4-2-3-1 Is the New Normal, but Is Serie A's 3-5-2 the Antidote?
After watching his Liverpool team being dictated to by Everton during the frantic first half of Sunday's Merseyside derby, Brendan Rodgers decided to act.
Rodgers switched to three at the back, with the 6'4" Sebastian Coates coming off the bench to join Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger at the hub of Liverpool's defence.
What we were looking at was a 3-5-2, an Italian staple but a Premier League rarity. Liverpool concentrated their resources centrally and the intention was to suffocate Everton's supply line and take control of the key battleground areas at Goodison Park.
Was it a success? In comparison to what had come before, yes. Liverpool subdued Everton's attacking threat in the second half, kept a clean sheet and also upped their share of possession—though it was still Everton that had the ball more.
Rodgers was happy with how his tactical switch affected the game. He told BBC Sport afterward it was a reaction to Everton's direct approach and an attempt to stamp authority in the midfield. He also felt it gave Liverpool more ideas in the attacking third.
His captain Steven Gerrard hailed Rodgers' "off-the-cuff" call and said it was precisely the type of brave decision-making that got him the Liverpool job in the first place. Said Gerrard, as per the Liverpool Echo:
Everton were very direct in the first half and were getting on the second balls. The plan in the second half was to go 3-5-2 and try to stop the long balls coming in.
Once we stopped that we passed through Everton and looked very dangerous on the break.
Rodgers is the second Premier League manager to try 3-5-2 this season, but he's the first to do it and enhance his reputation in the process.
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has been widely criticised for toying with three at the back, with City defender Micah Richards publicly damning the system in the wake of City's Champions League loss to Ajax.
"We're used to a straight four and it's twice we've gone to a back five and conceded," Richards told reporters.
Richards makes a back five by including the wing-backs as defenders. In theory 5-3-2 and 3-5-2 are just the defensive and attacking variants of the same theme. Whichever way you look at it, Richards isn't comfortable being part of it.
But as an increasing number of Europe's top teams switch to 4-2-3-1 as their go-to formation, 3-5-2 is being billed by some as the antidote. Not only do you lay claim to the central areas, but you also have the ability to overwhelm your opponents going forward and—should your wide players be smart and fit enough—a chance to isolate the opposing fullbacks.
Writes Kelvin Yap, in a detailed analysis for ESPNSTAR.com:
The 3-5-2's biggest strength lies in the fact that they essentially have seven players in the opponent's half when attacking, allowing them to force the opponent into their own halves.
Yap cites the successes of Udinese and Napoli against English teams in Europe last season, and of the Italian national team against Spain in the group stages of Euro 2012 as evidence that 3-5-2 can win out against supposedly "superior" teams playing with four at the back.
Could it be that the flirtations of Liverpool and City with the formation were the result of Italian success? Is it possible Mancini and Rodgers will together usher in a new trend in the Premier League?
According to comprehensive data provided by WhoScored.com, City's use of 3-5-2 against Liverpool in August is the only time a Premier League team has started with the formation this season. Wigan have used a 3-4-3, but we've still only seen three at the back seven times in total.
The dominant formation in England, Germany, Spain and France is 4-2-3-1. To find out how we got here, read Jonathan Wilson's 2008 article for the the Guardian, but suffice to say Spanish thinking played a bit part in it.
Could it be that Italian thinking will lead us where tactics are going next?
3-5-2 is the second-most popular formation in Serie A this season, behind 4-3-3. In the most recent matchday, half of the teams started out using it, including Juventus, Inter and AC Milan. Napoli came close, with a 3-4-1-2.
10 out of 20 teams in Serie A played with 3 at the back in the last match day!
— Cristiano Acconci (@MrAcconci) October 29, 2012
Defensively, three at the back is clearly working for Juve, Napoli and Inter, who have conceded a combined 16 goals in 27 league matches. The Premier League's top three—Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City—have let in 31 goals in the same number of games.
But it's not for everybody's taste. And, like every formation, 3-5-2 has its flaws and its own distinct vulnerabilities. It might have worked for Italy coach Cesare Prandelli in the group stages at Euro 2012, but he reverted to four at the back for their final defeat to Spain.
Which formation to do you like best?
Prandelli wanted to press more, and he didn't want to sit back and let Spain play. Which suggests he sees 3-5-2 as a stifling tactic and more of a Plan B than his blueprint for the Italian national team.
There's also the issue of filling 3-5-2 with the right kind of players. B/R tactical expert Sam Tighe believes you need the outside central defenders to act like midfielders. You also need the wing-backs to be complete footballers, and sensational athletes to boot.
If more and more of those types of players are entering the market, could there be more and more reason to choose 3-5-2 over 4-2-3-1?
— Samuel Tighe(@stighefootball) October 31, 2012
What happens next will be fascinating to watch. We've yet to see a new-generation 3-5-2 team triumph in European club competition, or at a Euros or World Cup for that matter.
If that happens, we can expect to see coaches react accordingly. Most of the world is trying to copy what Spain and Barcelona are doing right now, but eventually the tactical torch will pass to a new messiah.
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