Chelsea’s formation of choice remains in perpetual change

Words By Kweku Amonoo-Quyst Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 6, 2017
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One of the most serious concerns for Chelsea supporters in the 2011-12 season was change. What to do when it all ended. That was we thought was happening to the “old guard” in January 2012 prior to its epic last hurrah in Munich a few months later. For the best part of 6-8 years, the Chelsea team could more or less pick itself, renovation largely being made around the edges. Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Jon Obi Mikel with a rotating supporting cast set in a 4-3-3 formation. That trusted act had delivered an abundance of silverware but, struggling in the league and at odds with its own high standards, it looked like the 2011/2012 season was likely to be its last chapter. Here was one in an array of reasons that allowed the European Cup win in Munich to be of such significance. It allowed the “old guard” to be discharged with the honour it deserved.

However, Chelsea’s European cup win settled one question but opened the door to several others. How would the achievement be emulated? What would be the new idea to carry a new team forward for the next 8-10 years? The answer was that there wasn’t a single answer. There were several.

What has followed at Chelsea since Didier Drogba’s penalty has been almost a rebuke to tactical and personnel stability that served Chelsea so characteristically well. As Eden Hazard excelled playing just off Alvaro Morata against Newcastle last weekend, he put the stamp on yet another of the several shifts in Chelsea’s playing philosophies. This was fitting as the process had begun shortly after his arrival at the club.

Roberto Di Matteo began the revolution by changing Chelsea’s classic 4-3-3, used predominately from 2004-2012, to a 4-2-3-1 in 2012/13. The Champions League win in 2011-12 was used as a springboard for an entirely new idea for the Chelsea team. The key ingredient was the midfield, the team’s essence was switched from a fixed midfield line of 3 to one which clearly became two midfield lines. The first line was dominated by John Obi Mikel sitting deep with one other (either Ramires or Frank Lampard). The second line was the equivalent to a footballing freestyle conducted by Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata. It was the catalyst to some of the best football I can remember a Chelsea side playing since Ruud Gullit’s “sexy” football was the main event on the Fulham Road in the mid-nineties.

By the time Mourinho won the Premier League in 2014-15, only 4 players who had won the Champions League 3 years earlier remained. And of John Terry, Petr Cech, Gary Cahill and John Obi Mikel, only two were regularly in the first team.

The line of 3 behind the striker supplied a new goalscoring Fernando Torres (5 goals in 9 league games by the end of October 2012) as well as each other. Here was a Chelsea side that Alan Shearer could compare to Barcelona on Match of the Day. Few remember it now because of Di Matteo’s ultimate demise, however, two months into the season Chelsea were top and making it look like a cakewalk. The disintegration that followed is for another article but it had definite causes arguably distinct from Di Matteo’s idea of play.

Di Matteo’s 4-3-2-1 tactical structure was continued by the managers that followed him, albeit with additional defensive plating. Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho eventually stopped some of the fluidity that Hazard, Mata and Oscar had enjoyed under Di Matteo. Mourinho eventually parted company with Mata in 2013-14, having already decided that he (and a younger, rawer Kevin De Bruyne) were less capable than Eden Hazard in dealing with the demands of his tactical approach. However, turnover was changing significantly in other positions too. Demba Ba had already replaced Fernando Torres in essence by the end of Benitez’s tenure in 2012/13. Nemanja Matic had essentially done the same for Ramires/Lampard within a season of Mourinho’s arrival. David Luiz in midfield in a Champions League semi-final against Atletico Madrid and doing well there, in a Mourinho team. Azpilicueta at left back ahead of Ashley Cole. The experiments with players were there in profusion, even under a man believed to be the byword for managerial conservatism. Distinct from the managerial changes that were going on, it seems that from 2012 onwards Chelsea were in permanent revolution in their idea of play and players effecting it.

By the time Mourinho won the Premier League in 2014-15, only 4 players who had won the Champions League 3 years earlier remained. And of John Terry, Petr Cech, Gary Cahill and John Obi Mikel, only two were regularly in the first team. Now, in 2017/18, Chelsea have already switched formation from the 3-4-3 that brought them the league title last season. With the exception of N’Golo Kante, the spine” is totally different to the one that won the league last season. Diego Costa the goal poacher, ball “holder upper” and target man has been replaced by Alvaro Morata’s more sleek fluidity. The already sold Nemanja Matic is being quietly replaced by the now fit Danny Drinkwater, in the absence of his original replacement: Tiemoue Bakayoko. Meantime at the back, injury and form (rather than other more dramatic reasons) has seen Andreas Christensen eclipse both Gary Cahill and David Luiz. Higher up the field, Chelsea now play to the beat of Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard, two playmakers. There’s irony to the fact that this process was begun by Roberto Di Matteo who himself was part of the last Chelsea team to be centred around playmaking talent in Gianfranco Zola.

After so much conservatism, Chelsea have become almost a case study in playing variation in the last few years. 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 and 3-5-1-1 all played in the achievement of 2 league titles, a European Cup and a Europa League in addition to FA and League Cups in just 5 years. Perhaps what’s worth observing at Chelsea these days is mainly on the pitch rather on off it.

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