  They used De Bruyne and Silva to great effect to carve out our back line, and the game may have turned out a lot differently if the goalpost gods were not on our side that day.


Outside of tactical concerns, the main issue with using the 3-4-3 again this year will be the fact that several of the main title challengers managed to neutralize the formation by either mimicking, man-marking, or exploiting the weaknesses with their high-quality players during our second meetings.  Still, of all the formations to discuss, there is already familiarity in the 3-4-3 and a high degree of effectiveness utilizing this formation all the way to a championship.  If I was a betting man, I would venture a guess that we will line up in the 3-4-3 on August 12 at Burnley. I would also bet that we will stop relying and drop this formation in the early days of this term.

4-2-4: The Sexy Ex


Conte likes the 4-2-4. Like, confidently ask for a date, take her to a fine tapas restaurant while flamenco dancers stomp on stage, and then make a move in the cab kind of “Likes”.  It has been rumored that this is what Conte wanted to play at Chelsea all along, and even tried out the formation during preseason in 2016.  Conte has had 4-2-4 success with Juventus and some of his other early charges, and with more of “Conte players” coming in this window, he is likely to be tempted into full deployment of this formation—castanets would be optional for our Spanish contingency.

The success of this formation lies in the fact that most people have played this system.  Don’t believe me?  Sure, when you play with the ball and are attacking the opposition, the 4-2-4 looks to overwhelm defenses with width and speed along the sidelines and strength along the center with two forwards; however, when not holding the ball, the wings race back to the center of the pitch and play your basic 4-4-2.

While in defense, the 4-2-4 looks to take up space in the midfield to win and keep possession, but the intent once the ball is won is to cover space through good passing and move the attack forward (instead of tiki-taka ball possession).  There is some flexibility in how to use central defenders in this formation.  For example, Kante could set as a more deep-lying defender to shield the back line, and allow Fabregas to play to his strength and provide outlet passes to the attack (resembling more of a 4-1-4-1 in some cases).


A word of caution to the use of 4-2-4 or 4-4-2, Jose had a tough time getting Hazard to track back and keep shape along the left side in that disastrous 10th place finish season when we played a 4-3-3.  It is likely that we may revert to expecting more from Eden than he is willing to give—although he is fully capable of playing in this formation as is evident by Hazard’s contributions when he won the PFA Player of the Year Award in 2015.  I would be slightly worried with getting a player like Hazard to chip in defensively on a regular basis.  A leopard don’t change his spots.

Also, these formations can be beat by a good team playing a 4-3-3 as there would be an extra midfielder in opposition to win and keep possession and move the attack along.  Own-goals aside, you can’t score if you don’t have the ball.

3-5-2: Adventurously Bringing in an Extra Friend


There’s always that one friend.  Sure, it may be a limited time thing and getting permission might be a tall order, but when it’s on…IT’S ON. I can imagine Cesc waiting on the bench and making advances and suggestive innuendoes.  All jokes aside, having that third midfielder in the center of the pitch could yield significant results.


With two CFs and three midfielders, there would be limited chances of getting overrun in the center of the pitch by the opposition. Great against the 4-4-2 (and the bottom half of the table that tends to turtle in its protective shell), the 3-5-2 neutralizes strikers and wingers alike and allows for a certain passing maestro to wreak havoc along the wings or through the center.  Positional awareness is key to keep the three central defenders as a unit as bombing wingers and false 9 strikers can cause confusion and open spaces by splitting defenders.

For Chelsea, Hazard is likely to play off Morata at the front, and would require a lot of running from our wingbacks (of which we have limited stock), to provide width and balance in attack and defense.  In the midfield, we may be able to open more options with Cesc, Bakayoko, Kante, and potentially Luiz as a CB/CDM hybrid that could drop into the back line to provide numbers in a pinch or distribute the ball out of the back.  It’s an intriguing proposition and one that can look attractive.  Hopefully things don’t get weird afterward.

4-3-3: The Friend With Benefits


We know this one from the days of Ancelotti (using the more classic version), Hiddink, and Mourinho. It’s the old standby. You can call upon it anytime since it’s always waiting by the phone. Conte tried it. It was too needy. Conte changed it.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this formation as it requires a defensive Colossus in midfield (Kante) with and a couple of attacking cohorts (Bakayoko and Fabregas) to transition from defense to offense.  This jumping in from the attacking midfields along with the wingers and forward, can overwhelm defenses as crosses, shots, and goals seem to come from everywhere.

We have seen a variant of this (4-5-1) during Mourinho’s return and title win in 2014/15 when Cesc was peppering passes to Costa and the Blues steamrolled the league.

The main issue with the 4-3-3 is that the right players are needed.  Hazard cannot be walking back to the center line while the opposition run past him (remember Azpilicueta getting marooned and exploited by multiple attackers on a weekly basis?).  The fullbacks are equally as important on offense as defense.  My concern along the right, if Azpilicueta is manning the station, I that we’d be limited offensively, and along the left, that Alonso—who provides decent offensive and defensive contributions—will be caught out of position or hung out to dry by Hazard.

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The faults, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves

So…Bachelorette Number 1, Number 2, Number 3, or Number 4?

For me, I think a 3-5-2 or a variant of that formation will be the chosen one. Recent rumors that Cesc will have an increased role in the side just nudges me in this direction.  This also would diminish the roles of the wingers, which we have not been chasing. I have not heard us trying to bring in a Berardi or a Bernardeschi. We have had a very public courtship of Sandro and to a lesser degree Danilo.  All signs point to more emphasis on a solid back line and wingbacks that can move.  In this formation, I would like to see Rudiger, Azpi/Luiz, and Christensen at the back.  I think it is critical for us to get bigger, stronger, and much better at passing from all CB positions.

In any case, I think Conte will also look to switch the tactics of his side as each game wears on. Switching from wingers to midfielders to wingbacks will keep the opposition guessing.  One thing is certain, we won’t remain the same.  In the wise words of “Iron” Mike Tyson, “I ain’t the same person I was when I bit that guy’s ear off” and neither should we.


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Thumbnail image courtesy of: HBO

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