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Chelsea: N'Golo Kante perfects Antonio Conte's system

Wednesday 8th February 2017
Antonio Conte's system has baffled opponents throughout this Premier League season. It is N'Golo Kante who perfects the seemingly unbeatable approach, and the Frenchman has been at the heart of an excellent team.
Chelsea have been magnificent this season. Since Arsenal dismantled them in devastating fashion all the way back in September, a loss that forced Antonio Conte into dramatic action, the Blues enjoyed a 13-match winning run. They have lost just the once in the Premier League, scoring 40 goals and conceding only eight. In fact, Conte's side have failed to win only twice in the league; an away loss at Spurs and a draw at Anfield a week ago.

The formidable run that has seen the London club rise to the top of the table, boasting a nine-point lead over their nearest challengers, has not come through the scintillating form of one or two players. Rather, it is a product of a system that exploits opponents with beautiful ruthlessness.

One of the key reasons for the tactical switch was the form of Eden Hazard. When playing with four defenders - two centre-halves and two full-backs - Hazard was tasked with tracking the opposing full-back all the way back into his own defensive third. Hector Bellerin, in that now fateful three-goal demolition, dismantled the defensive ill-discipline of the Belgian, exploiting his lack of awareness to sense danger and willingness to snuff it out when it came his way.

However, by introducing the wing backs, the genius of Conte's approach is that it gives both Hazard, and whoever is playing opposite of him, usually Pedro, the freedom to roam. With the two flanking centre-halves capable of coming into wide areas to deal with opposing wingers, the wing-backs are often matched up with the full-backs. As such, this gives Hazard little to no defensive duties.

In the rematch with the Gunners this weekend, it was the free-roaming role of both Pedro and Hazard that caused Wenger's side so many issues against the counter attack. Neither had to track the runs of Nacho Monreal and Bellerin or Gabriel Paulista. When Arsenal had the ball, they simply dropped into the inside channel in a midfield area, compacted the space centrally until they or their teammates recovered possession before breaking on the Arsenal defence, often utilising the space down the flanks that were created by the advanced positioning of the full-backs.

Moreover, not only does Conte's system set up the perfect foundation for vicious counter attacks but when in possession, it often creates two-on-ones in wide areas. With the two wing backs given the licence to push forward like wingers when Chelsea have the ball, if the opposing winger does not track the run back, then the defending full-back has two men to mark; the attacking wing-back, either Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses, and the free-roaming midfielder, either Hazard or Pedro.

This was evidenced most clearly for Chelsea's opening goal. While much of the focus has centred on the poor tracking of Theo Walcott of Alonso for the final header, the initial error comes from Mesut Ozil (who at this point is playing as a wide man with Alex Iwobi being shifted inside) on the opposite side.

Ozil does not track Moses who had drifted into an advanced position. As such, when the ball is played to him, Monreal is forced to come and meet him. This immediately creates a numbers problem for Arsenal that they cannot overcome. Moses plays a ball down the sideline for Pedro and Laurent Koscielny is therefore dragged wide with the Spaniard's run. This means that Shkodran Mustafi is forced to shift over, tracking the near post run of Hazard (note how Hazard starts this run from a central position which he is allowed to do due to Alonso providing the width on the other side). This leaves Bellerin marking Diego Costa in the middle and a no-contest battle for when the cross comes in, resulting in Alonso nodding home the rebound.

It is the outstanding set up that gives Chelsea the numbers advantage down either flank, meaning that Hazard and Pedro can roam free, influencing the game where they see fit, both when their side is enjoying comfortable possession and when looking to counter. Conte must be given great credit for the tactical approach but there is one man who perfects it.

The primary weakness of the 3-4-3 setup that Conte uses is that it can often concede the all-important battle of central midfield. Winning this battle is so important it is why teams dropped the now archaic 4-4-2 for a preferred 4-2-3-1 system which dropped one of the strikers for an attacking midfielder, adding another body to the centre of the park.

Against Chelsea, Wenger played three central midfielders - sometimes it was Francis Coquelin, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi and at other times, Iwobi was moved wide and Ozil was the third member. However, as many teams prior have also discovered, it is still not possible to dominate the central midfield area, even with the numerical advantage. That is thanks to N'Golo Kante.

The French wonder is a workhorse in central midfield. He boasts a relentless engine, boundless energy and hounds and harasses opposing players all 90 minutes. He is a far better distributor than many give him credit for but his real value comes in the sheer ground that he covers. Chelsea are able to sacrifice creativity in central areas because the system breeds space; that is the beauty of it.

What they cannot sacrifice is athleticism. That is why Cesc Fabregas cannot find his way into the side. Conte values the speed and the stamina of Kante and the power and the physicality of his partner, Nemanja Matic. Chelsea will very likely win the league. Conte's brilliant system is a major component of their success but it's Kante who perfects it.
Andrew Dowdeswell

A sport obsessed 20 something who just really wants Arsenal to finally win the league. Please Wenger, what the hell happened to you?!


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