Antonio Conte is back in the Premier League and wasted no time setting up his favorite three-way defense at Tottenham. Manchester United, Brentford, Wolves and Newcastle also used the setup in the last round of the league games, with the formation firmly back in vogue.
But it is at Conte’s former club Chelsea that the system is currently at its best.
This was Thomas Tuchel’s response to his new club’s defensive weaknesses when he arrived in West London in January and the results have been remarkable. Chelsea’s backline has turned into a nasty machine, recording 19 clean sheets in their last 30 games of the season.
This term, they remain incredibly difficult to break down. At times goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has been busier than Tuchel might have liked but raw numbers show they have only conceded four times in 11 Premier League games, the division’s best record.
Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and Thiago Silva – Chelsea’s three full-backs in their last two Premier League games – feel like a brilliant mix, while Cesar Azpilicueta and Trevoh Chalobah both delivered the goods when called up in this area of ââthe land.
But Chelsea are also the second-highest scorer and it is the attacking opportunities presented by Tuchel’s variations on this formation that have drawn attention in recent weeks. In particular the form of wingers Reece James and Ben Chilwell.
England boss Gareth Southgate described the pair as ‘the key to this system’ before helping his team – set up in the same way – rout Albania to rout on Friday night and it’s clear that the boss of the national team will benefit from these two players who become experts in these fields. roles difficult to master.
James and Chilwell have played the last three Premier League games together, after a rejuvenated Marcos Alonso presented a left-wing threat earlier in the season.
Chilwell scored four goals in five games for club and country last month, while James – who is having an exceptionally good season – has three goals and two assists in just his last five games, including a brace at Newcastle.
âHe shoots like a horse,â Tuchel said with a laugh after that game, explaining why a specific shooting practice was not required for James. But the frequency with which James and Chilwell arrive in the box is almost certainly worked on.
Among Premier League players who have played at least 450 out of a possible 990 minutes this season, James and Chilwell average more touches in the opponent’s box than any other defender.
Remarkably, James’ total of 26 touches in the opponent’s box is only two short of Joao Cancelo and three behind Aston Villa’s Matty Cash – and the top two in this metric have played more than twice as many minutes. than James this season, with suspension and an ankle injury limiting the English man’s playing time.
Finding the right balance between this offensive threat and the required defensive work is not easy to achieve, either tactically or physically. In Chelsea’s last two games, for example, Chilwell has either covered more ground or recorded more sprints than any player on the pitch, and regained possession or made more clearances than his teammates.
“We demand a lot from our wingers,” Tuchel said in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports earlier this season. “They have to defend when it’s time to defend and they have to attack when we get into the opponent’s box.
We demand a lot from our wingers. They need to defend when it’s time to defend and they need to attack when we get into the opponent’s box.
“It’s quite physically demanding, but we need it because – putting it on as easily as possible – we can’t be dangerous in the half-space if you don’t have anyone in the wide position, and you can’t. being dangerous in wide position if you don’t also have players in the half positions.
“You must have options to stretch the defenses.”
But for James and Chilwell, it’s not just a matter of plowing up and down the flank to provide that width.
The space can be opened up by their teammates on the pitch, and then there’s a degree of freedom in the final third for James and Chilwell to come inside. James spotted those moments at Newcastle and capitalized.
“Reece is allowed in, that’s not a problem,” Tuchel said after the game. “All the spaces that we want to attack from, we have all the players in the spaces where we want to be dangerous. So if there is a winger waiting far, the back winger is allowed to attack the half space. .
“We need the full-backs to come into the box to increase the scoring chances and create scoring chances.
“It’s a complex game and I don’t think Reece can score if Callum Hudson-Odoi doesn’t dribble and Chilly opens the space [in the build-up to his first goal]. Sometimes our attackers sacrifice space. “
Finding the right mix in the middle of the park hasn’t been easy for Tuchel this season.
His initial plan to have Havertz and Mason Mount play as close supporting strikers for Romelu Lukaku looked promising, but waste and injury forced Tuchel to mix up this trio, along with Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic, in different styles of attack.
The return of Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s margins, while also honoring the character of both players, is another suggestion Tuchel has yet to fully decide on his top picks in the attack zones. .
But there’s no doubt the full-backs are reliable for him right now. They also set the standard for how to play this system in the Premier League.
Conte’s Tottenham arrive at Chelsea on January 23, three days before the anniversary of Tuchel’s appointment.
The German’s back lane has already led Chelsea to a Champions League victory and by then they may well be on their way to a Premier League title as well – five seasons after Conte’s triumph with the system at Stamford Bridge.
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