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Understanding Italian football part 4.2 - The evolution of tactics in Serie A since Calciopoli part two

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By Aditya Balaram

Friday 11 December 2009

As the situation stabilised in the years successive to 2006, the stylistic innovations imposed by the two dominating powers watered down to the rest of the league. Teams adapted themselves to the new tactical scenario and absorbed traits from the two available models. Ex-Lazio Coach Delio Rossi was one of the first and most successful tacticians in finding ways to neutralise Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1. He fielded a destroyer of a 4-3-1-2 in which the three mediani focalised their pressure on holding midfielders Daniele De Rossi and David Pizarro (as opposed to the more obvious targets for man-marking represented by the four offensive players), sterilising their champagne football and earning an epic 3-0 victory in the derby.

His lesson should have been learnt. Instead, several parties in Italy attempted to replicate Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1, most notably Roberto Donadoni in his (mis)adventure with the national team. These ‘champagne’ disciples failed not only because of the chasm in strategic thinking between the Tuscan Coach and his imitators, but due to some inherent limitations in Spalletti’s systems - limitations which would eventually prove to be his downfall. The 4-2-3-1 was fast, but it was also rigid. It proved incapable of adapting itself to some specific tactical scenarios and types of pressure, as Rossi had demonstrated.

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Fiorentina Coach Cesare Prandelli, who endorsed the 4-2-3-1, developed a version which was less spectacular and more pragmatic, making use of traditional poachers like Alberto Gilardino or malleable midfielders like Felipe Melo. His interpretation of the system was so successful that it is still in use today. This may also explain why he is the only one, among the Coaches of the five powerhouses in Serie A, to have survived the post-2006 transition. Spalletti and Mancini were replaced, incapable of transcending the unilateral qualities of their respective tactical poles. Ranieri had to bring cynicism to Rome, simplifying their tactics and garbing them in a 4-3-1-2 which is earning more and more approval, and Josè Mourinho injected creativity into Inter, getting a fluid and tactical player like Sneijder to compensate for the loss of an individual genius like Ibrahimovic.

The changes at Milan and Juventus were even more affecting. Carlo Ancelotti, long-time Coach of the Rossoneri, obstinately clung to the 4-3-2-1 ‘Christmas tree’ formation - a system which earned him numerous laurels at the beginning of the decade but which, following 2006, was evidently obsolete. The result was a series of horrendous years which culminated with an intolerable exclusion from the Champions League (to the benefit of Rossi’s visionary Lazio). He was succeeded by Leonardo, who adopted the 4-2-3-1. The choice was successful, and the formation represents perhaps the best fit for his highly creative and offensive squad. As for Juventus, they emerged from the mists of Serie B to find a league which had changed in its methods, style and protagonists. Ranieri is successful with Roma today because he controls a team more than acclimatised to the post-Spalletti face of Serie A. But when handed the reins of Juventus, he moulded them into a traditional 4-4-2 which was ill-suited to the new scenario and which gave them trouble keeping up. It worked under Fabio Capello, but it was working under different conditions (tellingly, Capello now fields England in a lucid 4-4-2 closer to a 4-2-3-1). While it would be harsh to call Ranieri’s results catastrophic, the failures were nonetheless sufficient to warrant an exoneration. His place was taken by Ciro Ferrara, who fields his team almost exclusively (and only too obviously) in the 4-3-1-2 or the 4-2-3-1.

To say that the current, relative predominance of the 4-3-1-2 over the 4-2-3-1 is a direct reflection of Inter’s long-term victory over Roma, and by extension the supremacy of power over speed in these two forces’ struggle for the style of Serie A, would be to simplify history. The process between power and speed was one of synthesis, not of annexation. The most interesting and controversial evidence for this is the growth of the offensive midfield in these two set-ups. On paper, the two formations differ because one opts for three offensive midfielders and the other for three defensive ones, making for an elementary distinction - one team plays defensively, the other offensively. The appearance, then, is that Serie A ultimately opted for the defensive solution - a notion which seems in keeping with its reputation. In reality, it is the role of the trequartista in the 4-3-1-2 which has undergone the real evolution. The most fascinating aspect of these players is the fluidity of their positioning. In the old times, a trequartista would stick to the centre and execute most of his movement over a central vertical axis. A brief glance at a player like Diego or Jérémy Menez reveals that even as they start from the middle, they tend to orbit on one of the flanks whenever offensive manoeuvres are set in play. Trequartisti in teams sporting different formations do the same thing - Stevan Jovetic, Antonio Cassano, Ronaldinho. Even Totti takes the flank more often than one would expect him to. Sneijder is perhaps the only trequartista who is more traditional in his movements, as he is more magnetised by the centre.

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Were trequartisti never seen on the wings before? No, of course their role occasionally required them to venture in that direction. But what is happening in Serie A is more specific. The dynamics between the trequartista and the forwards reflect those between the three offensive midfielders and the striker in the 4-2-3-1. They are its heritage. The trequartista relinquishes some of his most exhaustive creative duties as the forwards, usually creative individuals themselves like Alessandro Del Piero, Mirko Vucinic or Alexandre Pato, return to assist him. In exchange, he uses his new-found freedom to cover for the role of two out of the three offensive midfielders in the 4-2-3-1, hovering over on the wings to add speed and creativity to the operations of the full-backs or width for the advancing mediani. The mediani themselves are allowed to become more aggressive, and the masterpiece of a goal by Claudio Marchisio this past weekend against Inter is a fine example of that.

The 4-3-1-2 is not the victory of power over speed. It is the new-found compromise between those two values. By renovating the role of the trequartista - ever so much more central to Serie A now than in previous times - it retains some of the creativity from Spalletti’s football while assuming the physicality that was at the core of the old Inter. Of course, not all of Spalletti’s sparkle can be taken over in the transition - his old system was a marvel of player combinations and mechanisms which, perhaps, can never be repeated (people have tried, including Roberto Donadoni and Lippi at the helm of the Azzurri). But the flexibility is there, as offensive movements can be channelled through flanks and centre alike depending on the context and - of course - the inclinations of the individual players. It creates a very robust defensive midfield while doing away with the need for wingers - one of a number of reasons why no players have emerged to take the latter role with the Azzurri. This is also the reason why someone like Sebastian Giovinco struggles to find space - he would fit wonderfully in Spalletti’s Roma, and indeed he makes his appearances in the 4-2-3-1, but he cannot be a modern trequartista in the 4-3-1-2 because this role and this formation require a degree of physicality which he does not possess. This is not to say that his talent, and that of other players like him, will never affirm itself, only that the historical conditions are not favourable at the moment. They will change when the next metaphorical storm will disturb the stability towards which Italian tactics, and the 4-3-1-2, seem to be heading, but that is beyond our powers of prediction, for the moment.

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