The Blues play a mix of a possession-based and direct attacking game which demands a lot of fluidity in their structure to allow them an efficient transition in between the two modes. On the other hand, their current 3-5-2 setup is tactically fair only when the focus is to intensify midfield solidity so as to free up the attackers. However, the formation is not as fluid as Conte’s mostly employed 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 and doesn’t allow smooth connectivity between midfield and attack. As seen from their performance against West Ham, the 5-men midfield setup can often further expose the structural chaos of Chelsea’s midfield rather than overcoming it. The lack of a passing and transitional fluidity at London Stadium was the main outcome of the lack of a coherent passing structure for Blues as they employed 3-5-1-1 against The Hammers’ 3-4-2-1.
To capitalise direct attacking opportunities in the possession-oriented 3-5-2 setup is very tricky as it requires tactical intelligence of the midfield to initiate attacking moves while remaining coherent. While two central midfielders can easily form a coherent unit, for 3 men in the central midfield it would be comparatively difficult to cross coordinate when they need to leave their positions for pressing or attacking. Any uncoordinated move could disturb the balance and limit the creating options for the team especially when the opponents are forming a high defence line.
Unfortunately, the central midfield options of Chelsea are not strong enough to maintain a well-disciplined, defensively balanced central midfield. Currently, Kante is the only central midfielder in Chelsea who has transitional discipline. Thus adding two other central midfielders without that quality wouldn’t work always.
In the away fixture against West Ham too, the structural chaos of Chelsea’s midfield was exposed at different occasions in both transitional and build-up phases.
As seen in the following screenshot of the first quarter, Bakayoko (purple circle) should have been in the middle to receive the pass from Fabregas. Since no one got in that space during that time, Hazard (orange circle) had to drop back there but then the pass was sent to the goalkeeper as the Belgian’s timings of getting into Fabregas’ line of sight couldn’t match. If the ball had been passed to someone in the middle it could be sent to either Alonso (yellow circle) who would do a forward run or to Zappacosta advancing up at the right flank. But the lack of midfield connection didn’t allow so. This incoherent passing structure was also exposed because Hammers used mid defense line and fore pressing in the first quarter.
At another occurrence (see the picture below), Hazard (yellow circle) is under multiple pressing but none of his teammates is in his appropriate line of sight whom he could pass. It could be possible for Bakayoko (green circle) to drop back and receive pass from where he could send it to Cahill (orange circle) who would have multiple passing options available including Morata (purple circle).
The key is to get into the open space and pass the ball instantly to someone in the more favourable position – Alonso, Cahill, and Zappacosta here. Chelsea should have used width for effective distribution as the play became compressed in the deeper zone. This could also free up space for Fabregas who instead had to get close to Kante or Hazard to match the number of opponents in the midfield.
However this passing play ended up with Morata having to drop deep along with his pressing opponent to receive the pass and distribute to Bakayoko still being there. The later attempted to shot right outside the box as opponents got closed to him.
In both cases, Bakayoko is seen advancing up leaving his other central midfield partners to rely only on the forwards to drop back – and leaving the backline to rely only on Kante to stay back. This led to an incoherent passing structure which had limited the attacking opportunities for Chelsea even in some previous fixtures too. In other words, Bakayoko is not fulfilling the purpose of a coherent midfield.
If Conte wants to utilise Bakayoko’s defensive qualities, he should re-instruct him on his midfield and possession duties. He should deploy him as a sole partner of Kante so that it could be easier for the 23-year-old to maintain coherency and fit in the passing network under high pressing. The third midfield option as Fabregas could work better only when the Spaniard is assigned a freehand to advance up without bothering about midfield coherency.
As it can be seen in their next fixture against Huddersfield, Bakayoko showed better positional discipline and coherency. In the screenshot below, Kante and Bakayoko are staying together in the 3-4-2-1 setup.
Here again, Bakayoko and Kante are staying together. The position of Bakayoko (right circle) is also blocking the opponent’s way to the open man in the center, leading to vertical compactness.
In the 3-4-3 setup against Huddersfield with more men in the final third at the cost of less in the midfield, Chelsea retained their possession in the attacking third longer and got quicker to react in transitions. This also allowed them to form high defence line and forepress.
Blues formed a coherent passing structure in this fixture including triangular passing which almost always got them out of the press. They also used more dribbling and managed to get space in box.
To conclude, due to their disorganised central midfield structure, Chelsea can offensively perform better in 3-4-3 setup than in 3-5-2 especially when they need to play more aggressively. The 3-men central midfield would work merely if Kante and his partner (Bakayoko or Drinkwater) are made responsible to maintain midfield coherency while Fabregas is allowed to roam around without having to bother much about coherency. Also, Bakayoko needs more training to build an intelligible partnership with Kante.