Chelsea’s formula for success: Olivier Giroud, the 4-2-3-1 or both?

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - APRIL 14: Olivier Giroud of Chelsea celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Southampton and Chelsea at St Mary's Stadium on April 14, 2018 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - APRIL 14: Olivier Giroud of Chelsea celebrates after scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Southampton and Chelsea at St Mary's Stadium on April 14, 2018 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images) /

Chelsea went down 2-0 with Alvaro Morata in a 3-4-3, then won 3-2 with Olivier Giroud in a 4-2-3-1. Antonio Conte should try each combination of striker and formation to find out what works.

Antonio Conte would make a poor research professor. After Southampton scored their second goal on Saturday he immediately changed his striker and formation. Chelsea were immediately more threatening, leading up to Olivier Giroud scoring on both sides of Eden Hazard’s equalizer.

Conte obviously made the right call, but only by confounding variables. What decision produced the win: Was it Giroud, the formation or the change of formation featuring Giroud?

The case for Giroud benefits from the recency effect and the emotional salience of his performance. His two goals were dramatic, inspiring, essential and impeccably timed. They were also his first at Chelsea in the Premier League. Calls for him to start overlook his two Premier League starts with no goals – against 20th place West Bromwich Albion and then-18th place Crystal Palace, and his Champions League start in the thrashing at Barcelona.

Giroud has a presence on the pitch the Blues do not have with Alvaro Morata. He is physically imposing, and willing to use his size and strength in his play. Simply staying on his feet and retaining possession gives him a leg up on Morata. He is the quintessential “reference point” striker Antonio Conte looks for, both in his size and persona.

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But all those are supporting characteristics. Even in a sophisticated Antonio Conte framework, strikers have one overarching job: score goals. That is what every striker is judged by. Just ask Alvaro Morata.

Morata ended his goalless streak in the last game before the March international break. He scored in the first game back against Tottenham, and followed that with an assist against West Ham. He was back to doing what strikers must do, but because he did not do it in the most recent game in dramatic fashion, fans want him on the bench.

Morata has been far stronger for Chelsea in the last month than most of the season. He is not going to ground as easily, he is making more accurate and purposeful passes off of long-balls from the goalkeeper and he is creating better scoring opportunities. The Spaniard is improving and delivering, including the final product. Just not against Southampton.

The change in formation allowed Chelsea to play deeper in Southampton’s zone, pinning the Saints well into their box. The three wingers held the line at the top of the box, with N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas barely 10 yards behind them. Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso moved perfectly as full-backs, sometimes stretching Southampton out wide and other times overloading them by coming inside. Chelsea used the formation to break Southampton tactically and psychologically, resulting in their final two goals.

Olivier Giroud’s first goal was nearly identical to the many goals Alvaro Morata scored courtesy of passes from Cesar Azpilicueta, just on the other side of the pitch. His second goal was similar to the winning goals Michy Batshuayi provided on pitches from West Bromwich Albion to Madrid. Giroud did not do anything Chelsea’s current strikers are not capable of doing. Perhaps the formation did all the work.

Olivier Giroud is the newest Blue, and appears to have more faith and fight than his tenured counterparts. Chelsea are seven points out of fourth with five games remaining. That is enough for Giroud. “As long as mathematically it is going to be possible, we are going to believe. We take the games one by one and we have maybe five or six finals to play.” Conte must now decide what chances he is willing to take in search of a winning solution – a new suit for this team – for each of these finals, hopefully including the actual final of the FA Cup.

Antonio Conte has little to lose by experimenting with different combinations of striker and formation. The 3-4-3 is desperately in need of replacement – or maybe it simply needs a more potent striker. The 4-2-3-1 can leave Chelsea exposed at the back, as Andrea Christensen and Gary Cahill learned as they chased down (and Andreas Christensen took down) Dusan Tadic in the second half. But if they can score three goals, they can afford to concede one or two in a way they could not throughout this low-margin season.

If Chelsea have nothing left to play for, these experiments will set the stage for next season and show where Chelsea need to reinforce this summer. If the Blues believe they can chase down Tottenham and win the FA Cup, they will need more than the system and players who have been beaten so many times this season.

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And, if nothing else, we all want answers about what made the difference against Southampton. No one more so than Antonio Conte.