For Sunday’s highly impressive win against Manchester United in the FA Cup semi final at Wembley, Frank Lampard used a back three for the first time since late February at Bournemouth. It made perfect sense as Ole Gunnar Solskjær had used a 3-4-1-2 shape with split strikers in two wins against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this season. Lampard matching up was a no brainer.
With the back three and two holding midfielders in place, Chelsea’s “rest defence”, effectively their structure defensively when in possession to guard against counter attacks or regain the ball immediately, was never likely to be compromised.
Even after Solskjær went to a more customary 4-2-3-1 towards the end of the first half, Chelsea were comfortable in that shape in a big game. Players like Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger, Marcos Alonso, Willian and Olivier Giroud all played in the same roles in the same formation under Antonio Conte and looked at home, whilst Kurt Zouma played under the Italian coach on a few occasions on the right of a back three (and played in that shape on numerous occasions in his loan spell at Stoke City).
So far, this season Lampard has used that shape in several important victories. At Wolves, Chelsea matched up at Molineux and won 5-2 in September. In October, Chelsea went to Lille and won 2-1 using a back three to gain a vital victory. He repeated the trick in December by surprising Jose Mourinho after playing a back four for the preceding 15 games. The Portuguese coach was caught out and by the time he eventually changed shape, Chelsea were 2-0 up and comfortable at Spurs.
He repeated a number on Mourinho in the reverse fixture, using a back four eight times in a row before switching for a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge.
Without doubt, the shape has plenty of positives, not least simply having more men behind the ball to guard against counter attacks but also an extra defender on the pitch for added height in defending set plays, a constant Achilles heel this season for both organisational reasons but also simply due to having mismatches against taller sides.
With both Wolves and Arsenal expected to play a back three in Chelsea’s final league match and in the FA Cup final, the shape is sure to be selected again by Lampard in both games. The big question mark is whether to use the same structure an Anfield on Wednesday.
For all the credit the Chelsea head coach deserves for some of the big victories with that formation, he has constantly repeated a major mistake right afterwards – retaining the shape in the next match when it is not as suitable.
After that Wolves victory, Lampard played a back three at home against Valencia and lost 1-0. With the side struggling to create chances, Olivier Giroud replaced Kurt Zouma after 73 minutes and the side immediately conceded due to the disruption to the backline.
After the win at Spurs in December, Chelsea kept the shape for a home game against Southampton and lost 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. Mason Mount replaced Zouma at the break to move to a back four at 1-0 down, but the damage was done. A key factor aside from Mount only being on the bench was a Marcos Alonso injury – he is a key cog when playing with wingbacks and Emerson just does not suit the role as well.
For the following game, it was again a back three away at Arsenal. With the side struggling at 1-0 down after 34 minutes, Lampard took off Emerson for Jorginho and moved to four at the back, turning the game around to win 2-1. He had got his tactics wrong but moved early to correct things.
Then, after the home win against Tottenham in February, Lampard kept the back three and saw his side lose 3-0 at home to Bayern Munich, replacing Azpilicueta with Pedro after 73 minutes to change shape. He kept that formation for a 2-2 draw at Bournemouth in the next game and had to withdraw Fikayo Tomori for Willian around the hour mark to revert to a more suitable system.
To be clear, Chelsea could keep that shape and get a positive result at Liverpool on Wednesday. Both Manchester United and Arsenal took points off the champions by playing with three central defenders, the latter as recently as a week ago. Having wingbacks to engage Liverpool’s fullbacks is crucial, but having the back three against Liverpool’s front trio is a risk.
However, sticking with that formation by default has not worked for the coach this season and it instead looks like a specific weapon to surprise opponents who can less easily prepare for it by analysing recent matches.
Chelsea have beaten Liverpool (albeit with both sides missing some of their best XI) in the FA Cup and given them genuine defensive problems in the UEFA Super Cup and in the league defeat at Stamford Bridge with a 4-3-3 shape. Having extra width and hopefully the pace of Christian Pulisic would be a good way to relieve pressure but also a way to keep Liverpool more conservative in the positioning of their defensive line.
Even in Sunday’s win, the lack of pace in the Chelsea front three saw Man Utd push their defensive line up to the halfway line in the first half. Olivier Giroud is far less effective against a high line, but caused problems in the UEFA Super Cup against Virgil Van Dijk with the pace of Pulisic and Pedro running in-behind from wider areas.
For the trip to Anfield, both formations are options, but the absence of N’Golo Kanté may mean a back three is the safer bet out of possession.
In only his second season in management, Lampard has made plenty of mistakes and has often learnt from them (eventually). His tactics to beat Man Utd on Sunday was one such occasion. He now needs to make certain of his team selection and setup at Anfield for a different challenge, and not repeat the mistake of defaulting to keeping a winning side.