It may seem strange to think, but 3-4-3 does appear to be the formation in vogue in the Premier League.
This isn’t the first season the English market has seen it, but it’s the first time it’s properly been hailed.
Before this season, there was almost a sense of suspicion when a team started with three at the back, with Louis van Gaal in particular facing a lot of criticism for his 3-5-2 formation.
And Antonio Conte has revolutionised English football by switching to 3-4-3, making Chelsea almost unstoppable.
Slaven Bilic has tried it at West Ham United and Mauricio Pochettino is using it at Tottenham Hotspur, while a number of teams have tried to combat the Blues by lining up with that formation – Leicester City, Bournemouth and Manchester United have all tried to match Chelsea up in a 3-4-3, but without much success.
Luck or judgement?
Yes it’s a hugely successful formation that suits Chelsea’s current side down to the ground, but Conte almost stumbled across 3-4-3 at Stamford Bridge.
First of all, the Italian tried a 4-2-4 when arriving at Chelsea, testing it throughout pre-season.
By the opening day of the Premier League season, Conte had decided that wasn’t for him and the Blues lined up with a 4-1-4-1.
But after Liverpool dominated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and Arsenal went 3-0 up at the Emirates against his side, Conte decided enough was enough.
With 56 minutes gone in that match in September, the Italian coach hauled off Cesc Fàbregas and brought on Marcos Alonso.
César Azpilicueta switched to right wing-back, while Alonso became the left wing-back, and the Blues switched to three at the back and haven’t looked back since.
Of course since then Victor Moses has established himself as a surprisingly good right wing-back, while Azpilicueta has shown he is just simply very good at defending, wherever he plays, and has thrived in a right centre-back role in the defensive three.
That switch felt necessary at the time to stem the tide at the Emirates, but it did more than just that, it built a barrier.
In fact, Chelsea went 601 minutes without conceding a goal after Mesut Özil’s third.
Conte hailed the formation, saying in October: “For this team and squad this system is the right fit.
“The coach must understand and find the right suit, we are like a tailor.”
He is undeniably a fan of playing three at the back.
At Juventus he played with three at the back when he won the Scudetto three times in as many seasons, and he employed three at the back with the Italian national team, where his unfancied side reached the quarter finals of Euro 2016, beating Spain along the way and only losing to Germany on penalties.
A switch to 3-5-2
But at both Italy and Juventus, he was known to favour a 3-5-2, rather than the current preferred 3-4-3.
Could Conte surprise us all and switch Chelsea’s successful formation to stay ahead of the game?
Although only Tottenham have found a way to defeat the Blues in the league while they’re playing 3-4-3, teams will surely start to understand the way Chelsea play, and therefore how to combat it.
And the Italian appears to be a step ahead of the pack.
Against West Ham and against Manchester United, Conte has switched to 3-5-2 to ensure Chelsea keep hold of their leads – and it has worked so far.
He isn’t closing out games by digging in deep and defending en masse, as you may expect from the stereotype of Italian managers.
Instead, he’s doing the opposite by attempting to control possession and make opponents do the running late on in matches, when they really don’t want to –United especially wouldn’t have wanted to after playing with ten men since the half-hour mark.
As you can see from the below pictures, Fàbregas is sitting in between N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic as the Blues try to see out a lead.
And it also frees up the opportunity for one of the midfield three to burst forward, which is an aspect of the game each of them are more than capable of performing.
Below you can see Fàbregas and Matic sitting deep, while Kanté pushes forward.
Again, in the game at West Ham, Matic came on and Chelsea resorted to a midfield three, with Fàbregas sitting slightly deeper than Kanté and Matic.
That almost quarterback role should suit Fàbregas perfectly.
Undoubtedly he can pick out a pass better than any other Chelsea player, and they’ve got a few who know how to do just that.
It could be a natural evolution for Chelsea.
It does not only mean there is a role for Fàbregas, but it’s a role he suits perfectly, and with the two midfielders either side of him, it gives him the freedom he wants, while maintaining the back three that has been so successful this term.
And playing the likes of Eden Hazard, Pedro or Willian off Costa could have devastating effects.
It could also give the likes of Nathaniel Chalobah more playing time – there are more midfield roles for him to be fighting for.
Whether Conte will decide to switch to a 3-5-2 is yet to be seen – it will depend on Chelsea’s transfer targets, but it could well be how the Blues line up next season.