When Chelsea beat Stoke City, they equalled a Premier League record of 13 straight wins. An impressive record, Antonio Conte’s highly disciplined 3-4-3 had seen them dispose of all comers be they mighty or weak. Despite beating both Manchester clubs in their magnificent run, Stoke City provided what seemed to be a more unorthodox opponent due to their deployment of the renowned target man Peter Crouch. Stoke attempted to bypass their second phase of build up play by making the most of set pieces to break Chelsea down. Chelsea conceded 20 goals in 20 minutes, in comparison they conceded 2 goals in their 12 previous games. This wasn’t a fluke either as Stoke managed to provide more problems than many of the hosts’ previous opponents.
Breaking the block
In a regular move by Mark Hughes, the away side sat deep in their own half & tried to counter attack so as to draw Chelsea in then catch them out. Realising that they’d mostly be on the ball & reclaiming it, Antonio Conte deployed Cesc Fabregas & N’golo Kante as his midfield pairing. The former has a reputation for being one of the league’s most clinical passers whilst his partner in crime was so nimble in his movements that he could peel an orange in your pocket without you knowing. The two worked effectively as Kante would win it & let Fabregas work his magic. Through their wingbacks, Chelsea would stretch the play out to the touchlines causing Stoke to expand in order to cut out space. As a consequence, Chelsea’s front three came narrower to create a 3 v 2 central overload against Stoke’s centre backs. Stoke became disjointed at the back since Chelsea had pulled their defenders out of position. It also meant Stoke’s midfielders were locked in a constant battle to reclaim the ball leaving Shaqiri & Diouf to fend for themselves. The Blues’ 3-4-3 was a massive promoter of free movement & interchanges, this is evident as Chelsea’s 2nd goal was a result of this. Overloading the box with attacking options is a sure fire way to break a deep lying team.
In attack Chelsea set up with a 2-3-5. 2 centre backs deepest, the midfield pairing joined by a 3rd centre back & the front 5 were left to create havoc but Chelsea had to remain aware as Stoke possessed their own attacking weapons, namely Shaqiri, Diouf & later Bojan. Informed to pull Chelsea’s defenders into 1 v 1 situations but these opportunities rarely came to fruition as Chelsea’s counter press was so effective. When Chelsea would lose the ball, their wingbacks would return to their positions in an effort to block any wide passes. David Luiz would occasionally step into the midfielder & create a temporary 4-3-3 as his aggressive nature helps to panic the ball carrier. Finally, the front 3 would all cut any attempted pass to the opposition defenders. This usually left Charlie Adam & Joe Allen with no other option but to kick the ball away in order to relieve the pressure. These quick turnovers ensured Stoke found it difficult to engage in any build up play from midfield. As a result this benefited the home side as it allowed them to skip one (or potentially two) phases of build up.
Lack of defensive organisation
Due to the obvious reason, Peter Crouch was used as Stoke’s target man. This was effective as he scored & assisted both of his team’s goals. Without Matic, Chelsea found it harder than it already was to match Crouch height for height. Marcos Alonso or Gary Cahill were usually assigned the ex-England international but they rarely beat them in the air (as expected). As a natural tendency, Chelsea players would break from normal instruction to swarm Crouch at set pieces. Granted, they had correct cause for concern as Crouch is regularly dominant & assertive in the air but this moth to light-like attraction let Chelsea down. A key example of this includes Stoke’s second goal where Bruno Martins Indi is left with a tap in as Crouch managed to pull enough defenders away from the goal. It could be argued that Nemanja Matic or even John Terry should’ve started to counter Crouch’s threat but height isn’t everything as that line up proved. Whenever Cahill followed Crouch, David Luiz also felt the need to double up on the target man which was seemingly the logical thing to do but in many situations it wasn’t. Had Stoke possessed better players, Chelsea may not have been as lucky to concede twice & still win.
This was the last game of Chelsea’s illustrious winning run as it was halted abruptly by Pochettino’s Spurs at White Hart Lane, as they ran out 2-0 winners. As the season simmered out, Chelsea’s 3-4-3 was found to be losing the edge it once possessed. Manchester United, Arsenal & even Crystal Palace had managed to solve Conte’s puzzle but they remained largely unopposed in the title race as they ended the season with the second highest premier league points tally (93) & the most wins in a league season (30).