The concept of a lumbering target man is one intrinsically linked to British football. When Leeds United won the Division One title in 1991-92 – the season before the top flight was rebranded as the Premier League and broke away from England’s other professional divisions – Eric Cantona was a marginal figure, often watching from the bench as fair-haired Lee Chapman barged defenders and bundled in 20 goals.
It was an approach typical of an English manager. Howard Wilkinson, still the last native to win the country’s first division, wanted a big man in the attack to “put himself about” and knock balls to the feet of Rod Wallace and other sprightlier members of the Leeds squad. It was only when Cantona moved to Manchester United for a little over £1 million in November 1992 that Wilkinson possibly had his eyes opened to what can be achieved with a mercurial player spearheading an attack, rather than an ungainly one.
So, it’s somewhat surprising that the manager following this outmoded formula is Antonio Conte. The Chelsea boss has developed a deserved reputation for being a meticulous and innovative tactician. Before moving to the U.K., he wrung the best out of one of the worst Italy ensembles in decades at Euro 2016 through his studied schematics and planning, and then in west London deployed a defensive trio that confused a nation. Conte is a coach who prefers to sort out his backline first, but Chelsea’s counter-attacks are blessed with fluidity, pace, and intelligence thanks to Eden Hazard, Willian, Pedro, and tireless wing-backs.
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Aside from his preferred foundation of a back-three and occasional use of a false nine, there are elements of Conte’s approach that have a British flavour. At Juventus, Carlos Tevez regularly worked in tandem with Fernando Llorente – very much a Harry Redknapp-pleasing little man-big man partnership – with the latter bouncing down balls for the bullish yet diminutive Argentine. It wasn’t as basic as a flat duo of Jermain Defoe and Crouch, but leaned on the same principles of blending energy with physicality, and having a big man forge an obvious focal point.
But the shape at Juventus was a 3-5-2, an approach that would sacrifice Chelsea’s talented legion of inside forwards if Alvaro Morata and an incoming target man made up the two. It wouldn’t be a quintessential little man-big man twosome, either, as Morata has proven to be strong in the air and with his back to goal. He’s not exactly little.
Instead, a 3-4-1-2 may be an option that allows Hazard, Morata, and, considering the strength of recent reports regarding Chelsea’s big-man hunt, Edin Dzeko to all play at once. Emerson Palmieri is rumoured to be part of the Dzeko deal with Roma, and is arguably a more natural left wing-back than Marcos Alonso – indicating Conte’s continued fixation with deploying a three-man backline. If the pair moves to Stamford Bridge for a collective £44 million, it will prove a snip.
The loss of a midfielder – Conte has been predominantly using a 3-5-1-1 since the season’s early months – means positional discipline would be paramount for N’Golo Kante and the colleague beside him. Tiemoue Bakayoko can be a nuisance when carrying the ball upfield and would be a valuable attacking pawn, but Danny Drinkwater‘s conservatism and knack for angling inch-perfect long balls could be critical against loftier opponents. With the opposition distracted by Hazard’s free role between the lines, Drinkwater would have the space to swing his leg and dispatch deliveries up the park.
The issue with this system is the talent it neglects. Willian showed why the criticism he courts is so unfair in Saturday’s 4-0 win at Brighton & Hove Albion, and Pedro’s use of space is that of a true Barcelona scholar. Be it from the first whistle or through a sideline tweak, the lineup could be reassembled in a variety of ways to accommodate more forward-thinking ferocity.
With wing-backs such a hallmark of Chelsea’s play under Conte, a reversion to the 4-2-4 used early in his tenure is unlikely. Continuing to use a 3-5-1-1 – rotating Morata with potential arrival Dzeko, and further exiling Michy Batshuayi – is a distinct possibility but, again, that negates Chelsea’s potency going forward. It’s no coincidence that was the shape in recent 0-0 home draws with Arsenal and Leicester City.
So, to improve attacking inroads, Conte may choose to return to the 3-4-3 (or, given the roaming roles of the wide frontmen, a 3-4-2-1).
Like in the 2016-17 title-winning campaign, there would be more onus on the wing-backs to flatten the defence into a five when under duress, and it wouldn’t be at a huge detriment to hasty counter-attacks while Hazard and Willian are milling around Dzeko or Morata. Bakayoko doesn’t have the tempered play of his midfield predecessor Nemanja Matic, so wouldn’t be an automatic pick, but Drinkwater and Cesc Fabregas provide consummate cover.
The concern is that a 3-4-3 is nothing new, and Premier League rivals have learned to oppose it – be it by mirroring the formation or moving central midfielders wider to act as roadblocks for the wing-backs. However, switching between Morata and an incoming target man makes sense, especially when the former appears overwhelmed by the workload in his first season as a bona fide starter.
There’s a feeling of short-termism in Conte’s approach; the moves of a manager thinking about his next career move. Someone who is apparently identifying Crouch, injury-plagued Andy Carroll, and frustratingly inconsistent pair Marko Arnautovic and Christian Benteke for a huge club isn’t building for the future. However, the workmanlike roles they would fill suggests this is a transfer that falls in line with Chelsea’s tactical blueprint, and is intended to carve out late results with route-one football. Unlike the Ross Barkley transaction, this is a deal conducted with Conte’s input.
Dzeko does offer a little more than a Chapman-esque big man – he can finish with finesse and knock smart touches to fellow attackers – but he turns 32 in March. Rather than a target man ushering in a long-term and admittedly antiquated style of play at Chelsea, this could be an acquisition that gives Conte’s successor a tactical conundrum in the 2018-19 term.
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