The 12 Days of Football: Antonio Conte and a back three
On the first day of football/the Premier League gave to me/Antonio Conte and a back three.
Welcome to the first in a series of 12 articles that, over the holiday fixtures, will look back over football in 2017 and where it has brought us.
A nightmarish forty-five minutes a little further back, on 24 September 2016, ultimately dictated the course of last season's Premier League title. For once, Arsenal had a say in where the crown landed, even though it would once again be on someone else's head.
Arsenal's ruthless football on that Emirates Saturday condemned Antonio Conte's side to their first defeat against the Gunners in nine outings. Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott put the home side comfortably ahead in the opening quarter-hour. Mesut Ozil added the gloss five minutes from half-time.
The Gunners' thorough dominance provoked a serious re-think in the opposition dressing room at the break. Conte, having just witnessed his side dissected so nonchalantly, turned to a 3-4-3. It didn't rescue the day, but the formational switch would provide the foundation for the Blues' unthinkable surge to the title.
Media reaction to the result was suitably polarised. Alternatively, it was surmised the rout would kick-start Arsenal's first title challenge in recent memory and that Conte's hopes of a maiden title were vanquished. Famous last words.
A furious Conte drilled his men. He etched his tactics into their consciousness with an emotional jackhammer. Discipline was the mantra. It worked.
Chelsea went on a stunning 13-match winning streak, propelling the Blues to the top of the table, bewildering critics. In the aftermath of defensive humiliation in the London Derby, Chelsea would keep six straight clean sheets. Among the goal-starved victims were Manchester United and Everton. Indeed, over the entire 13 matches, the Italian's chastened squad would concede just four times.
Chelsea only tasted defeat once in 21 games following its capitulation at the Emirates. Tottenham proved the only credible competitors during the Blues' ascension, and defeated them 2-0.
The Italian's 3-4-3 combined defensive solidity with attacking flair. Three central defenders--Cesar Azplicueta, Gary Cahill, and David Luiz--provided an organised, robust platform. N'Golo Kante, an inconceivably tireless runner who had delivered a title in a different blue kit a year earlier, ensured tenacity in the middle. A calm, tactically-aware Nemanja Matic was always by his side. The two fostered an intimidating partnership. When their defensive cover was not enough, Conte was able to rely upon one of the best keepers in football. With Thibaut Courtois between the sticks, the former Juventus boss had formulated an almost impenetrable shield constructed of intense defensive discipline.
Such was the focus on defending, it would have been a logical expectation that Chelsea's creative players would be sacrificed. Yet, it was the genius of Conte's method that his advanced players feasted. Conte fielded the correct personnel to ensure the Blues' attacking appetite was not curtailed by defensive necessity.
Marcos Alonso supplied a cultured left foot and shrewd awareness. Victor Moses, who had experienced a breakthrough year, complemented the Spaniard on the other wing.The two wingbacks joined the press, stifling opposition play. Yet, as soon as the ball was won, the pair bombed forward. Willian would replace Moses to administer the killing blow against overextending sides desperate to get back in the match.
Conte's system coaxed the best from Eden Hazard, who had looked shorn of confidence the season before. Defensive protection behind him gifted the Belgian creative abandon few players receive. No longer locked into a rigid position, Hazard's enterprise and invention flourished. He roamed at will, pulling defenders out of position like threads in a torn sweater. His creative wanderlust left the direct route open to Diego Costa, who spearheaded the attack as if in his natural element.
Comprehension that Conte had fashioned a potent, effective formation was slow. Initially, few teams mirrored the Blues' style.
Spurs would later adopt it, reaping the many rewards it provides. Mauricio Pochettino just waited too long to close the gap.
Arsenal were next to fall in line. The Gunners, catalyst for this formational shift, would implement it themselves in the FA Cup final. In doing so, Arsene Wenger regained the advantage over Conte. The symmetry was poetic in its beauty. It convinced the Frenchman he should remain with the club although fans had overwhelmingly voted leave in a social media 'Wexit' blitzkrieg.
Chelsea have stalled this season. Conte lost control of his emotional jackhammer, selling Matic and tweeting Costa that his services were no longer required. Cohesion was lost, but the cat was also out of the bag. So many teams have fielded a 3-4-3 system it has punctured the tedious 4-2-3-1's Premier League hegemony. Three at the back is here to stay.
At least until the next maverick finds the perfect counter-strategy.