Inadvertently you have highlighted where the problem lies, James. For about a year now, I had concluded Conte is just a Mourinho Mk2 (albeit marginally better football than Mourinho, I would say). In a team game, when the whole (team) is consistently less (results or performance) than the sum of its parts (players) then the manager is the problem.
Everyone going on about formations. Formations are not the issue. The issue is in initiative and football culture, and how a manager’s tactics either increase or hampers initiative of the players and a knock-on effect on their confidence. When you consistently send your players, like Mourinho and Conte do, to fall back whenever their players lose the ball through a breakdown in possession, three things, I see, happen
1) You can never build pressure on the opposition. At breakdown, the opposition can play it at the back relieving pressure because no one is closing them done and trying to force mistakes especially from defenders who are not the most technically efficient. No matter the opposition, Conte does not press, like Mourinho, afraid his defense would be caught. This is cowardice. The worst thing is when lesser teams, like Leicester today, West Ham, Norwich come and press our superior players without fear. We respond by falling back and handing the opposition the initiative.
2) By your decision to never expose yourself, psychologically you make your players feel inferior or less than themselves. You send a message there is much to fear from the opposition rather than letting the opposition worry about you. Also you give a confidence boost to the opposition especially when they have less talented players. If a less talented player is putting pressure on a more talented player, forcing him into mistakes and making him look ordinary, this increases the confidence of that player and reduces yours, as was seen in the Norwich game. There is no coincidence Man U’s season went off the rails after their fearful display against Liverpool and took awhile for their season to get any sort of verve back.
3) Because of your focus on defense and “covering your ass” you spend too much time on organization and control of the team. The players and team play become robotic and reactive rather than anticipating, reading the game and initiative. This tells in defense but more in attack. Because you are so focused on organization, your right back is always in the right back spot. Your left winger is always in the left wing spot. The structure is rigid. This makes it easier for your opposition as the opposition left back always knows where the right winger is and as such he is so much easier to close down and nullify. It’s like an army general giving his adversary his troop number and deployment layout.
In all, I would say this football conservatism may yield short term results but because of its focus on control, position and drills, players invariably become bored because of its stifling and repetive nature. Evidence can be seen in Mourinho’s continual short term stints as players stop responding. Though in his case his personality comes into it but it is in reaction to bad performances which is a result of his negative culture of football. Conte is from the same cloth. They are not for the long term, I think. I hope I have been able to articulate myself adequately.