How Chelsea Won The 2016-17 Premier League Title Playing 3-4-2-1

Chelsea Formation 3-4-3

In an era where formations are ever-changing, the 3-4-3 has become one of the most popular to use around the world. Serie A teams have long been fans of the back three, but formations like the 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 are growing in popularity virtually everywhere – from Spain to France to Germany to even England after Antonio Conte’s renaissance.

We’ve discussed in the past how Antonio Conte won the Premier League title playing a 3-4-3 formation in his first season at Chelsea. However, what has perhaps gone under the radar in all of the discussion surrounding that historic Premier League title win, is that Chelsea actually set up more like a 3-4-2-1 in that title winning year. Here is The Mastermind Site‘s official discussion of the 3-4-2-1 formation and why it can be such an effective formation for any team to use, in addition to what allowed Chelsea to be so successful in their 2016-17 Premier League title win.

CHELSEA 2016-17

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Two months into his reign as Chelsea manager, things were not exactly going as planned for Antonio Conte. 3-0 down at half-time against arch-rivals Arsenal, Antonio Conte flipped the script and switched to a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 formation for the second half. From then on, Chelsea would win 13 games on the spin, equaling Arsenal’s long-standing 2002 Invincibles record. Although that win streak eventually came to an end against Spurs, Chelsea’s high-flying form continued and Conte became the first manager in Premier League history to win the Manager of the Month award in three consecutive months. By the end of the season his team would set a record for most wins in a single PL campaign, winning 30 of the 38 matches. One of the most fascinating things about Antonio Conte and Chelsea’s 2016-17 Premier League title win was that it was practically a direct result of a change in formation. Conte imposed a system and style of play upon his players and utilizing this system and style, the players performed to extreme heights and won the league. The Chelsea manager had very little to prove after his exploits with Juventus and Italy, but he ultimately ended up changing the common formula that had long dominated the Premier League, playing in a completely unexplored way, and inspiring several other teams and managers, even the stubborn Arsene Wenger, to adopt back-three systems themselves. This historic example is perhaps the most convincing in the argument that formations can indeed change football matches. Unlike ever before, Chelsea won the Premier League title by a direct result of a system and style of play change two months into the season.

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The formation and style of play was simply something the Premier League had never seen before and teams simply could not figure out the proper ways to play against Conte’s side. Miraculously, the Italian manager seemed to get the best out of every single player inside his preferred starting 11. David Luiz had his best ever season as a footballer acting as the libero in the back three, Cesar Azpilicueta transformed into one of the most accomplished centre backs in the world, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were finally Premier League quality players and Pedro Rodriguez helped to form an impeccable trio up top with the illustrious Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. The industriousness of N’Golo Kante and lateral shifting of Nemanja Matic balanced each other wonderfully in central midfield and Gary Cahill showed signs of a career that was far from over. Finally, Courtois was essential in not only keeping the ball out of the back of the net, but in forming a nice quartet with the back three when playing out from the back. This formation was particularly successful in creating overloads in wide areas, where Moses and Alonso would get up and down the lines and Pedro and Hazard would come inside, playing more like inverted wingers. This distinction is the reason why in hindsight this formation could actually be considered more of a 3-4-2-1 then a traditional 3-4-3. Hazard and Pedro maintained their width, but the width in the side came mostly from the overlapping runs of Alonso and Moses, who would often create a line of 5 attacking players as Pedro and Hazard drifted centrally. This was essential to Chelsea’s success and perhaps the reason above all else why they won the 2016-17 Premier League title.

3-4-2-1 ESSENTIAL CHARACTERISTICS

In 2016-17 for the first time ever, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso were Premier League quality players. Not just that. They were arguably the best fullbacks/wing-backs in the league. The introduction of Victor Moses as a wing-back was pure genius from Antonio Conte, as the Nigerian attacker was never really too much of an attacking threat as a winger. Meanwhile Marcos Alonso never looked as comfortable in a back-four during spells with Sunderland and Bolton prior to his time at Fiorentina when he played in a back-three and Conte expanded on the Spaniard’s ability as a wing-back at exactly the right time in his career. The overlapping runs of the wing-backs, creating space in wide areas, was an essential characteristic to Chelsea’s Premier League title winning formation. Similarly the movements of Pedro/Willian and Eden Hazard inside to act like inverted wingers was also key to their success. However, there were far more essential characteristics to the way they played that allowed for their success. The below are some of the other most important factors in examining this impressive formation.

LUIZ AS THE LIBERO
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In Italian, the word ‘libero’ means ‘free.’ Any player dubbed a libero in football therefore is usually a sweeper, free of man-marking duties. Under Antonio Conte, David Luiz took up exactly that role, free of man-marking duties. As a result, the Brazilian spent all of his time doing what makes him such an effective footballer. The crazy-haired defender was able to get on the ball as much as he wanted, create chances from deep and with Chelsea spending large amounts of time in possession in wide areas, David Luiz was only called into action to defend a few times per game. This isn’t to say that David Luiz is a bad defender. But it’s very clear that he at least makes very rash decisions and that playing centre back in a two-man defense does not always play to his strengths. But in the back-three system, Luiz was alongside two renowned defenders – Cesar Azpilicueta who is impeccable in 1v1 situations and former England captain Gary Cahill who has very sound positional awareness. This combination of players worked on every level and got the best out of David Luiz in possession of the ball, allowing him to spray passes all over the field and create from deep. It was also essential in how Chelsea played out from the back and in the end, why they ultimately ended up winning the title.

For more on Luiz and his role in the 3-4-2-1 system, check out this article that was written at the time – Player of the Month (January 2017): David Luiz.

A PERFECTLY BALANCED KANTE AND MATIC PARTNERSHIP
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Antonio Conte came into Chelsea at the height of the careers of two of the best defensive midfielders in the world at the time – N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic. Even though these players were already great, the Italian still deserves so much credit for what both players achieved on Chelsea’s way to winning the title. Kante went from one of the best in the world at his position, to quite literally the best in the world at his position. Matic meanwhile had arguably his best season of his career and his ability to both hold his position in central midfield and time his runs forward to perfection, allowed for Kante to go up and back as he pleased. Kante’s non-stop running allowed for constant cover in behind Victor Moses, but it also allowed Nemanja Matic to show some of his creative side too.

In a 3-4-3, the central midfielders have to be as positionally aware as possible. There are very few players that occupy central areas in this formation and so they not only have to cover a lot of ground, but understand where and how they can support the wing-backs and centre-backs in particular. Both Kante and Matic were brilliant at covering the spaces left by Moses and Alonso. The Frenchman in particular was the player most often required to fill the defensive boots as he made more tackles + interceptions than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues. What many probably forget is that Matic had quite an important creative role for Chelsea in 2016-17, assisting 7 goals. Given Kante’s impressive defensive prowess and ability to cover ground, Matic for the first time in his life was given the license to actually showcase his attacking talent and eye for a pass. On the odd occasion that Kante would dart forward, Matic was equally aware of the necessity to cover in behind and you never felt like Chelsea would be in any danger at all due to the Serbian’s commanding presence in the middle of the park. The two players balanced each other incredibly well and were absolutely essential components to Chelsea’s title win in 2016-17 playing this formation.

DIEGO COSTA WITH HIS BACK TO GOAL
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It’s been talked about over and over again just how stellar Pedro and Eden Hazard were in 2016-17 for Chelsea, but perhaps a less common narrative about their stellar title win was Diego Costa’s role in allowing the two inverted wingers to flourish. What Costa brought to Chelsea was an uncanny ability not only just to hold off one centre back, but sometimes both at the same time. This style of play was incredibly important in allowing Eden Hazard and Pedro to come inside and cause havoc for the opposition.

Diego Costa plays a lot of his football with his back to goal and his ability to hold up play, hold off the opposition centre-backs and bring the players around him into the game cannot be understated. This was a trademark of the Spaniard’s time at Chelsea and he played some of his brightest football at Stamford Bridge under the Italian manager. Not only did Costa score 20 goals in 35 Premier League matches, he also assisted 7 and created 42 chances for his teammates over the course of the season. Costa’s actually never been much of a creator and is usually one to just bang in the goals whenever required. But like most players, Diego Costa’s game transformed under Antonio Conte and he became a much more complete footballer. Playing with his back to goal was essential to the way he played and it allowed Hazard and Pedro to get on the ball, get in behind and create even more damage. Without a robust centre-forward like Costa, this formation simply would not have worked as well. He was absolutely crucial to the way they played and his role in the team cannot be understated or forgotten.

KEY TAKEAWAYS & TYPES OF PLAYERS NEEDED

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Here are some of the essential characteristics that the players need to have in the various positions in order to effectively play 3-4-2-1.

  • The goalkeeper should be good with their feet and capable of playing out from the back as well as going direct to the centre forward or front three at the right moments.
  • The middle centre back should be capable of being the main distributor of the ball. They should have a very solid on-the-ball presence, passing range and positional awareness both in and out of possession.
  • The middle centre back should also be more of the ‘libero’ – free of marking tasks.
  • If playing against a front two, one of the back three always needs to offer support as the other two keep an eye on the movement of the centre forwards. Usually, the sweeper would be the one providing the cover and balance as the outside defenders mark.
  • If one of the outside defenders is a good ball player (e.g. Azpilicueta), one of the defensive midfielders can fill in the gap as they progress forward. This was essential in allowing the Spanish fullback to achieve 4 assists, most of which came from crosses into the box from well inside the opponent’s half.
  • Defenders and central/holding midfielders must have technical ability and be able to control the game from deep.
  • Wing-backs must be good runners and have the ability to get up and down the line with ease. Wingers should also have these characteristics but may be required to have more of an on-the-ball presence than the wing-backs.
  • Centre Forward needs to be able to hold the line all on their own and create passing triangles through their link-up play with the two inverted wingers. They should be good with their back to goal and be capable of holding up the play as the wing-backs make overlapping runs and wingers drift inside.   
CONCLUSION 

Chelsea’s historic rise to the 2016-17 Premier League title was absolutely incredible to watch. Antonio Conte had the team playing in such a stunning way and managed to get the best out of every single player inside of the starting eleven. For perhaps the first time ever, a team won the Premier League title as a result of a change in system and style of play two months into the season. Conte’s Chelsea were absolutely incredible to watch in 2016-17 and will forever go down as history-makers for their incredible influence on back-three formations in England and the 3-4-2-1 system. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

For more articles like this check out are Premier League and Tactics sections. You might also like How the Best Managers in the World used Formations to Gain an Advantage

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