Antonio Conte must give Chelsea a chance vs. Barcelona and play a centre-forward
Chelsea's ultra-passive approach in their 1-0 defeat to Manchester City on Sunday has generated a cascade of criticism. While some of it has been rather hyperbolic -- even prompting a surprisingly staunch defence from former boss Jose Mourinho -- it was clearly not a display worthy of the reigning English champions.
The blame, naturally, has fallen on manager Antonio Conte even though his cause was not helped by many of his players forgetting how to execute a simple pass. The Italian set his team up to be defensive but failed to imbue it with any sense of adventure or means to relieve the incessant pressure. Defeat was almost inevitable, victory virtually impossible.
With Chelsea a week away from another serious examination by a possession-based team when they travel to Barcelona, something needs to change if they are to avoid another humiliation. Thankfully, there are a few simple things that Conte can do to give his team a fighting chance.
The first and most glaringly obvious move would be to deploy a genuine centre-forward. While playing the fleet-footed trio of Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro Rodriguez had some success in the first leg against Barcelona, there is no guarantee that it will be similarly fruitful in the intense pressure of the Camp Nou. At the Etihad on Sunday, Chelsea's players were suffocated on the ball and were unable to effectively feed their front three, all of whom need the ball to be played into their feet.
The presence of either Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud will supply a release valve for what is likely to be a game played largely in Chelsea's half. Both are strong in the air, though the preference would be for Morata to play given his extra pace and silkier touch. Additionally, he is unlikely to receive the amount of physical attention from either Gerard Pique or Samuel Umtiti that seems to unsettle him so much in the Premier League.
The most positive consequence of playing either Morata or Giroud, however, would be to release Eden Hazard from the shackles of leading the line. It is clear to everyone that the Belgian is at his best when liberated from a rigid role, free to take up dangerous positions and get on the ball as often as possible. Playing as a nine, false or otherwise, severely negates any impact he can have on the game and that cannot be right. Perhaps Conte's concern is Hazard's defensive contribution when playing as a wide forward, something that both Pedro and Willian are more diligent at providing. That might just prompt him into playing three midfielders with Hazard floating behind a striker but whatever he decides, Hazard must be given licence to roam.
The other thing Chelsea must do is play with tempo and intensity. This does not necessarily mean haring forward at every opportunity or flying into tackles but it does require knowing when to intervene and press quickly on their opponents. That attitude was found startlingly wanting against Man City where the onus appeared to be on waiting for a mistake rather than provoking one. Top teams very rarely make unforced errors so with Chelsea needing to score at least once in Catalonia they will need to be proactive at the right moments. The recent games with Barcelona and Manchester United both showed, in different ways, how imposing themselves on their opponents at the right times can prove fruitful.
In the highly likely scenario that Chelsea find themselves needing to find a goal to stay in the Champions League as the second half ticks by, Conte should sanction a switch to a 4-2-3-1 sooner rather than later. The loss of width provided by the wing-backs would be offset by having four dedicated attacking players on the pitch and the midfield being strengthened and less exposed. Marcos Alonso's attacking instincts might be curbed but it would free Cesc Fabregas from too much defensive responsibility and allow him to focus on getting on the ball and doing what he does best.
Finally, it would be nice to have a greater variety of options among the substitutes and have the chance to change the pattern of the game. Although Conte might point to the club's transfer policy in mitigation, it was still strange to effectively see four defenders and two specialist centre-forwards named on the bench against Man City alongside the replacement goalkeeper. That there was no creative option available or dedicated midfielder was strange. Admittedly, N'Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko were both injured but there was still no space for Callum Hudson-Odoi or Ross Barkley, either of whom would surely have had more chance of being called upon than Trevor Chalobah given the other defensive permutations at Conte's disposal.
Chelsea's season doesn't hang on conquering Barcelona. The race for the top four and the ability to retain the services of Hazard and Thibaut Courtois must be the main focus. But, whatever the result, the Blues must show ambition, determination and pride at the Camp Nou if they are to retain the faith of their supporters during the final weeks of the season.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.