Opinion: How Conte’s formation switch helped Spurs rescue a point against Chelsea

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg
(Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

A goal down at Chelsea, with 57 minutes on the clock, Antonio Conte’s first attempt to rescue a point at Stamford Bridge saw Richarlison make his Premier League debut for Tottenham, putting in motion a surprise tactical shift.

Many, including myself, presumed Richarlison would replace Dejan Kulusevski, who had been quiet all game. But unbeknown to most Conte had other plans, as Ryan Sessegnon made way triggering a surprise switch to a back four.

The prospect of Kane, Son Kulusevski, and Richarlison on the pitch together is undeniably exciting, but in truth, given Conte’s religious deployment of a back three, is something we didn’t expect to see anytime soon.

But with 30 minutes to go, Conte recognised something had to change, and somewhat uncharacteristically he took a risk. 

Yes, there were certainly some defensive shortcomings, but ultimately it paid off, as we left Stamford Bridge with a point that seemed near impossible before this tactical change.

Rather than the familiar 3-4-2-1, Tottenham adopted a 4-2-2-1-1 shape; with Richarlison at the spearhead, and Kane just behind in the hole slightly advanced from Son and Kulusevski who sat wider.

Almost instantaneously, this presented Kane with our best chance of the game, as Richarlison’s presence occupied Koulibaly’s attention, allowing Kane to be played through by Hoijberg for a one-on-one which on another day would have seen the net bulge.

Just minutes later, Hoijberg drew Tottenham level, rewarding what had been the best period of the game for Conte’s side going forward as Spurs pressed Chelsea high up the field.

However, as mentioned, our newfound attacking threat came with a caveat, as at times defending was woeful. 

Either side of Hoijberg’s goal Chelsea missed big chances. Sterling characteristically blazed one over the bar from close range, before Kai Havertz got in between Romero and Emerson only to put a seemingly unmissable chance wide.

Unfortunately, despite clear wake-up calls, Chelsea punished our lacklustre defending minutes later, as after Kulusevski sloppily lost the ball deep in our own half, Ben Davies found himself drawn into a central position, leaving Reece James acres of space in the box as the Englishman had an open shot at goal to draw Chelsea level.

At this point, Conte had seen enough, replacing Heung-Min Son with Ivan Perisic and returning the side to a more familiar shape.

But nevertheless, we continued to push, and whether deserved or not, a Harry Kane header on the end of a wicked Perisic corner saw us take a hard-fought point at Stamford Bridge (Sky Sports), leaving Conte with a lot to consider ahead of Wolves this Saturday.

Switching to a back four was certainly an experiment, one that in truth I’m surprised Conte trialled in such a tough game.

Throughout his time at Spurs, Conte has played just once with a back four in a 2-0 league defeat to Chelsea in January which as the result suggests, didn’t go well (BBC Sport).

That day, Chelsea completely dominated and for most fans, myself included, that signalled the end of any deviation from Conte’s trusted back three.

But since then, there’s no doubt our team’s personnel has vastly improved, and trust has grown between players and the manager; potentially giving Conte the confidence to shake things up so drastically.

And with an elite quartet of attackers at his disposal and his side chasing the game, Conte was brave and somewhat luckily, reaped the rewards of such an unexpected tactical switch.

However, given our defensive shortcomings, the Italian will have to be cautious when switching to this formation in the future as on another day, with better forwards, Chelsea would have scored with ease on several aforementioned occasions.

Yet in the right scenario, a back four could undoubtedly be useful for Tottenham, as against teams deploying a low block – potentially Wolves next week or Burnley in times gone by, an extra body in attack cannot be undervalued, and if nothing else presents additional man defenders must mark and an added threat from our perspective.

This is all food for thought for Conte, and despite some atrocious defending, he will ultimately be pleased with Sunday’s result and Spurs grit to find an equaliser.

For now, we can celebrate a rare point at Stamford Bridge, and look forward to what is bound to be a tough game against Wolves this weekend; one where a back four may just be the way forward to break down a largely defensive side.

Moreover, we now know Conte isn’t afraid to utilise Kane, Son, Kulusevski, and Richarlison all at once; an attacking quartet with enough quality to trouble any opposition.

Certainly, there’s still work to be done at Hotspur Way, but on Sunday, we saw a new look Tottenham not afraid to take risks; making a statement to the rest of the league that we won’t roll over and be beaten.

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