Ever since Roberto Di Matteo’s time as Chelsea manager the team have ditched the traditional 4-3-3 model that was set up under the Mourinho era and adopted a 4-2-3-1 system. Arguably this was Andre Villas-Boas’ parting gift to the club. Suggestions were that Di Matteo’s line up against Birmingham was going to involve the same tactics that Villas-Boas had planned as this is what they had been training on. The formation was used prior against Napoli at the San Paolo to very little effect. Personnel issues were more to blame than the tactics themselves. Since then it has become a structure that this Chelsea team appear to suit more and more as each game passes.
I’m going to attempt my best Villas-Boas impression and explain the system by looking at the structure and how it sets up in both the defending and attacking phase of the game.
What does the formation consist of? It has the traditional flat back four base. Two full backs and two centre backs, there is rarely a deviation from this anywhere in the Premiership. Then come the two ‘holding’ midfielders, I use the term holding loosely as they tend to be involved in the attacking phase of the game and possibly should be considered more box to box midfielders, they are essentially in charge for keeping the teams shape throughout the match, looking to break up opposition plays and drive the team’s own attempts. The issue with the Napoli game was the pairing of Ramires and Meireles – both aren’t the most physically imposing presence nor do they relish their defensive duties. The role is more suited to the physical style of Mikel or Essien and when partnered with Frank Lampard there is a balance between attack and defence. Ahead of the two pivot midfielders come the three supporting players; Two wingers and the man in the hole or what some consider the number 10 role. They are the creative forces behind the team’s attacks. Finally the attack is spearheaded by a lone striker, the system asks for a constant effort from the player and work rate is as important as any other attribute.
In many ways the formation can still be viewed as a form of 4-3-3 but there are subtle tactical differences which differentiate it from the aforementioned formation that has been the stable of Chelsea’s success over the past decade.
Defensive phase – how does it set up? Under Roberto Di Matteo there is less talk of a high line, constant pressing of the ball and other ‘footballing phrases’ Villas-Boas was incredibly fond of. Yes, the idea of playing the high line with pressure applied right through the team is fantastic but the squad don’t have the capabilities to play in that way. Di Matteo has realised this and in turn focused on a simpler style of defending. It still requires hard work right from the striker to the last man.
Transitioning from attack to defence results in the wingers to drop back into a more recognisable midfield role and look to support the full backs in their defensive duties, virtually the system becomes a 4-5-1 when defending. Pressure usually comes from the striker and the man in behind him. On the occasions that the wingers find themselves pressing up high or the full backs are in an advanced position, the two pivot midfielders stretch across the pitch to cover any gaps.
The design is intended to be hard to break down, congest the middle whilst double teaming any wide threats. No longer is the back four pushed up field but they sit back and have the majority of the field in front of them, allowing less chance for the opposition to exploit the space in behind. When crosses do find their way into the box, the central defenders are expected to deal with the situation as ever.
It has worked effectively over the last month as Chelsea have managed 4 clean sheets in their last 8 games. Having only previously managed 12 clean sheets in 38 games. For those that are interested in maths, that is an improvement of 18%.
Attacking phase – How does it set up? When transitioning from defence to attack the first thing to note is the quick break of the wingers. They look to get upfield, spread the defence and provide support for the striker. The back four look to set up a base line higher up the field. The two pivot midfielders provide outlets for the defence and look to get the ball to wide men or the player in behind the striker. The latter aims to find holes in between the lines of the defence and midfield and is the creative playmaker within the team, who is given the task of creating the chances for those around him, but to also get a few goals in the process himself.
Due to the personnel at Chelsea, their options at winger all tend to drift infield and this can lead to congestion in the middle of the park and is why it is essential that the full backs get forward as they do. The full backs are occasionally joined by one of the centre backs, who are given licence to take the ball out from defence, when this situation occurs there is a seamless transition when one of the pivot midfielders drops back and fills the gap vacated by the defender.
Depending on the striker whether it be Fernando Torres or Didier Drogba, the route to goal is changed. With Torres emphasis is on slipping the ball behind the defence for the striker to run into and use his pace to get past. Whereas with Drogba it is traditionally a more direct route into the striker and for the supporting cast to feed off him.
Under Di Matteo, Chelsea have failed to score in only one game in the last eight. That came in the goalless draw with Tottenham. 19 goals in the last 8 games (2.38 per game) is again an improvement to the 68 managed in the previous 38 games (1.79 per game).
Conclusion – There really are only slight differences between this current formation and the 4-3-3. The most significant is its use of the man in behind the striker. Usually this role is given to Juan Mata and it is an attempt to maximise his time on the ball. No longer is the team attempting to replicate the successful Porto system of last year. It is also interesting to note that the formation was implemented under Villas-Boas but whether it would have had the success that it has enjoyed under Di Matteo is questionable.
Defensive and attacking improvements mean that it is only logical to conclude that the change has been successful, it has no doubt also brought the best out of Fernando Torres and the team as a whole seem to play better under the striker’s resurgence. Whether the formation will be carried onto next season will all depend on the manager in charge (For those who still dream the return of the ‘Special One’ it is his chosen formation at Real Madrid) but it does seem to get the best out of the current crop of players and will give fans hope for the club to end the season in a Champions League spot and claim at least one piece of silverware.