This post was guest-blogged by Jacopo Piotto. Follow him on Twitter (@jacopopiotto).
Since the great success of Sacchi and Capello’s Milan in the late 80s/early 90s, modern football mostly relied on four-man defences, following the Calcio school, as Italians have always been masters in the defensive phase. The three-man defence was commonly considered as an improvised solution to adjust an unbalanced team with poor tactical ideas, and used mostly by teams fighting against relegation. Apart from a few brave innovators, no club planning a long-term working system chose the three-man defence to reach the top of the Serie A, but it is precisely these trailblazers that we will be focusing on.
One of those few avant-gardists (but of course not the inventor of such a defensive system) was Alberto Zaccheroni, who managed Udinese from 1995 to 1998. The club was just back in the Italian top level: the Zebrette achieved safety their first season with a +9 gap on the relegation zone, but then went on to make a drastic improvement getting a 5th and a 3rd place in the following two seasons.
Zaccheroni’s typical lineup was a 3-4-3 with two wingers and a classic striker like Oliver Bierhoff, who won the capocannoniere title in 1997-98. The German forward and the coach transferred to AC Milan the following season (along with Thomas Helveg), and against all odds the Rossoneri won the title in a dramatic comeback on Lazio (who threw away a 7-point lead in the last seven rounds of the campionato). At Milan, Zaccheroni stuck with his tactical ideas (despite club owner Silvio Berlusconi criticizing his choice of a defensive pack) and in the end brought the title home.
Still, club management was not satisfied with Zaccheroni’s performances in the following seasons, which eventually prompted club and manager to part ways. After his sacking in 2001, “Zac” never had the chance to manage a team for more than 12 months but his jobs were never of little matter: he sat on the bench of Lazio, Inter, and Juve before claiming international success with the Japanese national team (Asian Cup winners in 2011).
In the new millennium, perhaps pushed by Zaccheroni’s unexpected 1999 Scudetto, more coaches started approaching Serie A with a three-man defence as their preferred solution: Walter Mazzarri adopted it at Reggina and kept it at Samp and Napoli, Gian Piero Gasperini had a pretty good four-year run at Genoa, while Serse Cosmi tried to set up a three-man pack in 7 different teams (with relatively mixed results).
Cosmi has been perhaps one of the least-winning managers from the aforementioned group and his teams never put on a great show, but most of his opponents struggled to find their way towards the opposing goal. While at Livorno, following the ownership’s sale of Alessandro Diamanti to West Ham (without bringing in a suitable replacement for the talented midfielder) Cosmi re-shaped the team with only one attacking player in a 3-6-1, a set-up that gave many hard times to a lot of opponents. The manager only got 23 points in 24 matches (as after all, his roster was poorly assembled), but he took charge in a desperate situation and his average was definitely higher than the 6 points in 14 matches the Amaranto got without him.
The benefits of fielding three defenders are mainly two: firstly, you have the chance of man-marking and neutralizing a two-man attack (a pretty common thing in Italy, especially in the pre-Spalletti era). A deep lying midfielder could also follow eventual central runs from an opposing trequartista. Secondly, using only three men at the back provides managers with at least 4 players in midfield, usually used to achieve midfield supremacy in width, crucial for small teams to destroy the play of bigger opponents (as Cosmi quickly learned).
Nevertheless, top clubs were reluctant to adopt the system due to lack of training in academies, where the 4-man defence is still the only true faith since the Sacchi era: young Italian defenders are built thinking of a 4-player pack with zonal marking, and center-backs typically formed as complete defenders balanced between quickness and good jumping abilities (with less care on pure marking skills). Italian football also generally has a slower approach to the high tempo of modern days, which is an essential learning requirement in crowded midfields.
Another constraint of the three-man defensive system is that its two wingers usually have to play draining matches, running the entire length of the pitch on their respective flanks: having to track back combined with fatigue could make them miss the diagonale (covering) movement in a defensive situation, leaving their zone open to attacks.
Three Defenders, Three MANAGERS
In developing the system into a suitable option for a top-team run, even in a long-term project, three managers succeeded.
In command of Napoli, Walter Mazzarri gained UEFA Champions League qualification and went as far as reaching the second phase last year, giving up only to eventual title winners Chelsea. He is currently the longest serving manager in the Serie A, and his tactical ideas go back to his Reggina days, where he succeeded in an impressive battle against relegation despite his team’s 11-point penalty (due to the Calciopoli scandal). After Napoli were knocked out by Chelsea in 2012, the team slowed down so the coach had to balance his lineup, switching from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-1-1 with Hamsik in midfield. The club went on winning the Coppa Italia and beating Juventus for the first and only time in the season.
At Udinese, Francesco Guidolin had the balanced approach from the beginning: knowing that his club couldn’t afford to keep his best players every summer, he tried to keep the spirit of a lower-half team while achieving two consecutive qualifications to the UEFA Champions League playoffs (whose outcome unfortunately did not include a happy ending). Following the 2009-10 season, in which the Neapolitan forward scored 29 goals under different coaches, Guidolin re-invented Totò Di Natale as a 3-5-1-1 lone striker putting him ahead of Alexis Sánchez (in the first season) or Armero / Isla / Fabbrini (in the second one). Guidolin also has the credit of teaching multiple roles to his midfielders: Isla started out as a full-back, but is now able to play as a right winger or a box-to-box midfielder; Armero, Pereyra and Faraoni are undergoing the same evolution. The feeling is that Guidolin educates his players to always know how to cover all roles.
13 years after Zaccheroni, it took a man named Antonio Conte to guide a “three-man defence” team towards Serie A glory again. Upon his arrival, the Lecce native was primarily known for his use of the 4-2-4 (maybe inspired by Giampiero Ventura?) utilized during his successful Serie B stints. The manager showed great adaptability however and turned his system around, opting first for a 4-3-3 to allow the insertion of Arturo Vidal, then further modifying it into a 3-5-2, pushing Lichtsteiner closer to the midfield line and dragging back one of the two wingers on the other side of the pitch. One of the strengths of Juve’s Scudetto-winning campaign was the ability to change lineup during the game, with Chiellini alternating between the roles of a marking center-back and left full-back.
Solving the Dilemma and Looking Ahead
Carlo Ancelotti showed the way to exploit the center of the field with his diamond and players with very specific skills, but then AC Milan were never able to use the flanks. José Mourinho brought quite a revolution in terms of pressing and quick-counter attack with the introduction of the 4-2-3-1 at Chelsea, and most of the Europeans superpowers followed, so that Manchester United and Bayern Munich now play in a very similar array. But these lineups are for clubs that can pick just the right player off the transfer market, someone who will be willing to do the dirty work (as Eto’o did at Inter) to keep the team’s shape. And football is evolving away from an era of buying and into one of home-growing.
Antonio Conte seems to have found the solution of the tactical dilemma afflicting so many coaches. The manager’s work is the answer to the four basic needs of football: attacking using the full width of the field, having inside runs from deep at the back, keep a balanced team to avoid counter-attacks, and pressing hard without getting tired too early.
It is not clear whether the Serie A is going to further develop this system, or if the Bianconeri are going to turn back to a more classic 4-man defence in the future. Looking back at last season however, one notes that of the teams which adapted their system in order to face Udinese, Napoli, and Juve, several have kept the tactical the balance they found doing so. Right now Fiorentina, Parma, Bologna, Palermo and Siena are experimenting with a three-man backline, while Stramaccioni and Allegri (who are coaching two of the “big” clubs) look oriented to keep it the old way.
In the meantime, even Barça did some experiments last season under Pep Guardiola, but they were meant for a different league (perhaps even a less competitive one than Serie A) where the Blaugrana’s midfield dominance makes all the difference. If Juventus (or any other team) will keep believing in the three-man system, it may be the start of a minor revolution in football, one that would draw a neat line between teams trying to improve the “classic” defence and those adopting the new. Following this evolution could be the key to guess the shape of things (and line-ups) to come in post-modern football.
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