With a 4-2-4 at Chelsea, Antonio Conte just might be on to something

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, writes Greg Lea, has been experimenting with a 4-2-4 that very well could be a creative regular look for his side.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte directs his side during their League Cup match against Bristol Rovers. John Sibley / Reuters
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Two substitutions, two goals, three points. For the second Premier League game in a row, Antonio Conte shuffled his pack, reconfigured his side and reaped the rewards.

Chelsea were trailing 1-0 in Saturday's clash with Watford at Vicarage Road when the Italian replaced Oscar with Michy Batshuayi and Nemanja Matic with Cesc Fabregas. The team's shape shifted from 4-3-3 to 4-2-4, with the visitors drawing level in the 80th minute and edging ahead in the 87th.

It was a similar case just five days previously, when Chelsea struck a late winner to beat West Ham United after Conte had switched to the two-striker system. On that occasion, substitute Batshuayi headed the ball onto fellow frontman Diego Costa, who rifled his shot into the bottom corner of the net to defeat Slaven Bilic’s side.

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Batshuayi opened his Chelsea account at the weekend by pouncing after Heurelho Gomes had spilt Eden Hazard’s drive at his feet. It is impossible to say whether the goal would have been scored were Conte’s men still lined up in a 4-3-3, but it was certainly not insignificant that Batshuayi was able to break free from a trio of Watford centre-backs who were also trying to keep Costa’s predatory instincts under wraps.

The Spain international’s match-winning strike on Saturday came on the counter-attack, Fabregas bending a superb pass through the heart of the hosts’ backline and into his teammate’s path. It was a fabulous assist from the former Barcelona man, who possesses the midfield creativity that Matic and N’Golo Kante — for all of their other qualities — lack.

The question now is whether Conte will employ the 4-2-4 formation from the start against Burnley this weekend. It was the shape he used for much of preseason before shifting to 4-3-3 once Kante was available for selection, with the ex-Juventus boss presumably unsure whether Fabregas, Oscar and Matic were capable of thriving in a midfield two.

The fact that Chelsea have twice gotten out of jail after replacing a midfielder with a centreforward would certainly suggest the configuration could be a longer-term option at Stamford Bridge. Conte opted to trial it in Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over Bristol Rovers in the second round of the League Cup, pairing Batshuayi with Ruben Loftus-Cheek up top, although the latter did drift into more of a No 10 role at times.

One of the primary concerns about a permanent change to 4-2-4 relates to Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s star man and only bona fide world-class attacking player.

The Belgian’s lack of defensive discipline has been criticised by Jose Mourinho in the past, and it is true that Hazard is not the most diligent when it comes to tracking runs and marking rampaging full-backs. That is excusable because of the difference he so often makes in the final third, but playing just two central midfielders behind him could make Chelsea more vulnerable to quick breaks down the flanks, particularly as neither Fabregas or Matic is blessed with great mobility.

There is, after all, a difference between a system being successful for a full 90 minutes and working as a last-gasp plan B in the closing stages — especially when the opponents in question, like West Ham and Watford, are sitting deep and trying to hold on to what they have.

Chelsea will dominate possession against Burnley, though, so perhaps Saturday’s encounter would be a good time to trial the 4-2-4 from kick-off. If the late drama in Chelsea’s first two Premier League matches is anything to go by, it will certainly not be dull.

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