NOVEMBER 29 — One of the longest-running tactical debates in football is a chicken and egg style question: which comes first, the players or the strategy?
Should a coach stick to firm principles which he attempts to instil into every group of players who fall under his command, or should he allow his tactics to be guided primarily by the specific qualities of the players who happen to be at his disposal? What is more important: player power or the cult of the manager?
The two leading candidates for the English Premier League title (sorry Liverpool fans, but I expect your team to fall away) are both examples of the former, possessing newly-arrived and highly-regarded managers who are determined to play the game their way rather than allowing their ideas to be changed according to the abilities of their players.
At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has repeatedly stated that he will never abandon the possession-based passing game which became so famous at Barcelona, and his rigid insistence upon that style could, in the long-term, effect a revolution in English football’s tactical understanding.
And in a darker shade of blue, Antonio Conte is adopting a very different approach at Chelsea with his implementation of a three-man defensive line which is fast becoming the game’s most fashionable tactical device.
These are still early days but so far both men are enjoying success, with Chelsea currently top of the EPL standings after registering their seventh consecutive league win with a 2-1 home victory over Tottenham on Saturday, while City’s 2-1 triumph at Burnley leaves them just one point behind.
Chelsea’s rise, in particular, has been highly impressive considering the disarray which Conte inherited when he left his job as Italian national team manager to head for Stamford Bridge during the summer.
He arrived with considerable prestige after enjoying a great deal of success, firstly with Juventus where he won three consecutive Serie A titles between 2011 and 2014, and then by taking Italy impressively to the quarter-finals of the European Championships before exiting in the most arbitrary possible fashion, a penalty shoot-out against Germany.
Throughout that period of success, Conte relied most heavily upon three outstanding defenders and an equally brilliant goalkeeper, with Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini forming a formidable brick wall ahead of the masterful Gigi Buffon both for Juve and Italy.
When he came to England, then, the big question was whether Conte would be able to replicate the level of success he had previously enjoyed without any of those key players available to him. Would he still play three at the back, and do so successfully, when Chiellini was out and David Luiz was in?
The emphatic answer is yes, he can. Christian Eriksen’s goal for Tottenham this weekend was the first time since September that Chelsea had conceded, with the unlikely trio of Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta rapidly picking up where Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini had left off, allowing Conte’s new team to concede just ten goals in their opening 13 league games.
The success enjoyed by Conte with the three-man defence has led to that formation becoming increasingly popular elsewhere. Every week it seems a new coach tries out the formation, with the latest example coming on Saturday when Sporting Gijon employed the system with impressive results and were extremely unfortunate to lose 2-1 at Real Madrid after missing a late penalty.
The most striking aspect of Conte’s use of the system, however, is that it is not just a defensive ploy. Very often, a three-man defence can become in reality a five-man defence with full-backs providing wide cover for their centrally positioned teammates, and Italian football, which spawned Conte, is particularly noted for its safety-first mentality.
But with the Chelsea manager that’s not the case. His wide defenders play as genuine wing-backs, with their attacking contributions just as important as their defensive duties, and Chelsea’s current status as the EPL’s joint second-highest scorers, with 29 goals in 13 games, destroys the idea that Conte is a primarily defensive coach.
Intriguingly, Chelsea’s next game is against none other than Guardiola’s City, and their meeting at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon will be fascinating from a tactical point of view.
Despite their early successes this season, both teams still have much to prove. City have laboured through many of their recent games and have drawn their last three home league games, all against moderate opposition.
And although Chelsea have looked extremely impressive in the last few weeks, it’s not too long since they lost consecutive league games against Arsenal and Liverpool and they still need to prove that they can be successful against top-class opposition, although Saturday’s victory over Tottenham certainly helped.
It will also be a clash of coaching philosophies, with Guardiola’s insistence upon short passing and high pressing going head to head with Conte’s three-man defence and counter-attacking power.
And although one game obviously won’t decide the title, it should certainly provide us with a few clues about which of these coach-first clubs is currently in the ascendancy.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.