Chelsea’s win over Tottenham had every kind of drama possible crammed into a Sunday evening.
It ended with racist abuse towards a Chelsea player, and along the way there were objects thrown from the crowd, red cards for violent conduct, some quite astonishing goalkeeping decisions and a stunning goal from Willian.
The excitement began long before kickoff though. When the teamsheets were handed in, Chelsea manager Frank Lampard had kicked off the drama with a surprise change of formation.
Changes were expected, without doubt. Chelsea had played so poorly in recent weeks that Lampard was bound to shake things up. But a switch to a three man defence, with regular starters like Jorginho and Christian Pulisic missing out, was not what anyone was expecting.
Opinions were instantly divided – was it a wild risk that would end up with an already uncomfortable Blues team struggling as they were forced into a new system in a huge game; or was it a necessary gamble to stop the rot and throw off a well-prepared home side who thought they knew what to expect?
Chelsea have been totally flat in attack and very soft in defence for weeks, and we're about to play a very strong side at their stadium. No better time to take a gamble than when the odds are against you anyway.
— Will Faulks (@willfaulks) December 22, 2019
Thankfully, within minutes of kickoff it became clear that it had been a superb decision from the manager. The new setup suited everyone, and allowed the Blues to put their stamp on the game extremely early.
With that positive possession in the opening exchanges came confidence, and the brilliant goal from Willian after 12 minutes only added to that, as well as allowing us to sit deeper and close some of the gaps that would naturally emerge with just two men in midfield against Tottenham’s three.
Slightly more coherent reflection after the game. I'm hoping this game serves as a catalyst for @tammyabraham. The goals will come against the bigger sides, but his centre forward play was majestic. Dominated some excellent defenders and really brought everyone into play.
— joeTweedie (@joeTweedie) December 22, 2019
The primary benefit of the system was how it suited our defence. Fikayo Tomori, Kurt Zouma and Antonio Rudiger all have a similar defensive style, preferring to step out aggressively and engage the opposition early.
The trio are all excellent in individual duels, and have plenty of pace between them to cover when the others push out. This setup lets them all play on the front foot, in the way they naturally want to. In possession, they all have increased license to surge forwards – this proved to be the perfect antidote to the slow, sideways passing across the back four that had been criticised by Lampard in previous weeks.
Fikayo Tomori’s game by numbers vs. Spurs:
100% aerial duels won
100% tackles won
86% pass accuracy
4 ball recoveries
0 goals conceded
0 fouls committed
One of the breakout stars of the season so far. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/z5zGOjapWd
— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) December 22, 2019
Further up the pitch, the system brought the best out of other players. Tammy Abraham lead the line brilliantly, admitting that he had to do more running in this formation – but that suits him down to the ground. He has the speed and the legs for it, plus the attitude to keep going for 90 minutes.
Tammy Abraham: “Yes, it does [change my game in 3-4-3]. I think there is a bit more running but nothing I can't handle. We felt like today the formation was going to help us beat Spurs and it worked. It was about everyone knowing their roles and sticking together as a team,” pic.twitter.com/t3PmpQ6g9h
— Chelsea News ®️ (@CFCNewsReport) December 23, 2019
In behind him, Willian and Mason Mount were the real creative stars, their hard running and movement giving outlets to everyone behind them and preventing the midfield pair of N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic from being overrun.
With the wing backs playing outside Mount and Willian, they could defend narrow to help their team, but also move wide when their team had the ball. They were both superb, both with and without the ball, for 90 minutes – a stark change from some of the weak showings they’ve put in in the last few weeks, struggling to find space and break down defensive sides.
Lampard will have chosen this formation as a one-off, not only to catch Tottenham out, but also just to shake things up and end the run of tepid performances we’ve seen in his favoured 433. But it will unquestionably end up being more permanent than that.
A change that was implemented to suit his three central defenders in a one-off game had such notable beneficial effects for everyone else in the team too that it’s hard to imagine the Chelsea manager moving away from it – at least until other teams start to figure out how to stop it.