Should Chelsea turn to a 3-4-2-1 system?

Emma Hayes experimented with a back three against Everton in the F.A Cup but is this a possible long term solution?

Complex tactical plans in women’s football have come to the fore in the past 18 months. Lluis Cortes, Emma Hayes, Olivier Echouafni, Stefan Lerch, and Jens Scheuer have created complex tactical schemes to outwit the opposition which makes for an entertaining watch for fans. This season’s UEFA Women’s Champions League was a showcase of these teams coming up against each other and exposing flaws that many wouldn’t have been able to see in their domestic competitions. The European competition is the only place to test their abilities and truly find out who is the best.

Chelsea were second best to a rampant Barcelona side but that is no knock on the Blues given their extraordinary performances throughout the season and still ended up as WSL champions for a second time running. What was most fascinating about Chelsea this season was their tactical intelligence and complexity. Hayes has devised a truly nuanced and thorough plan with technical complexities and can be considered one of the best tacticians in women’s football today.

The subsequent game after the final was an FA Cup tie against Everton saw another tactical switch up. Hayes sent out an experimental side playing a 3-4-3 in what is quite possibly a rarity in women’s football. This prompted a discussion between Kieran Doyle and I on the rarity of back threes in the women’s game and possible reasons behind its exclusion.

Part of it comes down to the lack of player profiles who can fulfil the tactical roles required. However, the quality of managers in the past who maybe weren’t as diverse in their selection. Now, with the list of aforementioned coaches and a more intelligent pool of players to choose from, there is an argument to introduce back three systems.

So naturally, we decided in typical analyst fashion to document this extensively. This joint article between Kieran and I will look to analyse how Chelsea can use a 3-4-2-1 formation. Breaking down every aspect of the team from defence and midfield to attack. We’ll also discuss areas of improvement and the type of personnel needed to benefit the team further in this system if there are any gaps.

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Though Chelsea beat Everton 3-0 and it wasn’t as convincing of a win. There was enough to see what Hayes was trying to do. So why a back three? The fundamental principles of this system allow a team to have defensive solidity whilst being able to afford slightly more attacking freedom between the front three players. Between having an extra central defender and attack-minded wing-backs, the three-player system can mask deficiencies that may run through the team.

But why Chelsea, you ask? The problems that were exposed by Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona were well documented. The full-backs were heavily targeted and the out of possession movement between the midfielders showed a lack of mobility when defending against fast-paced transition teams. This makes a 3-4-2-1 system a much more viable prospect for Chelsea given the current squad.

If you look at their style of play and personnel, you can identify some key players that can play a vital role in such a system. Maren Mjelde, Sophie Ingle, and Erin Cuthbert are just three players that could have a monumental effect given their skill set and qualities. This also masks the defensive deficiencies of the full-backs allowing them to play a much more attacking role with extra defensive cover. The illustration below shows the areas different players can cover in this team.

It largely remains unchanged as the front three can continue to interchange and play their natural game but the wing-backs are allowed to flourish and play a more attacking role whilst being protected.

Defence

When considering a team transitioning from a back four to a back three, there are three key compositions to think of. The first, and most straightforward, sees them play three true centre-backs. The second sees a full-back converted into a centre-back, with the traditional centre-back partnership shifted left or right.

For those who can peel back the trauma of the UEFA Women’s Champions League final (or the last 20 minutes of the first leg against Bayern Munich), this is how Hayes adjusted Chelsea into a back three last season.

Jess Carter became the right centre-back, with Magdalena Eriksson shifting to the left and Millie Bright centrally. The third is to drop a defensive midfielder into the back three, sometimes splitting the regular partnership, sometimes as one of the wider players. 

This is something Hayes has done very often in the build phase, with Ji So-yun or Melanie Leupolz dropping into full-back spaces - allowing for the full-backs to push higher and provide width, while the nominal wingers in Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr can then become much more narrow. Similarly, Ingle has often dropped between the centre-backs, giving Bright, in particular, better passing angles to play raking diagonals for runners in behind.

Chelsea’s back three and wing-backs when adjusting mid-game.

Midfield low rotation in build phase to create quasi-back three with a midfielder.

Moving into next season, Chelsea are faced with options and the ability to enact all three transitions mentioned above. The arrival of Aniek Nouwen (previously outlined by Abdullah) means Chelsea have a true third centre-back option, something conspicuously absent from the squad construction last year. Nouwen is a robust defender with some feel for possession play, but is not extremely polished as an “opener”.

She is, however, excellent in the air and possesses terrific footwork when defending crosses. She regularly recovers into the correct spaces with strong body shape to contest or to win first balls, even while possessing sub-elite recovery pace herself. 

As the more defensive anchor of a back three with very safe passing options, this could hide some of her shortcomings in possession. That being said, it would be a surprise if this was the route Chelsea went if the back three did become a more regular part of Chelsea’s tactical diet. Playing all three centre-backs at once means you really don’t possess a rotation option, and any change in shape means you *must* remove someone from the pitch. 

We have already seen Chelsea slide Carter into both wide and central centre-back roles, but she’s a fairly awkward fit. Her ability as an incisive passer into midfield is somewhat lacking and presents a potential pressing trap on the left. On the right, she maintains the safety of being able to hit a channel pass when in danger, and Hayes and the front three have never shied away from playing directly into depth.

Carter slides into the channel defensively but can struggle against more physical matchups or elite 1 v 1 dribblers. In a role where you can become very isolated without the help of the touchline, there is reason to believe she could struggle.

The more obvious fit is Mjelde. With plenty of experience in midfield, you are adding an adept progressive passer, but an even more gifted progressive carrier. Receiving on the swing, the wide centre-back is often presented with opportunities to engage the next line on the dribble - a key part of Mjelde’s game.

Stylistically, she is not dissimilar from Alex Greenwood at Manchester City, who made a similar transition last season. Perhaps cynically, a transition to a wide centre-back role would also ease Mjelde’s transition back to full health athletically, or hide some deficiencies as she ages. 

Maren Mjelde - Alex Greenwood full-back comparison

The third option is for Ingle to drop in as a centre-back. Ingle regularly featured as a central defender last season, Chelsea expected to dominate the ball, sometimes out of necessity. Ingle was a fairly critical part of Chelsea’s midfield in “big” games last season and was a huge pressure release valve defensively, letting Leupolz be much more mobile and aggressive as a presser and counter presser.

However, she also waned fairly significantly as the season went on. The physical demands of an elite single pivot are tremendous, it is a ridiculous amount of ground to cover to press as aggressively as Chelsea do and still snuff out transitions. 

For the Chelsea supporters on the men's side, the blueprint of how to cover for the athletic asks of a central midfielder who can no longer meet them is clear. Playing a back three can let Ingle carry out midfield actions more effectively, but given the talent there and her ability as an opener in part of a back three (and her international caps at centre-back), moving her to the central centre-back role could maximise her skill set. Give her all of the ball progression goodness she knows and loves with a much less defensive responsibility and you have a recipe for success. 

Much of the consternation around a back three focuses on how Chelsea will arrange the centre-backs, as the wing-backs are a fairly solved puzzle at Chelsea. Niamh Charles has blossomed as a supreme athlete in a full-back role - possessing the physical talent to be a dominant force in all phases and areas of the pitch combined with the technical ability of someone who has spent most of her development as a burgeoning attacking midfielder.

While we could wax lyrical for 4,000 words about Charles the full-back, maybe the easiest way to put it is as such: the most statistically similar player in the entire WSL to Charles at right-back is Lucy Bronze, who is the best full-back in the entire world. There are interesting thoughts about Guro Reiten the wing-back, mostly due to the interesting things she does as an auxiliary midfielder and her ability to cross, but Jonna Andersson is a fairly straightforward solution at left wing-back.

We’ll give you one guess at who is Lucy Bronze and who is Niamh Charles.

Midfield

The base of a good 3-4-2-1 revolves around the double-pivot that operates to provide attacking and defending balance. They act as a bridge to facilitate attacking and defensive transitions which means the two players must be vigilant and proactive in their positioning and movement.

Often teams that play in this system will include a playmaker and box-to-box midfielder. However, where Chelsea are concerned they don’t have the necessary ingredients to concoct a standard pairing, rather they possess the inverse.

Before elaborating on that, let’s assess the current options. Leupolz is probably the closest to the box-to-box midfielder needed but she isn’t known for her defensive acumen whilst Ji is an excellent ball carrier and passer and is more suited to a playmaker role in an attacking capacity. Another specialist option includes Ingle but as mentioned earlier her lack of mobility means she might just be better suited to playing in the back three.

Now, you might be thinking that there is no real defensive-minded player who is active in the covering phase. This is where Chelsea might need to seek a new player from the transfer market, however, an unorthodox in-house option to solve this issue lies in Erin Cuthbert.

Both Cuthbert and Reiten are natural wide players who can play a more central role in transferring their skill sets into a different position but while Reiten might be more suited to a wing-back role, in Cuthbert, Chelsea have a player who can become an aggressive lynchpin in the double-pivot.

Cuthbert has the skills of a dynamic box-to-box midfielder who can be the team’s shuttler and move across the pitch giving horizontal cover. Given that Chelsea might not play a conventional playmaker and box-to-box midfielder combination, it’s interesting to see that Cuthbert offers a viable solution to the ‘destroyer’ role playing deeper whilst offering some forward drive.

With the rotations coming from the playmaking centre-back, Cuthbert can shuttle across the defensive midfield area acting as both connector and defensive cover. Keiran talked about the presence Leupolz had in the ‘big’ games last season and though there is extra solidarity, Cuthbert can solely focus on covering the spaces vacated by the full-backs. 

This gives them license to operate further forward and given Charles’ natural attacking talent this seems a perfect fit. This is further emphasised in Cuthbert’s defensive data where she’s averaged 23.3 pressures per 90 minutes with 10.6 coming in the middle third as well as 3.42 tackles per 90 according to FBREF.

Taking this example, Barcelona are playing their way out of the back, though there is some pressure the ball goes out towards Aitana Bonmati. Cuthbert is already positioned high up and tracks Bonmati’s run.

Cuthbert can apply enough pressure on the player who is then forced to pass the ball back towards her own goal. An aggressive press can cause teams to restart their moves or turnover possession.

Moving to the other profile of midfielder, in Ji, Chelsea have the perfect foil to play alongside a Cuthbert where she’s able to carry out the playmaker role. The playmaker must be tactically adept, whose ability to read the game is above all other teammates.

They are the heartbeat of the team controlling the game, using penetrative passes, directing play from deep, and spreading play wide. Though they need to be able to cover defensively, this setup could differ where Cuthbert plays a more defensive role which allows Ji more freedom dictating play on the front foot.

Ji possesses a similar skillset to the explanation above and her close control and press resistance is a bonus. With 5.86 final third passes per 90 minutes and 7.18 progressive passes per 90, and 10.5 passes made under pressure per 90. Ji is the player Chelsea play through and can play in the attacking talent at Chelsea. 

The first example shows her ability to pick up possession and play in the advancing full-back. Her original position is deeper but she holds the return pass from Jonna Andersson for long enough to allow the full-back time to make the run. The intelligence here makes her an ideal candidate for the role. 

Here she shows her ability to play more direct, longer passes into the channels for Kerr to chase. This sort of movement and passing is common in a 3-4-2-1 and Ji’s intelligence in positioning and decision-making is evident in these examples. Giving Ji fewer defensive responsibilities coupled with Cuthbert’s aggression could be a go-to solution moving forward which also has a knock-on effect on the wing-backs. Having said that, Jessie Fleming could be an excellent addition to the double-pivot, who possesses great ball carrying abilities with her playstyle reminiscent of former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Mousa Dembélé.

This transitions us to the wing-backs and their role in this system. They play an important role in midfield and given the defensive deficiencies in the current set of full-backs - excluding Mjelde - there is a sense that this could be the best way to integrate them. From an attacking perspective, the wing-backs have the license to push forward and provide width to a narrow formation.

As the illustration suggests, when the wing-backs fly forward, they can provide width and give the forwards a different service option. Though at Chelsea they play narrower in the final third, having the option to attack the wide spaces, stretch defences, and supply crosses is a sufficient plan b. To cover the spaces in behind, the deepest midfielder can cover the space of the full-back that pushes forward, which again makes the second midfielder extremely important in a defensive capacity.

Final Third

The triumvirate of Kirby, Harder, and Kerr was one of the most dynamic attacking bands in world football last year. Harder, nominally the number 9, would drift into midfield and wide areas to create overloads and underloads becoming a critical piece leading to a break into space.

That’s just before ghosting back into the box to attack cutbacks and crosses. Kerr, a devastating striker who often did her best work floating into wide areas and terrorising the full-backs of the NWSL with darting runs off their shoulder, became something of a quasi-left winger.

Starting wide and relentlessly attacking space in behind and often becoming part of a pair, Kerr led the WSL in goals last season and despite a shaky start, her scoring felt like an inevitability by the second half of the season. Not enough can be said of Kirby, but being the true creative hub of Chelsea’s attack, Kirby would combine the best of both worlds in Harder and Kerr. A devilish runner off the back shoulder of a full-back in behind, while being equally adept checking inside and running an attack between lines on her own. The trident just worked. 

But it wasn’t always the case, Hayes started the year in some awkward 4-4-2 and 4-4-2 adjacent shapes where the movements between the three didn’t quite click. But moving to a more true front three, letting the full-backs/midfielders provide width truly unlocked Harder and Kirby, who had seen more significant time in wider areas.

Allowing all three attackers to operate more centrally, interchanging and providing significant threat both vertically in stretching teams and centrally between lines and in half-spaces truly allowed them to blossom. In his, perhaps ill-fated, preview for the Champions League final at the Tactical Rant, Om Arvind described it as such:

What looks like a bizarre and possibly dysfunctional lineup on paper works beautifully because Emma Hayes has a genius understanding of how individual tendencies and stylistic attributes play off of each other to create beneficial movement and interplay.

Hayes knows that Kerr will naturally gravitate to the centre, making constant runs off-the-shoulder, which will, in turn, free up Harder to do what she does best and link play. And, because Kirby is such a mercurial talent with such an expansive skillset, Hayes realizes that Super Fran is also bound to drift inwards in order to receive between the lines.

Furthermore, Hayes is well aware that all three are intelligent enough and possess enough stylistic contrasts to react off of each other seamlessly and without positional overlap. If it ever gets too chaotic, Hayes can always bank on her vocal, micro-managing style on the sideline to ensure that spatial occupation remains balanced.

When considering how this remarkable coming together of individual tendencies and coached instruction may look when flanked by wing-backs and rear guarded by a back three, things look quite similar. The responsibility to occupy wide zones is even less, with the wing-backs already much more advanced. 

Similarly, the spacing with regards to the midfielders may look a little neater. Harder would drop into pockets and end up on top of Ji or Leupolz, but with the structure in midfield looking a little different, both Kirby and Harder should be much freer to occupy spaces between lines on the half-turn and attack the backline. 

Rest assured, if concerns about a change in shape are rooted in the potential stimying of this attacking group, don’t be. In terms of alternative placements, both Kirby and Harder are comfortable playing as a more traditional number 10 role behind a pair of strikers, but this is also something Reiten showed quite adeptly in the final fixture against Everton. 

Similarly, it perhaps makes the ability to play Beth England and Kerr together a little bit more seamless. With neither being shunted wide the way they were this year if ever playing together, there is certainly the potential to go bash brothers (smash sisters?) and give opposition teams a handful. This provides a useful tactical adjustment option, particularly when attacking low blocks or when chasing a lead. Chelsea were one of the most cross happy teams when chasing last year according to some numbers from @NWSLanalitica, so having a more stable option to do so could be beneficial.

Changes for the future

At the end of the day, having an alternative system that no one has seen before could be an excellent pocket strategy. The level of competition in the 2020/21 season was high and it will only improve going into the new season so having new systems and structures could very well be a key factor in navigating through the tougher knockout stages. 

Chelsea possess the ingredients to do something radically different with their shape whilst still keeping to their principles of possession-based football. Weaknesses can be masked and some players can significantly be improved. Time will tell if Hayes will implement a new solution but it might be necessary.

Header Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images.