Antonio Conte knows it won’t last forever. A run of seven wins in seven games has catapulted Chelsea to the top of the Premier League, and it coincided with his switch to a 3-4-3 (or, if you’re a touch more pedantic, a 3-4-2-1). But the success was also made possible by the fact that his first-choice XI more or less stayed healthy. And there’s a learning curve to how opposing coaches adjust to it. Over time, you’d imagine, they’ll find countermeasures.
For much of the first half against Tottenham on Saturday, it appeared that time was now. Mauricio Pochettino unleashed his high press, Christian Eriksen gave the visitors the lead and Chelsea struggled to find their way out of their half. The fact that Spurs were able to play this way without half their starting defence and their first-choice reserve left-back, as well as Erik Lamela, is a credit to them. So too is the fact that this came on the back of a psychological blow like being knocked out of the Champions League in midweek.
And yet this system is designed to withstand pressure and wait for the inevitable moment when the opposition flags. Which is what happened as Pedro before the break and Victor Moses immediately after gave Chelsea a 2-1 lead from which they did not look back.
Pochettino had the right blueprint early on but the 3-4-3 enables you to flood the wings and to have not just permanent outlets, but a permanent man advantage. The Times of London headlined “Conte tactics let Chelsea play badly and still win.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but this is clearly a situation where the system amounted to more than the sum of its parts.
And yet, as we said, this can’t go on.
Sooner rather than later, he will have to change it up in terms of formation and personnel. Players will get worn down, injured or suspended (though it may be just a coincidence that Diego Costa hasn’t been booked since September). Conte believes he’s ready and, contrary to reports, he hasn’t given up on the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Oscar or Willian. The challenge will be integrating them in what will likely be a new system without upsetting the current balance.
Anybody can read the table. One bad week — maybe already next Saturday, when Chelsea visit Manchester City — and Conte knows he could slip from first to fourth. That’s how tight it is right now at the top of the Premier League.
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