Saturday 24th September 2016: Arsenal versus Chelsea at the Emirates. Following two early goals in three minutes from Sanchez and Walcott, our misery was compounded further when Özil slotted a third in the 40th minute to make it 3-0. Conte cut a rather frustrated figure from the touchline to say the least. It was looking like the same jaded team that slumped to a 10th placed finish the previous season, with many fans were fearing the worst.
Unbelievably more or less the exact same team waltzed to the 2014/15 title with three games to spare, but that couldn’t feel further away in this moment. This game looked like a complete write-off; but (unknown to most at the time) it became the making of us for the rest of the season.
In the 55th minute, Cesc Fabregas was substituted for Marcos Alonso, and the rebirth of the 3-4-3 began.
A back three consisting of Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta and David Luiz – of which would form our standard defensive trio for the rest of the season – were protected out wide by Alonso and Ivanovic at wingback, freeing our front three of Hazard, Costa and Willian of defensive duties in front of a core formed by N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.
Whilst it wasn’t spectacular in its debut, what it produced following this game was. What followed was a thirteen-match winning streak, a Premier League equalling record. More impressively this run included toppling the likes of Manchester United, City, Spurs and Everton so this tactical revolution was producing results against the top sides.
What is more interesting about this change of fortune is the way in which he chooses these tactics, based upon the strengths and weaknesses of the personnel at his disposal of which has served him well back in Italy, and now in England.
Conte had a relatively modest coaching career before his jump to the managerial position at Juventus, with stints at Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta, and Siena before jumping up the Serie A table to the Old Lady. At the reigns of Juventus for three seasons he claimed three Serie A titles and a number of domestic cups, utilising the innovative 3-5-2 formation which consisted of two wingbacks and a midfield trio two of whom protected the deep-lying playmaker in Andrea Pirlo which was seen as the key to the team’s successes.
But it wasn’t just the 3-5-2 he was renowned for, it was his tactical and mental versatility that really set him apart as a winner. “I won two championships with 4-2-4 at Bari and Siena,” he explained. “Then I started that system with Juventus, went to 4-3-3 and eventually arrived at 3-5-2 because I had players better adapted for that system. But it’s not my ‘preferred’ system. My preferred system is the one that permits my team to win.” And that’s how he does it. He analyses the strengths and weaknesses of each individual player, brings all the acquired information together to ultimately decide on the winning formula.
For me Conte is one of the most interesting managers in world football today and not just because he’s our manager, but because he wasn’t afraid to break the norm of the (rather boring) 4-2-3-1 in the Premier League. The 4-2-3-1 was ruthlessly efficient under Mourinho’s defensive mindset for us, but hindered the attacking performance and development of the three frontmen. His tactical revolution was so impressive that other managers have given it a test drive, Pochettino, Guardiola and Wenger are just some of the big names to participate in the Italian masterclass.
Conte is a breath of fresh air to us and the Premier League and will continue to be once we have completed our transfer window as every new addition will have been perpetually analysed by Conte in every possible sense to either fit the current 3-4-3/3-5-2 system, or even open avenues to another of his favoured formations, the exciting prospect of the 4-2-4 in the Premier League. Either way we are very lucky to have such a clever yet humble man at the reigns of our team, and an incredible passion for our beloved club too.
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