What Antonio Conte's usage of Graziano Pelle might mean for Chelsea’s strikers next season
Whenever Antonio Conte’s imminent arrival at Chelsea is discussed, three is most definitely the magic number. Conversations about how the current Italy coach will fare at Stamford Bridge have largely centred around his use of a three-man defence, how that system will suit the Premier League, and with potential signings all assessed on how they might fit into that favoured 3-5-2 formation.
It might not even happen, of course – Conte uses the system with Italy because he has Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, three excellent stoppers who fulfil the same jobs for club too.
Then again, it might. But as much as a shift away from a back four would be difficult, the changes at the opposite end of the field could perhaps be even more of a culture shock. Ever since Jose Mourinho was first appointed by Chelsea, the Blues have employed a single striker, with Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres and Diego Costa all filling the role with varying degrees of success.
Old school strikers
Both have struggled in domestic football this season – Eder netted just once following a January move from Sampdoria to Inter, while Pelle found himself out of the regular starting XI at St Mary’s
In contrast, Conte clearly enjoys playing with two men in attack and that has been abundantly clear at Euro 2016. After leaving promising young forward Domenico Berardi at home, the Azzurri boss has also planted Stephan El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Insigne – two forwards who love playing out wide – on the bench, instead opting to field Graziano Pelle and Eder in tandem. This little-and-large duo have been something of a throwback partnership, with the latter buzzing around his bigger team-mate and feeding off the knockdowns won by the Southampton striker.
Both have struggled in domestic football this season: Eder netted just once following a January move from Sampdoria to Inter Milan, while Pelle found himself out of the regular starting XI at St Mary’s. Yet Conte kept showing faith in them and has been repeatedly repaid for doing so, his first-choice attack netting three of Italy’s five goals so far this summer and having a major impact in their progress to the latter stages.
That was evident in the knockout clash against Spain, where having to defend against two strikers working in tandem clearly disrupted the usually free-flowing attack of Vicente del Bosque’s men. Italy opened the scoring with Giorgio Chiellini eventually bundling home after David de Gea failed to deal with an excellent free-kick from Eder, but it was Pelle who became tormentor-in-chief of the reigning European champions.
Clearly able to outmuscle both Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, the Saints striker was a constant outlet for his team-mates whenever they won back possession. Connecting with 17 of his 26 pass attempts and creating two clear-cut chances, he also won three of the five aerial duels against the Spanish defence and never gave them a moment’s respite.
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That meant those behind him could either pick him out with a careful pass or make him a target for long balls, which Pelle would then hold up, allowing Eder and Italy’s midfielders to run beyond him. It was a repeat of his display against Belgium, where he created three chances and won five aerial duels, capping both outings with a late goal to seal a pair of 2-0 wins.
The case for the defence
His performances have allowed the rest of Conte’s team to play with greater confidence, as they know they can rely on the 6ft 4in frontman to do his share of the work. But when it came to defeating Spain, it was arguably Pelle’s defensive effort which made all the difference.
Given the difficult job of man-marking Sergio Busquets, he stuck to the task diligently, completely nullifying the Barcelona man and preventing la Roja from directing their play through him. Despite his team struggling, Busquets had been at his consistent best in the group stage, completing 82 passes against the Czech Republic, 93 against Turkey and 78 in the loss to Croatia.
However, with Pelle denying him the ball for 90 minutes at the Stade de France, Busquets connected with just 49 and Spain looked disjointed as a result. The Azzurri striker didn't make a tackle or interception, but his effort in tracking and blocking his man from receiving the ball was nevertheless essential to Conte’s gameplan and, ultimately, Italy’s victory.
Two for the Blues?
All of which presents an interesting question: who could fulfil a similar role at Chelsea in 2016/17?
Diego Costa looked too slow and cumbersome last term to provide an answer, while his ability to feed a partner up front must also be questioned. The same would be true of Gonzalo Higuain who is believed to be on the move from Napoli this summer, but one man who did call the Stadio San Paolo home would certainly fit the bill.
Even during his time at Juventus, Conte was known to be a fierce admirer of Edinson Cavani, who could certainly fulfil the same role the coach has handed Pelle in the national team. Yet having shown in France this summer that he is willing to eschew star names in order to build a stronger collective, it would not be a surprise to see the Azzurri boss pushing his new club to make an approach for the Southampton man.
Conte and Pelle are both natives of Lecce in the deep south of Italy, but given the success they are sharing this summer, they may soon be neighbours in London.