Chelsea’s 3-4-3 against Lille produced a disturbingly familiar U-shaped pattern of play for the first hour. Unlike last season, though, Frank Lampard made a change to get the Blues out of the mire and into Lille’s box to earn the win.
As predicted, Reece James’ accession to the starting XI did not affect if Cesar Azpilicueta would play, only where. James leapfrogged the Premier League and went from starting in the Carabao Cup last week to starting in the Champions League this week. James made his European debut as Chelsea’s right wing-back, and Cesar Azpilicueta returned to right centreback in the 3-4-3 against Lille.
James was the first Chelsea player to make way, coming off for Callum Hudson-Odoi in the 67′ so the Blues could shift to a 4-2-3-1 for the remainder of the game.
Before we go any further, let’s stop and savor all of that. Reece James played over an hour in his Champions League debut. His Champions League debut was a start, on the road, no less. He was replaced by his long-time Cobham teammate Callum Hudson-Odoi. Manager Frank Lampard made the substitution, and changed formations in the process. Blissful.
Lampard needed to change more than one recovering player for another because Chelsea – despite being in a 3-4-3 – were looking far too much like they did under his predecessor’s 4-3-3. The Blues could do little more than cycle the ball around Lille’s penalty area. The five defenders spent most of the time on the ball: the three centre-backs had the most passes, followed by Marcos Alonso. The three central players – two midfielders and Tammy Abraham – remained quite disconnected from the play.
Even with Chelsea’s best ball-advancing and technically-gifted midfielder, N’Golo Kante, back in the lineup the Blues could not find a way to enter the final third centrally and use that movement to create chances in the box.
When Hudson-Odoi came on for James, the remaining defenders all shifted one place to the right to return to a four-man defence: Alonso and Azpilicueta became full-backs, with Fikayo Tomori and Kurt Zouma staying deep as centre-backs. Jorginho and Kante remained at the double pivot, but now had Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount and Willian ahead of them in the attacking midfield line.
This simple change gave Chelsea the vertical movement they had been missing for the first 67 minutes. Whether it was having the extra player to aim for ahead of them or more effectively overloading Lille centrally, the 4-2-3-1 kept the Blues in the centre of the pitch in offensive stages, letting the full-backs’ width provide crossing options instead of the dead-end that the wing-backs became.
Lampard presumably lined up the side in the 3-4-3 to lock down some of Chelsea’s defensive vulnerabilities (it doesn’t much help on set pieces, sadly). The extra centreback and the added control over where and how turnovers may happen would help protect Chelsea in defence and mitigate the risks of a counter-attack.
However, Chelsea had very few opportunities to defend deep or for prolonged periods. Lille allowed the Blues to maintain possession, which drew Chelsea into the trap that defined so much of last year. With 63% of the ball, the result in the 3-4-3 was the same as the 4-3-3.
The formation also did not eliminate the risks from counter-attacks. Victor Osimhen was never more than a outlet pass away from running 1v1 or 1v0 towards Kepa Arrizabalaga’s goal. Arrizabalaga made several sprints out of his box to head the ball away from Osimhen, who at least twice had a step on his marker. Even with the extra defender in the back line and N’Golo Kante in midfield, if Jorginho went wandering in search of a ball he left an easy passing channel for that outlet upon a turnover (not that he would do all that much if he better read the play and maintained his position).
The game opened up in both directions once Chelsea went to the 4-2-3-1, and the switch did not compromise the Blues’ defending.
After the early difficulties, the defenders may be starting to figure out what they need to do in a four-man back-line, and therefore do not need the added security of the 3-4-3. And since Frank Lampard’s overarching approach seems to be scoring more goals rather than conceding fewer, if the 3-4-3 limits offensive opportunities then it will not be worth the marginal gain in defensive robustness.
The 3-4-3 will still be a valuable tool for Chelsea, particularly in games where they can expect a lot of defending on transition and in their zone. Against Ajax, for example, the 3-4-3 may be a necessary safe option despite the trade-offs. On the other hand, if Lampard does not want to seem cowed by the prospect of fighting Ajax on their own terms, the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3 from the Super Cup will give the Blues the necessary offensive thrust.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from the Lille game is that it does not too much matter what Chelsea’s starting formation is. They have a manager who has the intellect and willingness to make a non-like-for-like substitution in the final 20-30 minutes of a game to change formations and – as at Lille – earn a win.
The only rigid dogma Lampard cares about is whatever it takes to have a positive goal differential in every game.