Prior to yesterday evening’s clash against the reigning champions Chelsea, much of the discussion was about who would start up top for Town.
After a complete performance on Saturday, it seemed ludicrous to drop Steve Mounie. In spite of this, Laurent Depoitre’s work-rate and willingness to sacrifice himself for the team could have been the better option against superior opposition.
However, looking at the bigger picture, there was a systemic problem that goes way beyond the team selection made by David Wagner last night.
The problem revolves around the opposition’s use of the 3-4-3 formation and Town’s inability to counter-act it.
Over the course of 180 minutes of Premier League football, we have seen two performances on differing ends of the spectrum.
Against Brighton, Town aggressively imposed their identity which was simply too much for Brighton to handle.
Last night, the opposite happened. It was a performance that lacked belief; a passive performance which allowed Chelsea to settle into their rhythm and comfortably stroll to victory.
However, whilst a lack of belief almost certainly contributed towards Town’s downfall last night, the defeat highlighted a systemic mismatch.
The re-occurring problem
This mismatch has been a re-occurring issue for Town this season.
On four occasions Town have come up against a variant of the 3-4-3: West Ham United; Tottenham Hotspur; Arsenal and Chelsea. In all four fixtures, Town have been comprehensively beaten.
Some will point to the last three names on that list and make the case that defeat was the most likely outcome regardless.
However, considering how close Town have competed with both Mancunian clubs this season, I think the 3-4-3 is the common denominator.
Against the 3-4-3 formation, Town have used both the 4-2-3-1 and a variation of the 4-3-3.
The fundamental problem has been the inclusion of three holding midfielders as part of a low defensive block. This hasn’t had the desired effect when facing the 3-4-3 formation.
Last night’s difficulties
It was clear that the idea last night was to pack the midfield and not offer space between the lines so the likes of Hazard and Willian were able to pick up possession in dangerous areas and unlock Town’s defence through quick fluent interplay.
This compact, narrow defensive shape did work against both Manchester United and Manchester City. However, against the 3-4-3 formation, the narrow compact nature of Town was a problem in and of itself.
Whilst Chelsea certainly have the attacking talent and capabilities to break through Town’s central defence, the 3-4-3 formation allowed them to have the flexibility to bypass the congested central area and move the ball quickly to the wide areas.
With Town’s midfield three attempting to shield the centre halves rather than press Chelsea’s two man midfield, it allowed both Bakayoko and Kante to dictate the play and play the long diagonal passes to Chelsea’s wing-backs, who had the freedom of the flanks to dictate play.
This directly led to the second goal as Marcos Alonso was found in space and he had the time to deliver a perfect cross for Willian to head home.
Town’s difficulties neutralising the threat of the 3-4-3 formation continued in the second half as it appeared that Town hadn’t learnt their lesson from the second goal.
Once again, Marcos Alonso was found in space and his cross wasn’t dealt with properly, allowing Pedro the simple task of firing past Jonas Lossl from 12 yards out.
The issue appeared to be that there was a confusion and a lack of defensive cohesion amongst the Town ranks. At some points, the wingers tucked in meaning that a full-back, holding midfielder and a winger were all marking one of Chelsea’s front three.
This meant that space was created in the wide areas for Chelsea’s bombing full-backs to exploit and they did this expertly.
Whilst the goals were wholly preventable and caused by defensive mistakes, it was the system and Town’s inability to provide an answer to it which ultimately led to last night’s disappointing defeat.
Ahead of Town’s next fixture against Watford on Saturday, another side that plays a variation of the 3-4-3 formation, David Wagner will have another opportunity to find a solution to the 3-4-3 problem.
One potential solution is the re-introduction of Rajiv van La Parra at the expense of Elias Kachunga. In previous encounters, van La Parra has showed that he has the vigilance and the athleticism to quell the threat of the opposing full-back.
With both Tom Ince and van La Parra on either flank, that would be a potential solution if David Wagner elects to persist with a variation of the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1.
A more radical solution would be to revert towards a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-4-2. Whilst this would be at the expense of a holding midfielder, it would allow Flo Hadergjonaj to play a more advanced wide midfield role. This would provide more defensive cover whilst Flo could still pose a threat going forward.
Either way, Town and David Wagner will need to learn the lessons of last night’s defeat if Town are to find a means of counter-acting the 3-4-3 formation in the near future.