Chelsea were outdone by an aggressive press back in May. Antonio Conte faced a tactical problem and signing Tiemoue Bakayoko is the solution.
Chelsea faced the conundrum of beating an aggressive press last May in the FA Cup Final against Arsenal and could not solve it. Arsenal’s early intensity stunned the Blues and Chelsea were unable to get at their makeshift backline.
Further down the line, Chelsea’s preseason friendly against Bayern Munich showed that the players on tour were still struggling to find a way through an aggressive opponent.
Bayern harassed and harried Chelsea immediately after losing possession, forcing them to resort to long, hopeful punts to the forwards. Bayern’s defense immediately collected the loose passes and began another wave of attacks. Chelsea simply had no answer to their opponent’s pressing.
Antonio Conte’s solution this season is Tiemoue Bakayoko. Ostensibly, Bakayoko has been brought in to lock down the center of the park alongside N’Golo Kante. However, it is his skill on the ball that will give Chelsea the edge in the big matches.
In Bakayoko, Chelsea have a player that can not only win the ball but can then carry it past the initial wave of pressure. Bakayoko showed this skill repeatedly against Manchester City, for example, in last season’s Champions League. It was notable how many times Bakayoko simply glided away from Kevin De Bruyne’s counter-pressing before releasing the ball and starting the attack.
Nemanja Matic, formerly of this parish, certainly is no slouch on the ball, but Bakayoko’s dribbling is an upgrade. Bakayoko’s average of 2.19 successful take-ons (compared to Matic’s 1.4) last season shows what he can bring to Chelsea’s midfield. Bakayoko also averaged more tackles, aerial duels won and interceptions than Matic last season.
However, it is a slightly unfair comparison considering Kante’s superhuman presence in midfield distorts Matic’s defensive statistics. The point remains, though, that Bakayoko is more than a midfield destroyer. He is Chelsea’s best option to avoid the first wave of pressure upon regaining the ball.
Bakayoko’s propensity to dribble around/through opponents means he is also fouled a disproportionate 2.14 times per match (Matic 0.84, Kante 0.43). Pressing sides will commit tactical fouls as Bakayoko rumbles through the midfield.
Teams like Tottenham and Manchester United, masters of persistent fouling, must choose between pulling out of tackles in midfield or risking cautions. Fouls also lead to free kicks where Chelsea can keep the ball and leisurely orchestrate an attack. And Antonio Conte is one hell of an orchestrator.
Bakayoko’s arrival not only solves a problem of the current 3-4-3 system with his ability to break through a high-pressing opponent, but it also opens up new tactical possibilities. The Frenchman’s signing could also herald a switch to the 3-5-2 Conte used at Juventus.
Such a shift could maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard. Bakayoko’s physical and defensive abilities could also provide the stability for the 4-2-4 that Conte preferred at the beginning of last season.
Simply put, the Blues would have celebrated another trophy if Bakayoko was in the lineup last May. The addition of a player of Bakayoko’s abilities should ensure fewer hypothetical trophy celebrations come May 2018.