Conte must make up for Chelsea's depleted midfield with tactical nous
To say that Chelsea manager Antonio Conte is not a happy man would be something of an understatement. Not even Eden Hazard's late equaliser in the 3-3 draw with Roma could soften his mood with the Italian maintaining a face like thunder during the rest of the match and the ensuing news conference.
There have been no attempts to play down the difficult situation that he has found himself in after a draw and two defeats from his past three matches. There have been no attempts to deflect any of the limelight away from himself or his team. Conte wears his heart on his sleeve for better or for worse and it is always apparent to everyone how he is feeling. For all his immense talents as a football player and manager, it is unlikely that his skills extend to being a good poker player.
As he has not been shy of telling anyone within earshot, most of his grumbles have arisen through the failure to bolster the squad sufficiently over the summer and the inevitable injury crisis that has occurred due to the increased workload. But now Conte has another, equally challenging problem to contend with, namely the system in which he wants his team to play.
In the 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid, Conte debuted a 3-5-2 formation and it worked better than he could ever have dreamt. The combination of Hazard playing just off Alvaro Morata clicked immediately to provide a constant goal threat. The midfield was nicely filled with an extra body in there and width was provided by Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses at wing-back.
The approach worked perfectly largely because Atletico develop most of their play through the middle of the pitch, largely eschewing wingers in place of hard-working multi-faceted midfield players such as Koke and Saul Niguez. Chelsea's system funnelled them into those congested central areas and denied them space to play while also retaining the necessary tools to attack productively.
Since then, the same approach has been adopted against both Manchester City and Roma but with very different results. In both games Chelsea struggled to keep the ball while finding themselves defensively exposed time and again. In both games, the opposition was very effective in wide areas and switched the play quickly and accurately to exploit the empty space on the flanks created by Chelsea's extra midfielder. City were especially good at keeping the pitch very wide by stationing Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling tight on their respective touchlines, a ploy that meant Chelsea's midfield three were constantly unsettled.
Of course, the system that won Chelsea the title last season was the 3-4-3 that has since been adopted by several other sides. It has proved brutally efficient at either overwhelming opponents or playing counterattacking football. The problem now is that, like any innovation, teams have analysed its workings and isolated the weaknesses within it. It was telling that by the end of last season it had become less potent with Arsenal demonstrating how to neutralise it in the FA Cup final.
That is not to say it should be jettisoned as it still provides the Chelsea team with great balance. Unfortunately, it means that both of the central midfielders must be defensively sound. The knock-on effect is that it becomes a huge risk to use Cesc Fabregas in there as was seen in last weekend's defeat to Crystal Palace. While his heart is willing, his complete lack of pace to be able to recover in dangerous situations means he is totally unsuited to playing that role, but as one of only two fit central midfielders, Conte's options are limited.
Ultimately, the problem is instantly solved by the return of N'Golo Kante. If anybody questioned his importance to the team then they have surely been answered by the performances against Palace and Roma in his absence. True, his presence made little difference to the result against City though one shudders to think what the scoreline could have been had he not been playing.
While Conte might point to Kante's injury as mitigation for his recruitment complaints, the truth is that there is nobody that can replicate what he does. If Danny Drinkwater was fit it would certainly lessen the problem, though it feels like Chelsea have become so dependent on Kante covering every blade of grass and making a successful tackle every minute of the game that they lose all cohesion without him.
Chelsea's prospects with both 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 are enhanced enormously when the Frenchman is available and the sooner he returns the better. But that is not likely to happen for a good few weeks yet. With several games to play in the meantime, Conte needs to find a solution and he needs to find it fast.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.