Three. In numerology, it’s considered to be the perfect number. From its aesthetic symmetry to the way it’s often used to personify balance, the numerical value and the positive connotation surrounding it has found its way into some of the most exciting systems in the Premier League. Antonio Conte’s resurgent Chelsea, Pep Guardiola’s exciting but occasionally faltering Manchester City and even Mauricio Pochettino’s combative Tottenham Hotspur have all attempted the defensive triad with varying degrees of frequency, but only two have consistently done so.
With both sets of Blues running rampant at different periods of this topsy-turvy season, the two teams, and their managers, have accrued largely different connotations when it comes to their newfound defensive organization. While Guardiola’s team enjoyed a red-hot start to the season with ten wins in a row across all competitions, the Sky Blues have petered out as of late; the three-man defense supposedly the culprit. Conte’s Chelsea, however, has been the opposite.
While Guardiola chose to immediately implement the various nuances of his intricately complex possession-oriented system, it seemed as though Conte tried to fix the Chelsea system before he threw it out. In the first few weeks of the Premier League, the Italian tactician sought to implement a more familiar 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 instead of forcing the style he used at serial Italian Champions, Juventus, upon his new group of players. As to why the former Azzurri manager chose to hold off on implementing the system that enjoyed so much success is beyond everyone bar he and his coaching staff. Perhaps it was his lack of a real pre-season, or perhaps it was so that he could see what was wrong before; either way, Conte wasn’t getting the results he wanted with his fickle group of superstars, and a thrashing at Arsenal pounded that home. Soon after, Chelsea’s usage of the 3-4-3 was born, and the London Blues look a side reborn. With attacking flair and defensive solidity in abundance, Conte’s Chelsea have thrown themselves atop the title race and don't show any signs of faltering.
This weekend’s game pits City and Chelsea together, and although we sometimes forget that the match is worth three points no matter the opponent, this game can’t help but feel like a pivotal moment in a vibrant Premier League season. First versus third brings us intriguing battles all over the pitch, but at the heart of their systems is the aforementioned digit and how each manager employs it in a different manner to achieve the same answer: victory. Asking how these two have been so successful, and why their defensive trios have the pundits either spitting venom or spewing praise may give us a better insight into the glittery three points we’ll all be looking at this Saturday.
So far, everything that’s synonymous with Conte’s past triumphs has been consistent with the current success at Chelsea. Three central defenders at the heart of a team that is stalwart and unflinching in their ability to defend, the use of a few players tossed to the wayside by the vast majority of the onlooking football community, and a palpable intensity that exudes from the manager himself are all ticked boxes this season, so what separates the former Juventus’ three-man defense from Guardiola’s?
Chelsea’s back three shines brightest as the nucleus of Conte’s impenetrable bulwark. By organizing fellow players, limiting offensive space and sliding from the middle, the back three excels in nullifying even the most potent offensive systems.
Though the defensive shape is often that of a 5-4-1, the three central defenders are the key to the defensive solidity the Blues have enjoyed since switching to the Italian’s favored system. As the speakerphones of Antonio Conte’s tactical ideologies, David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta dictate the exertions of Chelsea’s overloading low block.
With Victor Moses and Marcus Alonso filling in as right and left wingbacks, respectively, Chelsea seek to have a surplus of numbers wherever the opposition tries to attack. Ousting any chance creation, wide or central, the fierce press Conte employs has a primary directive to either win possession or push the play far out of the danger zone.
Conte’s defensive shape is also extremely effective because every player, bar Diego Costa, sits in passing lanes and limits space in central midfield, making it easier for N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic to defend and make tackles. Consolidating the amount of space makes it both more difficult for the attacking team to enjoy offensive success, and easier for the defending team to win back possession. Many former professionals often refer this as a teams or players’ ability to "shrink the field."
Some opponents may try and expose the defensive overload by focusing on chance creation through the middle due to the fact that Chelsea only play two true central midfielders, but with one of the three central defenders stepping up into a deep midfield zone to help when needed, this yet again limits the space and time in key offensive areas: Chelsea’s MO in defense. It works like a forceful guard imposing its will on the attacker. The primary line of defense, or in this case the midfielders, force oncoming players one way which allows the secondary defender, usually one of the central three, to make the correct move. One-on-one defending is a lot of intuition and guesswork. This system seeks to eliminate that.
The Blue Shades
Chelsea’s ideal formation is built with a great deal of balance in mind. Marcos Alonso, a more defensive minded player, is often deployed on the same side that Eden Hazard frequents so that the former Fiorentina man can take the brunt of the defensive responsibilities. Victor Moses, though traditionally a forward player, can be depended on for his work rate both on and off the ball, so he and Pedro split the burden equally.
Conte’s offensive system has various nuances that make it dangerous in a multitude of situations, but the brilliance of his touchline players are what many have focused on as the fulcrum(s) of his attacking efficacy, and rightly so.
The real brilliance of these wide players’ usage lies in how they contribute in an offensive capacity. The front three of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, and Pedro tend to force defenses in transitions to centralize their efforts in an attempt to neutralize the attacking threat that the aforementioned attacking triumvirate offers. But then, like cold blue shades, Moses and Alonso ghost into the unoccupied wide areas to devastating effect.
Unfortunately, just like almost everything about this Chelsea team, this pattern seems consistent with Conte. The workman-like performances that the Londoners have come to depend on is something that seems eerily similar to the boss’ time at Juventus. Though they may have dominated the league, Conte’s Bianconeri never enjoyed much success in Europe because of the intensity in which they ran their league performances with. Without rotation, the system doesn’t seem a viable long term option across multiple fronts and in a more competitive league. Though the Champions League anthem may not ring inside Stamford Bridge for a while, there’s still something to be said about the fact that the newfound system does depend heavily on the performances of those two players.
Guardiola’s passing genesis
In comparison to Conte’s system, Pep Guardiola and his employment of the three-man defense is entirely different. While Chelsea is built to be reactive, Guardiola envisions a distinct style of play that he demands his teams to play, regardless of the opposition. Even against Barcelona, Guardiola stated that he intended to dominate possession. The former Bayern Munich manager wholly believes holding possession and creating opportunities through movement and intelligent positional play is the end all be all; a belief that isn’t without base. The Catalan native’s trophy-laden career backs that up.
"Yeah you know what happened, yeah I think about that. But after that, the solution is not better than what I believe. Do you know why as well? Because in seven years I won 21 titles", the former Barcelona manager said with a grin that seemed to engulf his entire face. The response came during a telling press conference during a time in which City were undergoing a poor spell of form, one that garnered criticism far and wide. Everything from his relationship with the squad to the decisions he made about diets and recreational activities was brought under the spotlight, including the three-man defense. However, upon closer inspection, one might infer that the criticism is a result of a misunderstanding of the purpose of Guardiola’s back three, rather than an actual tactical issue with the system.
With an emphasis on possession, Guardiola’s back three is built to be the source of the team’s incisive build-up play and to operate as a facilitator of ball movement. As most may already know, Guardiola often seeks to build the play out from the back even if that means playing through high pressure. The purpose starting the play at the goalkeeper is to draw the opposition out of their defensive positions so that off-ball players can utilize their off-ball movement to devastating effect. Playing through pressure can allow for the team in possession to effectively remove opposing players from the immediate play, often with fewer players, and capitalize on their forward exertion. Since Guardiola employs a positional rigidity to his teams, the effects of playing through pressure are amplified since his players are often in the most advantageous positions from the get-go.
When the ball has made its way up the pitch and the Sky Blues are possessing in the opposition’s half, the back three hold a high line and provide outlets to maintain possession in the most effective areas. The issue here is that although City’s defensive three do a fantastic job in their possession-oriented jobs, the team is often vulnerable to counter attacks both because of the high line and a lack of proper personnel.
Though Guardiola has utilized the back three with frequency at his two previous clubs, there was rarely ever any criticism of their defensive solidity. In fact, last year's Bayern Munich side enjoyed one of the best defensive records in Europe, and that was without players like Jerome Boateng and Philipp Lahm for lengthy stretches of the season. So what’s the difference here? The answer ironically lies where Antonio Conte has found his success: out wide.
At Barcelona, Guardiola was blessed with Eric Abidal and the recently converted Dani Alves, both excellent options for keeping the width and athletic defense in transition. The same goes for his time in Bavaria: Phillip Lahm and David Alaba were, and still are, some of the best in the world and they helped provide that vital defensive and offensive service. Manchester City is different. All of the full-backs in the team are over the age of 30 and none of them cannot replicate the offensive or defensive quality of any of the aforementioned defenders, hence why Guardiola’s system hasn't been as potent going forward or at the back. Without more versatile touchline players, like the ones Conte has repurposed at Chelsea, the team can only achieve so much.
The limitations of said team, however, should not be underestimated. Guardiola’s Juego de Posición combined with a well-coached counter press can produce utter annihilation of the opposition. Lest we forget that a significant portion of the most artistically inspired moments in recent years on the canvas we call a pitch have been at the hands of this particular Cruyffian acolyte. The front five seeks to offer chance creation from every angle. Whether it be the isolative trickery of focused wing play, or the geometric personification of passing triangles in the center of midfield, the full force of this fledgling Guardiola team can blow even the best of teams away. Just ask Barcelona.
With the examined intricacies of both systems, we eagerly await the clash of two of the most successful managers in the modern game enjoying success with a similar blueprint, but a different construction. Though the result could only ever lead to a maximum of three points, the untold implication of either side gaining an edge over the most serious title rivals could have an indispensable impact down the road. As we head into the harsh winter of the Premier League and the positions on the table become increasingly representative of how effective a team truly is, this weekend’s fixture will most likely be looked at as a major turning point.