Last season, only two central midfielders in the top five league in Europe won 50+ aerial duels, take ons, and tackles. One of them was Tottenham Hotspur’s Victor Wanyama, the other was Chelsea’s new signing Tiemoue Bakayoko.
This should tell you that he is a midfield destroyer. He protects the defences, shores up the middle of the pitch and allows the more creative players to flourish. The issue some people have with this, however, is that his new partner N’Golo Kante performs a very similar role.
Hunt down the ball, win it, and, at the very least, be comfortable enough to pass it simply to a team mate. Some have argued, therefore, that there is a real lack of creativity in that midfield.
Where’s the link between defence and attack? Almost all of the other top clubs have a creative midfielder who plays in a deeper position, why do Chelsea not seem to use one?
The power of the 3-4-3
The answer is simple.
Antonio Conte reverted to this system after an indifferent start to his Chelsea tenure, with a 3-0 loss away to Arsenal confirming it. However, since changing to the 3-4-3, Chelsea went on a 13-game winning run in the Premier League and won the title at a canter.
Most of that was put down to Conte’s decision to revert to this formation. And yet, the partnership of Kante and Nemanja Matic doesn’t necessarily strike you as a creative partnership, even if Matic is something of a deep lying playmaker.
The 3-4-3, however, meant that it was vital Chelsea had these two solid ball-winning midfielders as their main midfield partnership, and why Cesc Fabregas was largely confined to a role on the bench.
Let’s look at why.
In the 3-4-3, there is far less reliance on one of the central midfielders to be the link man and progress the ball into the attacking third, far less so than there is in the more commonly used 4-2-3-1.
This is largely down to the centre-backs. In the 3-4-3, the most press resistant centre-back plays as the deepest central player. This is the one most comfortable on the ball and able to provide a release to start attacks, e.g. David Luiz.
The wide centre-backs, however, are tasked with pushing into midfield. This allows passing lanes to appear into the attacking third as more often than not they are allowed time and space on the ball to complete their pass.
If they are closed down, spaces open up behind the pass for their more attacking and creative players to position themselves in and become available to receive the ball. Of course, for this to work, the wide centre-backs have to be good on the ball and able to pass through the lines and resist opposition pressure.
If you compare it with the 4-2-3-1, you now have three players who can viably progress the ball from defence into attack (three centre-backs), as opposed to just the one (midfielder) in the 4-2-3-1, meaning there is less reliance and need for a creative central midfielder.
Now we come onto why it’s so important the two central midfielders’ primary job is to shore up the middle rather than provide a creative output.
The 3-4-3 allows a team to dominate the wide areas whilst being able to position their most creative players in between the lines in more central areas and half spaces. The wing backs are a constant outlet and hold the width, whereas the two behind the striker, especially in Chelsea’s case may start wide, but progress inwards, as shown in the formation graphic above.
It can see, at any one moment, up to five attacking players positioned high up in the attacking phase, with the two wide centre backs pushed into central midfield. A freeze frame can show a formation akin to a 1-4-4-1 when the team is in the attacking phase, as seen in the graphic below.
If the attack breaks down, the team can be extremely vulnerable to the counter and get overrun in midfield and central areas if they don’t have the right personnel. It is why, therefore, that the job of the two central midfielders is to stop the breakaway and to prevent the midfield from being overrun.
They protect the middle and ensure they remain solid defensively. Having just one central midfielder capable of fulfilling this role can see their team easily overpowered so having two is crucial.
Even still, the weakness can still be prevalent as one of Chelsea’s few flaws last season was the space that could be found behind Kante and Matic. If it was Kante and Fabregas or another player of the Spaniard’s ilk, then that space would only increase.
Hazard’s increased responsibility
However, to play in any system, more often than not you need specialist players, but perhaps more so in this demanding 3-4-3.
It means a huge emphasis is placed on the attacking and creative talents of Eden Hazard if Chelsea were to go with a Bakayoko-Kante pairing in the 3-4-3. At least Matic provides some sort of playmaking ability from deeper areas which Bakayoko doesn’t really do.
Of course, Hazard has the talent, but it is crucial he must always ensure he is available as an option in the half spaces to pick up the ball. If he and whoever plays next to him, (usually Pedro) don’t do this, the entire set up is flawed and there’ll be no consistent basis for progressing the ball from defence to attack.
Hazard had arguably his best ever season at Chelsea in this set up, but he’ll need to match that at the very least next year if Chelsea wish to win a second Premier League crown in a row.
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