Why Italy's Tactics Make Them a Sleeper to Win Euro 2012
As the Guardian states, 15 of the Euro's 16 teams use a four-man back line. Just one, the Italians, deploy three.
The courage of Cesare Prandelli's defensive scheme cannot be overstated.
Thus, to roll out an unconventional, new-look strategy against the defending World and European Champions shows a bit of panache, to say the least.
The risk is paying off thus far. It caught the vaunted Spanish completely off guard.
The Nerazzurri have always had their own trademark style of play. But this is something different. It is an approach that places them at the forefront of football thinking.
And you know what? It might just win them the tournament.
Breaking Down the 3-4-3
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Napoli is essentially the gold standard when it comes to the new look 3-4-3.
The system is notable for its flexibility. To begin, the back line features three central defenders.
The two outside center backs play a hybrid role. When the wing full backs push forward, it is the job of the center back closest to that side to provide cover.
Thus, if say Cristian Maggio wants to aid the attack, he knows that Bonucci is available to cover his flank.
The two central midfielders serve as conduits of passing movement and bastions of possessive stability. It is their job to hold on to the ball and direct play into the final third.
Pirlo does an excellent job of decision-making. Sometimes the best option is to simply make the easy pass on to the open zone. Other times, he makes cutting runs like the one which helped set up Italy's goal against Spain.
Up front, there is a modified 1-2 wherein a central forward sets up the striking partnership of Cassano and Balotelli. Both have the freedom to roam and create with little restriction.
A Natural Fit
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As the Guardian reports, 17 of the 20 teams in Serie A utilized a three-man back line at some point this season.
Napoli is perhaps the most pure analogy to what Prandelli is doing. However, there are numerous examples across Serie A.
Juventus uses a 3-5-2. Their take on the philosophy brought the league title to Turin.
Thus, it makes perfect sense that the Italians would be at the forefront of this tactical evolution at the international stage.
The Spain Match
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First, you had the Spanish obstinately refusing to bend to the better judgement of the footballing world.
After Barcelona's early Champions League exit, there was talk of "total football" being in decline. Vicente Del Bosque apparently disagreed. His lineup featured six midfielders with a "false nine" in the form of Cesc Fabregas occupying the striker role.
Rather than back down, he doubled down.
Del Bosque looked to history in making this selection.
My guess is that he assumed Italy would employ their traditional cautious big-game approach. The Italians would pack their own half and rely on swift counterattacks to steal a goal or two.
Back came Prandelli with his counter punch.
His scheme freed the front line to push high up the pitch. Essentially, he took what worked for Di Matteo's Chelsea against Barcelona and did the exact opposite.
Chelsea beat Barcelona by stubbornly defending them into submission. Prandelli's Italy pushed into Spain's half and challenged them for every inch of the pitch.
The move confounded the Spanish, who looked lost for much of the first half. All preconceptions were thrown to the wind.
The game existed in a state of chaos. Pillars of composure like Andrea Pirlo carelessly lost possession. The two most ordered teams in World Football had descended into anarchy.
The immediate result: Spain 1, Italy 1. The larger result: The Nerazzurri can play with anyone.
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In many ways the results can be attributed to the shock factor. Most have never seen anything like it and struggle to adjust.
It leaves opponents with little time on the ball. Defenders lose composure as forwards swarm into their third. Full-backs must deal with the fact that wing-backs are suddenly storming into their rear flanks.
It takes time to adjust to this new look. And surprise is a tremendous advantage at international tournaments.
Club teams may learn to cope with each successive meeting. National teams play rarely and often get just one chance to get it right.
That is tremendous for the Nerazzurri.
There is also the added advantage of the scheme's ability to accentuate the major positive attributes of the Italians.
They are great defenders, disciplined and very creative with their passing. The 3-4-3 allows each to take precedence.
Discipline is essential. Each of the 11 players are asked to play a hybrid of numerous roles simultaneously.
Defensive solidarity is also a must. The Italians are highly composed in their own third. For that reason, they are almost never left exposed by their thin back line as other teams might be.
Finally, the constant movement between the front three, midfield two and wide full-backs allows for a myriad of passes which confound even the best of rear guards.
For these reasons, the Italians are in a great position to prosper.
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On paper, the Italians are not the best team in this tournament. Germany and Spain are a cut above. One could also make arguments for the merits of numerous others.
Yet with a tactical tweak they have found a competitive advantage. With a little luck, anything is possible.
The big question, as is so often the case, is whether they can avoid becoming their own greatest enemy.
The match-fixing scandal at home will weigh on their collective psyche. Further, both Cassano and Balotelli are as prolific as they are volatile. One red card and it could be curtains.
I, for one, am excited to see how it all turns out.