Frank Lampard’s shift to a three-man defence brought Marcos Alonso and Willian into the Chelsea starting XI for the first time this season. Both players made a strong case for continuing with this formation and their inclusion.
Chelsea are positively thriving on adversity this season, not just plugging through obstacles but rising above them so well you’re almost thankful those obstacles were there. Transfer ban, meet the Cobham graduates. Injuries, meet old and young players locking down their place in the lineup. More injuries, welcome back the 3-4-3, Marcos Alonso and Willian, long may they all remain.
Willian nominally played as the right wing, but approached his 2014/15 levels of coverage and two-way play across the pitch. For the first half hour he stayed mainly on the right, dropping back along the touchline to support Cesar Azpilicueta and form the top of a tight defensive shape with Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and either Mateo Kovacic or Jorginho coming over from midfield.
This is the sort of integrated coverage Chelsea lacked in their first four games of the season, leaving Azpilicueta exposed to opponents’ attacks and the vapid barbs of fans and pundits, alike. The extra centre-back allowed Azpilicueta to push higher, interdicting Wolves closer to midfield and with the knowledge that the team’s best tackling centreback was between him and the goal. But Willian’s willingness to drop quickly deep in the defensive transition and help Azpilicueta win turnovers protected both Azpilicueta and Rudiger from being isolated against Wolves’ forwards.
As the game went on Willian stayed on the right when the Blues were entering the final third, often competing with Azpilicueta for the honour of being furthest to the right. In most other game states, though, Willian played just ahead of the midfielders and more centrally, sometimes even drifting towards the left flank to cover Marcos Alonso as Mason Mount marshalled the attack.
Willian’s willingness to take a more defensive position recalled those games late in 2016/17 when he was one of the key players, along with Pedro, in Chelsea’s quasi-transition from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2. Under Antonio Conte, the Blues would attack in a 3-4-3, but would transition and defend in a 3-5-2, with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa up top and Willian joining the midfield line.
His work rate to cover all these responsibilities complemented his reading of the game to know where to be and when, combining what he learned about the system from Conte with the freedom to make decisions and follow the game Frank Lampard encourages.
The biggest area of concern coming into the game was the prospect of Marcos Alonso defending Adama Traore one-on-one. Alonso won two of their first three 1v1 battles within the opening 15 minutes. Traore had the better of Alonso as the game went on, but by that point Chelsea had Wolves reeling and unable to muster the sort of coordinated attack to break down what would become a five-man defence. Like all good systems, Lampard’s set-up perfectly accounted for his players strengths and weaknesses: Fikayo Tomori and the two other centre-backs covered Alonso in those one-on-one situations with Traore, while also providing him a platform to join the attack as he does so well.
Alonso needed that first half hour to find his rhythm on the left flank, that is to say, to remember that as good as he is on the left, he is even better when he makes his way into the box.
Chelsea’s “false-three” was an extra attacking presence at the top of Wolves’ area. His movement and positioning when he assisted on Tammy Abraham’s second goal was pure Alonso. With Cesar Azpilicueta increasingly proficient at sending crosses in from wide positions and, given the system, able to stay deeper and prepare to recover on defence, Alonso could push up and in on offence.
Like Azpilicueta and Willian each trying to get wider than the other on the right, sometimes Alonso and Mason Mount were too close to each other in central positions. Mount, by position and ability, should have the right-of-way when it comes to the penalty box over Alonso, who, by position and ability, should be covering the wider areas. These are details, though, that will resolve themselves with more practice and games in the formation.
The recent confluence of injuries likely drove Frank Lampard’s decision to switch to the 3-4-3, but it’s worth noting that this is the formation Jody Morris and Joe Edwards emphasized for years at Chelsea’s academy.
That means eight players in the starting XI had direct experience playing in this formation with their squad mates at the club: Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham under Morris and Edwards at Cobham; and Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso and Willian under Antonio Conte in the first team.
Frank Lampard could not have scripted a better blend of knowledge, experience and rapport amongst his players and coaches over a given formation than this.
Two of his most experienced and mindlessly maligned players, Marcos Alonso and Willian, showed why they and the three-man defence should not be just a fall-back option driven by external events.