Three proving the magic number for Potter and Chelsea
Posted on March 15, 2023
Three is the magic number for Chelsea.
That is the number of goals they scored against Leicester City on Saturday. The Blues have now won a trio of games on the bounce for the first time since October. And the upturn in form has coincided with Graham Potter’s shift to a three-man backline.
He certainly needed to change something. Before the 1-0 victory over Leeds United at the start of this month, Chelsea had won only one of their last 11 matches in all competitions. A defeat by Leeds may have resulted in Potter losing his job, despite Todd Boehly’s insistence that he is taking a long-term view.
After using a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 2-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur at the end of February, Chelsea moved to 3-4-3 for the visit of Leeds. Wesley Fofana and Benoit Badiashile were employed as the outside centre-backs, with the defence anchored by Kalidou Koulibaly.
He and Fofana kept their places in the XI for the meetings with Dortmund and Leicester, but Badiashile was replaced by Marc Cucurella as the left-sided centre-back.
This, of course, is not an unfamiliar system for Chelsea. Antonio Conte used it during his time at Stamford Bridge, including in the title-winning campaign of 2016/17. It was also the formation of choice for Thomas Tuchel, who led Chelsea to Champions League glory, plus three domestic cup finals and back-to-back top-four finishes in the Premier League.
This is not the first time Potter has opted for a back three. He used it in half of his first six league games at the helm, as well as in Champions League clashes with Red Bull Salzburg and AC Milan. Raheem Sterling was memorably selected as a left wing-back in the former game.
Before this month, the last outing for the three-at-the-back configuration was in Chelsea’s final pre-World Cup game, a 1-0 defeat by Newcastle United. The Blues were poor on the day, and Potter decided to ditch the system post-Qatar.
Ironically, Potter’s re-embrace of the shape came as a result of his best defender getting injured. Thiago Silva suffered knee ligament damage in the loss to Spurs, prompting Chelsea to switch to their current formation.
"Thiago getting injured against Tottenham meant we had to adjust things, and at the moment it’s suiting us well," Potter confirmed last week.
It certainly is. Chelsea have scored six goals in their last three games, having notched only four in their previous 11 outings.
They are taking marginally more shots - 12.7 per match in March, compared to 11 per game in the rest of 2023 - and have found the target more often too, from 3.6 times per match this calendar year to 4.3 since the change of shape. These are only slight increases, but they represent a move in the right direction after so many insipid showings over the last few months.
The formation suits several individuals. Reece James, who is currently injured, and Ben Chilwell are ideal fits for the wing-back berths. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Chelsea’s form dipped dramatically last term when that duo were on the treatment table.
Wesley Fofana has the mobility to defend the wide areas as the right-sided centre-back, while he is also comfortable stepping forward with the ball at his feet. With extra support around him, Koulibaly has looked much more assured in his new role. And Cucurella, who endured a tough start to his Chelsea career, has been excellent in the last two games.
"It's been a really good week - three wins," Potter said after the victory at the King Power Stadium on Saturday.
"A determined performance against Leeds and then a great one against Dortmund and to back it up today is really good from the players because it's not easy to do that in the Premier League, so I'm delighted for them. I'm delighted for the supporters, they were fantastic."
This has still been a disappointing campaign for Chelsea, who fell at the first hurdle in both the FA Cup and the EFL Cup, and are 11 points adrift of the top four.
But they are at least through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, a competition they are now free to focus on. After the successful return to a back three, Potter has bought himself some much-needed breathing space.
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