After a blockbuster season spanning 11 months, Chelsea finally conclude their Premier League campaign on Sunday.
A final day clash at Stamford Bridge is usually cause for celebration, but this year, the Blues have it all to play for when Wolves rock up to west London.
Chelsea need a result to qualify for the Champions League, currently sitting fourth after being thrashed by champions Liverpool. A point would have sufficed at Anfield, but Frank Lampard’s side now need to pick up that final result against Wolves, a team who are unbeaten in 10 league visits to London.
Having switched formation for their last two games, Lampard looks set to play a back three against Wolves.
It will be the third consecutive game he has used three at the back, making it 11 occasions it has been used this season. Six of those games have ended in a Chelsea win, a slightly better win percentage (54.5%) than when the Blues have played a traditional back four (53.7%).
The back three has been used in various different ways with different personnel this season, whether it involves captain César Azpilicueta dropping back, or calls on the combination of the current crop of centre-backs: Andreas Christensen, Fikayo Tomori, Kurt Zouma and Antonio Rüdiger.
No matter who plays in the back three this weekend, the meeting with Wolves will be a massive test for the Chelsea defence.
Although the set-up has been decisive in certain victories, it has also exploited the vulnerability of the Blues’ backline. They were picked apart in disappointing home defeats to Valencia and Southampton, while Bayern Munich and Liverpool tore them apart with their respective attacking firepower.
Chelsea have been at their best and worst when playing three at the back, but it will be fascinating to see how they cope against Wolves. Nuno Espírito Santo’s side are one of the most effective three-man defences in the Premier League, keeping the joint-third most clean sheets – five more than the Blues have managed.
The trio of Willy Boly, Romain Saïss and captain Conor Coady is a tough one to break down, offering a level of consistency Lampard could only dream of.
It all seems daunting, and the pressure is definitely on to get one last result. A point is enough, but no one plays for a draw. Chelsea will go for the win, and while it is a challenging ask, it is nothing the Blues have not done before.
Rewind 10 months, to a sunny autumn’s day at Molineux. The reverse fixture in the Midlands was the debut of Chelsea’s back three, a tactical change that was executed to perfection.
Chelsea blew Wolves away, with Tammy Abraham scoring a superb hat-trick in between goals from Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount. The 5-2 victory in September remains one of their finest performances of the season, and one of the few occasions in recent times that Espírito Santo was completely outclassed.
That was a prime example of what Chelsea are capable of, as a three-man defence and as a collective. If they can repeat that performance, there will be no concern at all.
In what has been a gruelling and frustrating season at times, it all comes down to Sunday’s clash at the Bridge. No one thought Lampard would finish in the top four when he arrived a year ago, yet he now sits on the verge of reaching the Champions League for the 15th time in the last 17 years.
One point is all that is needed, albeit in one of their most difficult games of the season. The Blues will have to fight with all their might, putting faith in a system which has provided so many wonderful moments: derby delight against Arsenal, the double over Tottenham and reaching the FA Cup final against Manchester United, to name a few.
It will not be easy, but if this season has proven one thing, it is to expect the unexpected from Frank Lampard’s Chelsea.
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