Chelsea’s recent and brief flirtation with 4-4-2 has followed the suggestion of many. Why might it be the new 4-3-3 and why might it not be that at all?
When the 4-2-3-1 the Blues started the season with began to falter, Frank Lampard would go into a 4-3-3 with dual eights late in matches. Eventually, he started using it from the beginning of matches and that was the back bone of the undefeated run. Now, however, it has very much lost its shine.
Against Fulham, Lampard did what many fans have cried out for in recent weeks and went into a 4-4-2 to change the game. It worked rather well to craft different types of chances against Fulham. There are many calls for it to become the starting formation.
4-4-2 can suit the squad in many beneficial ways but there are also many reasons why it isn’t necessarily viable for the Blues at the moment. It can work, but the costs have to be considered.
The most obvious way it works is for Timo Werner and the wingers. Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Timo Werner all seem to play better with space in front of them. The first two can at least create their own space if the ball isn’t coming in quickly and directly, but Werner cannot. Furthermore, Werner has made a name for himself as part of two up top. Playing him “wide” with another striker is a work around to that. Were the system more direct it might not matter, but Chelsea builds up too cautiously for him to be effective as the ball comes up his side of the pitch (switches in play can still work however).
4-4-2 also works to give Chelsea a more stable base to play more directly. The issue in recent weeks has been by the time Chelsea enters the final third, the opponent is already well shelled up. Playing faster, even if inadvertently as a result of the formation switch, could allow the Blues to work around this issue more often. Furthermore, two up top would make the high press easier to start as the Blues would already be in their most common defensive shape.
But to go into 4-4-2, even if it might suit the attack Chelsea needs and the press they want, would come at the cost of a midfielder. The pivot would be the most important and immovable piece and it would likely include N’Golo Kante, Mason Mount, Mateo Kovacic, Jorginho, and Billy Gilmour. It is those wider areas where the issues come up.
Chelsea would be looking at Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Christian Pulisic for those spots. Given the wings would more often than not be inverted, Havertz and Ziyech really wouldn’t be able to play with one another. Pulisic wouldn’t be as suited to the right side. So it becomes a tricky question as to which two are most needed. Havertz could play up top (and that would blur the line to 4-2-3-1), but then which striker makes way?
Overall, whoever plays, that loss of a midfielder makes Chelsea more direct at the cost of possession. The Blues have shown they can defend this season without needing to minimize the amount of opportunities the opponent has, but there is a matter of degree to consider. It is one thing to deal with three or four sustained attacks and counters a game. Another when it is six or seven. Fatigue will become an issue, as will the constant forward momentum the shape would naturally lead towards.
4-3-3 worked over 4-2-3-1 at the time because Chelsea needed greater control over matches. Now, that has gone a bit too far and the Blues need to create a little more chaos. 4-4-2 can do that, but it’s not going to be the simple solution it appears to be. It will come with costs that Frank Lampard will need to weigh against what he is looking to accomplish.