In defence of three men - An analysis of Serie A's latest tactical shift
For Italians, football is considered to be an art form and one that is worthy of profound thought and intelligent debate. Each detail is studied and discussed meticulously as Coaches revel in the complexities of the sport, hoping to offer a new way of thinking, an altered formation or a progressive thought that would lead their respective club to victory. As such, calcio naturally finds itself in a perpetual state of development with new patterns of play always emerging and evolving.
With Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan bulldozing its way through Europe with its classic 4-4-2 tactically astute and technically proficient side, the three-man defence had been somewhat cast aside for well over a decade. Many argued that playing with three at the back required exemplary fitness levels and was reliant on the chemistry and understanding between players meaning it could take years to perfect. Secondly, it appeared to encourage athletic performances instead of skilled technique.
Europe’s greatest leagues had all but entirely dismissed the thought of playing with only three in defence. However, this weekend we saw nine teams deploy a three-man back-line in Serie A confirming a new tactical fashion.
The 3-5-2 formation and its many variants was never quite allowed to die in the Italian league as certain Coaches were reluctant to turn their back to a style of play they felt offered many advantages.
Coaches such as Alberto Zaccheroni (pictured above) were devoted to playing a 3-4-3 formation and captivated audiences with an attractive brand of football throughout the late 1990s. Even the likes of Acireale in Serie C2 deployed a 3-5-2 shape in the early 2000s under a certain young Coach by the name of Walter Mazzarri.
Nonetheless teams such as Zaccheroni’s Udinese and Mazzarri’s Acireale were thought to be an anomaly. Silvio Berlusconi simply despised the thought of playing with only three at the back and after arguing with Zaccheroni one too many times, the Coach was eventually replaced by Cesare Maldini. Corriere della Sera wrote at the time that Berlusconi dreamt of a four-man back-line and everyone joked about ‘getting back to catenaccio’.
When Palermo’s volcanic President sought to play with a three-man back-line last season to improve the defence, it came as no surprise that he chose to replace Delio Rossi with Serse Cosmi – an expert in the matter. Mediagol in Italy immediately published a critical report in which they pointed out that Europe’s top four leagues, excluding Italy, still relied on playing with four at the back as that ‘obviously’ offered the squad balance. Their analysis showed that 38% of those top European teams still favoured a traditional 4-4-2 set-up, 35% preferred the 4-2-3-1 shape and 8% played with a 4-3-3 formation.
Discussing Udinese and Napoli’s excellent performances last season, they reasoned that their shape was unlikely to work in Europe and that one could hardly forget Italy’s poor showing in the Champions League.
The fact of the matter is, the Partenopei are currently enjoying great success in Europe and Serie A’s recent shift in tactics this season is largely down to Udinese and Napoli’s remarkable victories.
For the Azzurri, they have depended on the three-man back-line since Giampiero Ventura. Out of necessity rather than tactical preference, Ventura’s successor Edy Reja was forced to remain faithful to the 3-5-2 shape due to the fact the squad lacked a defensive regista and the defence required a great deal of protection. His tactics allowed the team to climb to the upper echolons of Italian football.
Now under Mazzarri, Napoli have refined their football and the Coach uses the shape to unleash the speed of his central creative figure, Ezequiel Lavezzi and his two wing-backs to play an effective form of counter-attacking football.
Udinese tell a similar story. Having never quite recovered from the success they tasted under Zaccheroni and his infamous 3-4-3 shape, they demanded that Francesco Guidolin continue down that very path. Curiosity prevailed and their new Coach agreed and as he put it, ‘fell in love’ with the formation. However, Udinese’s tactics differ slightly to those of Napoli’s as they rarely play with five at the back when defending and opt to force their central midfielders to close down space when not in possession whilst their wing-backs are tasked with providing Di Natale and co. with offensive support.
It seems most clubs in Italy now wish to emulate their success. In addition to the nine teams that deployed a three-man back-line over the weekend, several others such as Siena and Juve have also experimented with the idea.
Clubs such as Catania have toyed with the formation due to absences at the back whilst Parma’s new Coach Roberto Donadoni hopes to make use of his defenders’ previous experience with the tactics, even going as far as blocking Fabiano Santacroce’s sale.
Their 3-1 win over Siena sparked comments from admirers including ex-Parma Coach and once-upon-a-time trusted assistant of Sacchi, Pietro "Gedeone" Carmignani. “Donadoni demonstrated clever tactics. The change to a 3-4-3 formation has worked in every section of the squad.”
Having conceded two goals a game for four weeks in a row, Stefano Pioli’s Bologna also converted to the new tactical ideology. Their 3-5-2 formation allows them to play both Gaby Mudingayi and Diego Perez alongside one another in the middle and together they guard the defence, win back the ball and press intensely to stifle opponents. Is it any wonder they have only conceded one goal in three games?
Whilst some may deem the three-man back-line as an ultra defensive tactic, others have turned to the formation in hopes of unleashing their attack. With the likes of Carlo Ancelotti in charge in Milan, Calcio, for much of the past decade, has seemingly been enchanted by narrow play and over reliant on the use of a trequartista. As such, it was only natural that teams such as Napoli, Udinese and Gian Piero Gasperini’s Genoa - ones that effectively played with width - encountered success largely due to the space they were afforded on the wings.
Coach Donadoni hopes the 3-4-3 shape will unleash his attack’s pace and unpredictability whilst Udinese scored 65 goals using a 3-5-2 formation last season – just as many as Scudetto winners Milan.
However, it is important to note that playing with only three at the back is unlikely to solve certain clubs’ problems. Rossi hoped a tactical switch would serve to help his ailing Fiorentina side. Whilst their initial match proved it to be a formation that increased fluidity, the Viola are still struggling having only won one of their last four matches. Bad luck and the lethargic attitude of certain players left the side incapable of imposing their own game much to everyone’s dismay.
The 3-5-2 or its many variations including the 3-4-3 shape is one that requires both time and a squad capable of playing with pace and intensity. Whilst certain squads have exploited the defensive solidity it offers, others have taken advantage of the attacking options it gives to the forward players.
For several sides such as Fiorentina, playing a three-man back-line may prove to be nothing more than a simple experiment. However, for the likes of Bologna, it may well the start of something special. It remains to be seen whether it is a formation that will last the distance and only Napoli can prove it deserves to be considered by Europe’s greatest.