One of the reasons why Chelsea has done so well with three at the back in recent years is the flexibility the formation allows. Three at the back is all about creating overloads and minimizing redundancies. Does a team really need a fullback and winger far side waiting for a switch? No, so one is kept wide and the other is brought more central. At the same time, three midfielders aren’t as needed when one player can step up from the back and perform the same recycling job. All of this built on a platform that allows a much more packed defense (5-3-2 or 5-4-1) while freeing forwards to press knowing they have a safety net behind them.
Many of those reasons are why Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel both love Cesar Azpilicueta. A fullback by trade, Azpilicueta can play as a centerback in a back three and, if the game state allows, join or even overlap the midfield in support. Antonio Rudiger has also developed this skill set as of late and it allows Chelsea to, in effect, play with one “true” center back and effectively two old school fullbacks in support of the offense.
Against Leicester City, Thomas Tuchel opted to use Reece James as the right centerback. The idea was right for Chelsea, the execution not so much. Not because of anything James himself did. No, the main issue came with the ever excellent Cesar Azpilicueta.
It made complete sense to play James where his primary opposition would be Jamie Vardy. First of all, it allowed for a defensively sound but more importantly quick player to deal with the striker. Given Thiago Silva was next to James, it would have been far too easy for Vardy to find and exploit space between and behind a pair of Azpilicueta and Silva. James alleviated that issue by marking Vardy out quite effectively.
Furthermore, James is a good player for the role because he spent so much time playing as a midfielder with Wigan. Frank Lampard took note of this too and used James as an inverted wingback when a true winger was ahead of him. Tuchel is taking advantage of a similar idea. James could play centerback and, in possession, push up alongside the midfield pivot.
All of that in a vacuum would have been a smart move by Tuchel. The mistake was still finding a spot for Azpilicueta. Now, Azpilicueta didn’t really put a foot wrong in the FA Cup final per se. It’s more about having an ill-suited player for a role they are shoehorned into.
Azpilicueta works so well as a centerback in a back three because he’s good on the ball and positions well. He doesn’t, however, have much to add in attack on the overlap or the underlap. The further forward he has to get, the more apparent it is that he isn’t suited for the role. This has also been an issue with James as the wingback as he all too often plays back to safety rather than forward into attack.
Maybe, on its own, James at centerback and Azpilicueta at wingback would have worked. But it did not help that the other flank had Marcos Alonso. Alonso, good at wingback as he may be, is not as aggressive or clean at getting forward as Ben Chilwell. He’s more suited to lurking deeper and springing up late. The ultimate effect of Chelsea having two “defensive” wingbacks was that they struggled to advance the ball in possession. Leicester had plenty of time to set up their pressing traps for Hakim Ziyech and Mason Mount and the Blues lacked clear ideas.
This issue became starker when Ben Chilwell and Callum Hudson-Odoi came on as wingback subs. The Blues were able to advance down the flanks and through wide rotations much more easily than before, but it was too little too late. Leicester had shelled up and Chelsea, after going down a goal, did the usual thing they do when they fall behind: they lost composure and tried to force a solution instead of trying to find one.
James at right centerback has promise going into next season. Azpilicueta, however, can’t be shoehorned in to make it happen though. If the choice was Azpilicueta or James to deal with Vardy with the other wide, it’s arguable that Chelsea’s stunted attack hurt them more than stunting Vardy. It’s an idea for the tool box, but one that needs adjustments to be used again in the future.