Since Antonio Conte arrived at Chelsea, the Blues have largely dabbled in one of two formations: 3-4-3 and 4-3-3. Sure, there were brief filtrations with 3-5-2 (under Conte) and 4-2-3-1 (under Frank Lampard) but ultimately they fell to the wayside.
Both shapes have their strengths and weaknesses and require mostly similar players for similar styles. Chelsea has only struggled to find the right balance between the two. There is something to be said about sticking to a shape so it becomes second nature, but historically for Chelsea that has only accentuated the weaknesses of those shapes.
It is starting to feel like another one of those moments. Thomas Tuchel’s 3-4-3 has worked wonders and is undefeated, but it is starting to mirror Lampard’s 4-3-3 earlier in the season. Undefeated yes, but showing signs of weakness at the same time that are becoming more and more stark. So at what point does the solidarity of Tuchel’s 3-4-3 need to give way to a Tuchel 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, or some other four at the back?
On paper, three at the back in any variety has the potential to be the “best” (so far as any shape can be) for the style Tuchel is looking to employ. It naturally creates wide overloads but also has enough players central to pull opposition into a press. That opens up players for vertical passes and that has been showcased with how quickly Chelsea can get from back to front now.
Where three at the back falls apart is in its approach to the final third and in the final third itself. The 3-4-3 lacks a third midfielder to help in transition so all the momentum has to come through wide rotations. That is taxing, physically and mentally, and then there is still the matter of getting the ball back central before the opponent can get situated. Speed and precision are vital.
Anything less than that and the opponent can read the wide movements and stall or they can simply move to clog the center before the ball can come back in. That is the method teams have been using more and more recently and it is leaving Chelsea with only recycling possession and starting again.
Four at the back doesn’t do away with that on its own, but the addition of an extra midfielder or forward allows for more fluidity. For example, in a 4-3-3, both the eights can rotate in the wide areas as well as centrally. A pivot doesn’t have that same ability in the 3-4-3 as the players need to remain largely in position. Four at the back therefore allows for more play through the middle and a greater control of possession.
Where four at the back loses out is it takes more work to create overloads even if it takes less work to move the ball forward. Furthermore, if a counter should occur, it doesn’t have a free man at the back to help stall the counter for reinforcements. Those two, much like the pivot in a 3-4-3, can’t wander too far or they’ll be caught out.
But that is where Chelsea finds itself. 3-4-3 has offered all the defensive solidarity the Blues need but it is coming at the cost of their attack. 4-3-3, or any back four shape, could fix that attacking issue by offering greater and more fluid numbers forward but the Blues will be weaker on the counter.
New managers, especially midseason, tend to focus on the defensive side of things until the team feels comfortable. If that was Tuchel’s plan it is working but he can’t stay with that idea too long. The attack has gone flat and a spark will need to be found before that costs the Blues. If the defenders now feel comfortable enough to go a man short, then that change should be made to bolster the attack again.
Lampard saw the same last season as he switched between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 in different runs of games. He didn’t make that change this season and it might have cost him. Even last season, it felt like he held on to one or the other for too long. Tuchel will need to look at what is needed but something has to change to give the attack some spark again.