Chelsea: Three or four thoughts on Frank Lampard’s victorious 3-4-3 vs. Spurs

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: Steven Bergwijn of Tottenham Hotspur battles for possession with Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on February 22, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: Steven Bergwijn of Tottenham Hotspur battles for possession with Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea during the Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on February 22, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /

Jose Mourinho knew that Chelsea would set up in a 3-4-3, but he was still unable to counter it. Frank Lampard’s 3-4-3 is a mix of his usual formations and Antonio Conte’s version, which is the one most familiar after the Blues’ success.

Frank Lampard’s version of the 3-4-3 works differently than the one most Chelsea fans learned from, Antonio Conte’s. Conte used the three centrebacks as the foundation of a rigourous defence, with the wingbacks dropping back to defend in a 5-4-1 but also propelling the counter-attack up through the wingers.

Lampard did not sacrifice possession to change the formation, instead adjusting the formation when Chelsea are on offence by bringing Cesar Azpilicueta off the backline into the space between the centrebacks and the wingbacks (we’re not going to call it the you-know-what-space). This let Azpilicueta support both the right wingback and the attacking midfielders on offence. But unlike Lampard’s usual 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3, Azpilicueta did not move out to the touchline to overlap or play one-two’s with Reece James or a forward.

This is the first major difference between Lampard’s 3-4-3, Conte’s 3-4-3 and Lampard’s baseline systems. The wingbacks gave Chelsea width, but they were the only width. Conte’s wingbacks had regular interplay with the winger and midfielder on their side. For most of this season, the Blues would have 3-4 players working together on the wings in the final third. On the right, N’Golo Kante would come over from midfield to support right back Reece James or Cesar Azpilicueta and right wing Willian. On the left, Mateo Kovacic would join Emerson or Azpilicueta and either Willian, Callum Hudson-Odoi, or – less so, since he plays closer to the striker – Mason Mount. The patterns were different between Conte and Lampard but the idea was the same.

Against Tottenham, James and Marcos Alonso were on their own along the flanks. They did not have options to rotate the ball or their positions with players overlapping, or playing one-two’s behind the defensive line or to cut inside. The wingbacks either had to send in a cross, or come inside on their own to get closer to their support in the middle: Azpilicueta, Mount or Ross Barkley.

This helped Chelsea defend against Jose Mourinho’s usual counter-attacking tactic, and it accounted for Mourinho’s striker-less lineup.

If Tottenham had Harry Kane or Heung-Min Son in the lineup, Azpilicueta would have had to play deeper and more centrally to protect against either or both of them hitting on the counter. If either Kane or Son started, Dele Alli likely would have started, too, since he works best in support of a true striker. Those are the situations that have done the most damage to Chelsea this season (other than set pieces), and would have required either three centrebacks acting as centrebacks or N’Golo Kante acting as, well, N’Golo Kante. The dual absence of Kane and Son cancelled out Kante’s absence.

The lack of a real striker also meant that most of Tottenham’s offence and transitions would come through their midfielders Tanguy Ndombele and Giovanni Lo Celso. Hence, Azpilicueta slotting up towards defensive midfield. And, if James or Alonso moved inside to get closer to their teammates, it expanded Chelsea’s anti-counterattack overload in the midfield.

Azpilicueta took one more step in his Javier Zanetti-trodden career path by bolstering Chelsea’s numbers and defensive strength in midfield during offensive possession, so as to be ready to nip Tottenham’s counter early in Chelsea’s transition to defence. Once the Blues were on defence, he was back to being a regular right centreback.

Cesar Azpilicueta’s passing stats, pass map and tackle locations support the eye test. Azpilicueta made the third-most passes on the team: 70, comparable to Mateo Kovacic’s 77 and Jorginho’s 74; and a clear difference from the players behind him in the listing, centrebacks Antonio Rudiger (55) and Andreas Christensen (52).

Azpilicueta completed 19 passes to Reece James, all of them forward. That’s the same amount of passes as Kovacic completed to Jorginho, but for that pair only two were more than a few degrees in the forward direction, and one of those was from the top of Chelsea’s box.

Likewise, three of Azpilicueta’s five tackles were in Tottenham’s half, and were in the right third of the pitch. The other two were central and deeper. Azpilicueta’s tackles were in much the same areas as Jorginho’s, and in the same area but on the opposite side as Kovacic’s.

Andreas Christensen’s tackles show how often he covered for Azpilicueta on the right. With Azpilicueta stepping out of the right centreback role, Christensen became the right-sided centreback, covering Azpilicueta’s territory as well as his own. Christensen’s performance was so impressive because he had to cover so much extra territory, often in situations where there were 20 yards of uncovered territory behind him, if the Tottenham player were to win the challenge and run in behind.

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Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 permitted one centreback – David Luiz – to advance off the defensive line. Because the midfielders under Kante were so much more fixed on defensive, they could cover Luiz’s adventures. Plus, N’Golo Kante was one of those midfielders, and he is one of the few players who could compensate for Luiz’s defensive attention.

Lampard similarly anchored two centrebacks to permit the other to do more, but whereas Luiz had freedom to move forward Azpilicueta the responsibility to do so. Without Azpilicueta moving into midfield, the right wingback would have been fully isolated and the midfield would be exposed to a counterattack from Tottenham’s midfielders.

Frank Lampard’s 3-4-3 worked perfectly for the players he had, the players he didn’t have, the players he would face and the players he wouldn’t face. In that sense, this was a very Antonio Conte-esque 3-4-3: Lampard tailored the perfect suit.

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