Transfer window deadline days are often filled with surprises, and this summer’s was no different.
Arguably the biggest shock in the Premier League came when Chelsea confirmed the re-signing of David Luiz for a fee of £32 million. The Brazilian, a centre-back renowned for his defensive lapses, left the club in 2014 and there was little sign of a return until the transfer window deadline appeared on the near horizon.
He wasn’t the only player the London club brought in on deadline day, with Marcos Alonso joining from Fiorentina for £24 million. Again, few saw the deal coming given the Spaniard struggled during his last sojourn in English football. He failed to impress on loan at Sunderland in 2013/14, and he had only broken through at Bolton Wanderers the previous season upon their relegation to the Championship.
The two transfers were unexpected because of the personnel involved, though in terms of positions filled and traits offered, both deals make a good amount of sense.
One of the first questions when Antonio Conte was appointed Chelsea manager was: would he implement the 3-5-2 system? The Italian’s name has always been linked to the shape, mainly due to the fact that he used it frequently during his successful Juventus reign. The association was only bolstered when Conte guided the Italian national team to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals with using those tactics.
However, notions that the system was Conte’s ‘go-to' were wrong – he had used a 4-2-4 in the past, and he opted for this shape in early pre-season friendlies with Chelsea. Since then he has reverted to more of a 4-4-1-1, further dispelling the belief that his appointment came hand-in-hand with a back three.
Part of the reason behind these tactical decisions was the manager’s preference, yet they were also undoubtedly influenced by the options available.
Sustainable use of a back three is dependent, on a fairly basic level, on the availability of at least three fit defenders with the qualities needed to operate within such a defensive line. However, Chelsea’s existing roster in this area, prior to Luiz’s re-joining the club, was made up of John Terry, Gary Cahill and the recovering Kurt Zouma, with right-back Branislav Ivanovic as a possibility.
Along with the purely quantitative issue of having just four players to compete for three positions, there were problems with the type of defender available to Conte. Terry, Cahill and Ivanovic all lack pace – and the first two of those lack the technical qualities to bring the ball out of defence effectively.
In addition, Zouma only returned from a serious knee injury in July. There was also a more holistic issue in that all of the four have predominantly operated within four-man defensive lines in recent times.
Most systems that incorporate defensive tridents often come with wing-backs, which was another initial stumbling block for any ambition Conte may have had in implementing a 3-5-2 system, or something similar. He only had three full-backs, all of them right-footed, available in: Ivanovic, Cesar Azpilicueta and youth team graduate Ola Aina – following the departure of Baba Rahman on loan to German Bundesliga outfit Schalke earlier in August.
New men Luiz and Alonso’s arrivals offer solutions in both of these areas.
Throughout his career, Luiz has been dogged by defensive errors. His decision making, positioning and marking have often been imbued with inconsistency and uncertainty, giving him the air of an eccentric odd man out. His mistakes have been made all the more conspicuous by his aggressive, sometimes flighty approach.
The 29-year-old does, however, possess vast offensive ability for a nominal centre-back, giving him the air of an attacker trapped inside a defender’s body. He is comfortable on the ball, even when receiving it under pressure, and has a fine passing range which allows him to distribute the ball effectively over long distances if and when appropriate. He also has the close control necessary to carry possession forward through individual dribbles, and the athleticism to do so with short bursts beyond his marker.
These technical qualities could make him the ideal defensive signing should Conte opt for a back three in future.
As one of the Premier League’s bigger clubs and with some of the finest individual attacking talent in the division, Chelsea often find themselves with default possession in situations where their opposition take up a defence-first stance, seeking to absorb and counter-attack. Thus, should Conte wish to utilise a back three, the addition of an extra centre-back could, theoretically, be counter-productive to breaking down defensive opponents.
However, Luiz, with his willingness and ability to pass and dribble out from the back, may help to negate this threat. The Brazilian could operate on either side of the back three, taking up a wider position in one of the half-spaces (the areas between the centre of the pitch and the wings). From this position, he could attack the opposition’s first line of pressure by carrying the ball into the middle third, drawing out an opponent and creating numerical superiority further forward. He could also utilise his strong passing to bypass opposition lines.
It is feasible that Luiz could play on the left of Chelsea’s back three within Conte’s 3-5-2, perhaps with Ivanovic on the right and Terry or Cahill occupying the central berth.
Alonso could perform an equally vital role within this system. The 25-year-old has played regularly for Fiorentina as a left wing-back over the last two seasons and has excelled in the position. The ‘modern full-back’ is a term often wrongly used to describe players who have the athletic traits to attack space down the flanks, but lack technical ability and defensive nous. But this does not apply to Alonso.
Firstly, pace his not one of his primary assets. Secondly, he is a reasonable defender. And, finally, he remains an incisive wide presence despite his lack of cutting speed, due to his intelligent, accurate crossing and dribbling ability. The latter is particularly useful as it enables him to underlap as well as overlap, driving infield – in a style seen in the early days of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City – to take on opponents and combine with team-mates.
With all of this in mind, and considering he is a natural left footer, Alonso could well be used as the left wing-back in the 3-5-2 system should Conte ever choose to deploy it, allowing the right-footed Azpilicueta to take up the right-sided flank.
Chelsea’s signings of Luiz and Alonso surprised many, but it does not require too much imagination to see why they have been brought in. Both players significantly enhance Conte’s tactical options, bringing with them the real possibility of a switch from a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 to 3-5-2 at some stage in the near future.