Fabio Capello said recently: “The three-man defence is the worst thing about football today. We’ve gone back 20 years. In reality, it is a five-man defence.” Such negative thinking! Did he consider that it could also mean more men in attack? For Italian football, the three-man defence is the best thing, especially the 3-5-2 formation. Recent results for Juventus and Napoli have shown that it is an effective formation and brings the best out of the current crop of Italian players.
For the last decade or so, the 4-3-1-2 has been the most popular formation in Italian football. Coaches like Delio Rossi at Lazio and Palermo, Domenico Di Carlo at Chievo and Carlo Ancelotti and then Massimiliano Allegri at AC Milan were just a few of the coaches that used the formation regularly. Teams played narrowly and that usually suited the Italian players because wing play hasn’t traditionally been a big feature of the Italian game. Having a player playing between the lines also encourages the use of a trequartista, who is allowed to roam around for space in order to get the ball.
The formation puts a lot of pressure on the full-backs because they are meant to be the main provider of crosses in that formation. Full-backs who are natural defenders are close to extinct. It is commonplace to find full-backs running past the half-way line. Has anyone considered that in those circumstances, the four-man defence could really look like a two-man defence? Despite that, Italian full-backs would usually cut-in or bend crosses in. Not many full-backs in the four-man defence will run towards the goal line in the Italian game. Teams can pack the midfield and not expose the space left on the wings when using the 4-3-1-2 formation.
Besides the full-back issue, central midfielders are required to move into wide positions so they can cover for the full-back or get the ball. Players should feel comfortable on the ball regardless of which part of the pitch they are on but central midfielder shouldn’t be forced wide constantly unless they played in a team that pressed all over the pitch like the Danish Dynamite sides of the 80s or the Milan of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard.
With the 3-5-2 formation, a coach can make his players pack the midfield and have two players capable of providing crosses. Antonio Conte’s Juve, Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli and Francesco Guidolin’s Udinese are some of the sides who have shown how useful it is to have a three-man defence and wing-backs.
Conte had a reputation for using the 4-2-4 formation as the coach of Bari and then Siena. When he started coaching Juventus, he switched to the 4-3-3 in order to fit Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio in the midfield. Despite being unbeaten in the Serie A, Juve struggled to score goals and Alessandro Matri sometimes looked isolated in what was sometimes a 4-5-1. Leonardo Bonucci also looked shaky in defence.
Conte switched to the 3-5-2 formation for the second half of the 2011/12 season. In defence, Bonucci would get support from Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. The central midfield trio of Vidal, Pirlo and Marchisio would stay intact but this time they would get support from Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right and Simone Pepe, Paolo De Ceglie or Marcelo Estigarribia would play on the left. Mirko Vucinic would play alongside Matri, Fabio Quagliarella or Marco Borriello in an attacking duo.
Thanks to the formation change, Conte’s Juve were solid in all departments. Instead of just playing good football, the bianconeri played more consistently and got the wins they needed for scudetto number 28 (30 according to the juventini).
Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli saw how useful the formation was at Juve and he used it in the first two Euro 2012 matches against Spain and Croatia. He had the Juve contigent that is typical of the Azzurri at major tournaments but he had Roma defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi as a centre-back. Italy drew 1-1 against Spain in the first match, defending solidly and hitting well on the counter-attack. Prandelli changed formation after the Croatia match, possibly because Christian Maggio, who should have benefitted from the usage of the 3-5-2 formation, was underperforming. The Azzurri coach went back to the 4-3-1-2 but he had the right full-backs and central midfielders for the formation.
Mazzarri is probably the biggest advocate of the three-man defence. At Napoli, he has Salvatore Aronica from his Reggina days and Hugo Campagnaro, who played under Mazzarri at Sampdoria. The duo plays alongside Paolo Cannavaro in the centre of defence. Maggio is at his best when playing at right wing-back. He can cross the ball better and if there’s a counter-attack, he can run into space and also put himself in a position to score. Juan Zuniga is the other wing-back, who offers great pace and a great shot from distance.
Udinese struggle in Europe but Guidolin’s side are usually competitive in the Serie A. A fast side on the counter-attack, Dusan Basta and Pablo Armero are reliable wing-backs and allow Antonio Di Natale and co to do their thing in the middle of the pitch. Mehdi Benatia, Maurizio Domizzi and either Danilo or Gabriele Angella form the three-man defence to protect them.
Using a three-man defence has its flaws though. If you play against a team who uses only one striker, there isn’t much point in having three centre-backs. Aerially, the defenders need to read the play well. The biggest drawback is when the opposition has good wingers and the wing-backs can’t get back on time to chase them.
Aside from the thought of the three-man defence becoming a five-man defence, a new generation of attackers are coming through and they have had experience in the 4-3-3 formation, which is becoming more popular than the 4-4-2 around the world. Players like Stephan El Shaarawy, Fabio Borini and Lorenzo Insigne have played in teams with a three-man attack and Prandelli is starting to use the 4-3-3 with Italy. If they fulfil their potential, Italy might have the right options in wide positions.
Despite the flaws regarding the three-man defence, at least teams who use the 3-5-2 formation, 3-4-3 or its variants overcome congestion in midfield than teams that use the 4-3-1-2 and the wing-backs do more than just overlap. They offer a better performance offensively.
Capello has his thoughts on the three-man defence. He dislikes it but Prandelli has used it with the national team and it’s the norm in the Serie A. Unless the Italian teams produce players good enough to fit into a 4-3-3 formation, the 3-5-2 is the way to go.