Since taking over the manager's chair for the Italian national team after the 2010 World Cup, Cesare Prandelli has for the most part relied on the diamond 4-3-1-2 that was his staple at Fiorentina.
The coach has transformed the Azzurri from a team that too often leaned on the catenaccio tactics of old into a team that focuses on dominating possession and passing.
In the last year, however, Prandelli has begun to diversify his tactics. Three-man defensive lines have been in vogue in Serie A this year, and Prandelli had incorporated the 3-5-2 into the team over the last year.
Initially used as an emergency measure to cover a last-minute injury to Andrea Barzagli, Prandelli has since toyed with the formation in World Cup qualifying and will have a decision to make in terms of how to deploy his team going forward.
So what are the strengths and weaknesses of the two formations? And which is Prandelli likely to choose with Italy's first match of 2013 only a week away?
Prandelli's diamond 4-3-1-2 has been his trademark since his days at Fiorentina.
The formation relies on the bottom end of the midfield diamond, the traditional Italian regista (R). The regista is the ultimate distributor, tasked with finding the right pass and keying the ultimate attacking movement towards the goal.
At the elite level, the regista needs fantastic vision and skill in both the short and long pass—something that the current man in the position, Andrea Pirlo, has in spades.
The two center midfielders (CM) on either side of the diamond have several roles. They must cover the regista to allow him the room he needs to operate, join the attack when the team has the ball, and work to gain the ball in the midfield on defense.
At least one of them needs to be an elite box-to-box midfielder for this formation to work on a high level. Fortunately for Prandelli, he has the luxury of being able to count two of them—Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi—amongst his regulars in the squad.
Both are skilled in possession and have superior goalscoring ability from the midfield, with De Rossi bringing an added physicality that can disrupt the opposing midfielders' rhythm and deliver a bone-crunching tackle when the occasion calls for it.
The attacking midfielder (AM) has been a thorny spot for Prandelli. During Euro 2012, he fluctuated between using Thiago Motta and Riccardo Montolivo in this spot, but the results weren't the best in either case. Motta is more of a physical player than a creative one—not exactly what is needed for a position tasked with making the final ball in towards the strikers.
Montolivo has more of a creative bent, but he's a natural regista playing out of position in this formation, and it showed during the Euros—apart from one brilliant long-distance assist in the semifinal, he really did very little of note. Prandelli, however, remains enamored of him from their time together at Fiorentina, and continues to give him regular starts.
There are a few problems with the formation, as Italy plays it at the moment. The first is the aforementioned personnel issue at attacking midfielder. Montolivo isn't quite the right fit there. The lack of someone to fit in that area is probably why for the most part Prandelli has paired one striker—usually Mario Balotelli—with a more creative one like Antonio Cassano to make the final pass.
The other main drawback to the formation is the lack of width in the midfield. This puts a large burden on the full-backs to provide an attacking element out wide. The full-backs will have to have a good amount of endurance and be able to track back into defensive position when possession is lost.
The thing that makes this formation so attractive currently is that the bedrock of the formation—the back three and goalkeeper—all come from the same team.
Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini have been playing in the 3-5-2 for Antonio Conte at Juventus for the last season-and-a-half and by this point must know each other like the backs of their hands. De Rossi played in the center of the three-man line in the first two games of Euro 2012 when Barzagli was hurt, but it's far better for the Juve foursome to play together.
As an added bonus, the three-man defensive line allows Prandelli to put Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini—all of whom are amongst the top 15 to 20 center-backs in the world—on the field at the same time, rather than decide which of the three to sacrifice when playing with two center-backs.
Don't think that he could bypass this choice by using Chiellini as a left-back, because he's far beyond that at this stage in his career. Granted, Brazil 2014 will probably be the last major international that Barzagli will be young enough to participate in. Still, this formation is the only way that Prandelli can get these talented defenders on the field at the same time.
The central midfielders have pretty much the same responsibilities as the rear three do in the 4-3-1-2. The one in the center doesn't necessarily have to be a pure regista, but it certainly helps. In Prandelli's version Pirlo and his heir apparent Marco Verratti generally operate the same way they would in the 4-4-2.
The lack of a central midfielder in a more forward position does necessitate one of the strikers being more of a creative type, like Cassano, as the forwards will have to do more of the creating on their own with the line of supply being a bit farther away.
The main weakness of this formation is the lack of adequate personnel for the wing-backs. Napoli's Christian Maggio is probably the most natural fit in the Italian player pool, but at 30 years old, he is pushing the age that internationals are normally put to pasture.
The situation is even murkier on the left. Emanuele Giaccherini was used on the left in the two matches that used the formation in Euro 2012, but he's spent his entire career as either a winger or a mezz'ala, and his inexperience was apparent. His misplay in the group stage opener against Spain allowed Cesc Fabregas to get inside him to score the equalizing goal.
Domenico Criscito is among the best in the world at his position, but he's more of a traditional left-back, as is Federico Balzaretti, who is also at an age where he won't have much more time in the national side.
A final note against this formation is that it involves a heck of a lot more running than a more traditional four-man back line. With all the extra effort that is expended by players who aren't necessarily used to it at the club level, it may end up leaving Italy vulnerable late in games.
The 3-5-2 has seen mixed results for Prandelli.
In the first two matches of Euro 2012, both 1-1 draws against Spain and Croatia, the formation allowed the Italians to dominate long periods of each match. But both times they faded down the stretch, giving up equalizing goals within the last half-hour and being under pressure thereafter.
Used in the World Cup qualifying opener against Bulgaria, Italy again was pressed for long stretches of the second half, and the match ended in a 2-2 draw.
It should be said that in each of those three games injuries prevented the full compliment of Barzagli, Bonucci, and Chiellini to play together in the back. De Rossi replaced Barzagli in the Euro games and Giorgio Chiellini was unable to take the field against Bulgaria, replaced by Angelo Ogbonna, who looked obviously unfamiliar with the role.
It did produce some good stretches of play though, particularly against Spain, where the nature of the formation in providing extra midfielders allowed the Italians to clog the midfield and reduce the effectiveness of Vicente Del Bosque's vaunted tiki-taka tactics.
The "faux-nine" strategy Del Bosque employed through most of the tournament doesn't provide much width, and the extra midfielders allowed the Italians to funnel the Spaniards in toward the solid back three.
The switch to the 4-3-1-2 in the final opened up the midfield areas that hadn't been available for the Spaniards in the group stage, and they took advantage. Had Prandelli gone back to what worked against the Spaniards, the result of the final could have been different.
That said, Prandelli's usual 4-3-1-2 is a better fit for the majority of the personnel he has at his disposal. It takes full advantage of the talents of Pirlo, Marchisio and De Rossi in midfield and provides a better mechanism for keeping possession and feeding the strikers up top.
Italy's switch back to the formation in Euro 2012 provided a more thorough performance against Ireland to end the group stage, and then saw the Azzurri absolutely dominate both England and Germany in the knockout rounds.
Even in the 4-0 final defeat to Spain they controlled almost 50 percent of possession—a feat unheard of against la furia roja in this era of Spanish dominance. Their three World Cup qualifying wins have also come using the 4-3-1-2.
Despite the 4-3-1-2 being a better fit, it doesn't mean that the 3-5-2 should be thrown by the wayside.
If used selectively and with the right personnel, it could produce excellent results for the Azzurri.
Against teams like Spain that tend to be narrow in their attack, using the extra midfield presence to funnel opponents into a wall of top-level center-backs would make the Italian goal very difficult to breach, especially with the Juventus quartet of defenders and keeper—already with incredible chemistry and playing some of the best defense on the continent in the last two years—are on the field.
When faced with teams like England, whose preferred mode of attack is putting the ball into the wings and trying to find a head with a cross, the extra width of a four-man back line will be a plus, and the team will be able to use its midfield to do what they've been doing for most of Prandelli's reign as Italy boss—control possession and feed the strikers in front of goal.
Whatever way they go, Italy has shown that they deserve their No. 4 ranking in the FIFA World Rankings–but the diamond 4-3-1-2 should definitely be the team's default formation and evolve from there as the situation presents itself.