In their opening match of Euro 2012, Italy met a fearsome Spain side who were undefeated in their previous 14 competitive matches. To counter the tiki-taka midfield tour-de-force of the world champions, Cesare Prandelli opted to display some midfield dominance of his own with a 3-5-2 formation.
Spain's six-man midfield—including their fabled "false 9"—was more than matched by the Azzurri's dynamic middle five, and the 1-1 result could easily have swayed in the Italian's favor with a little more luck.
By the time the two sides met again in the final, however, Italy had abandoned 3-5-2, with Prandelli telling Football Italia he had "not even considered it."
Playing a 4-4-2 that lacked the wing play of Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio, Italy were unable to deal with La Roja, conceding four unanswered goals to a side that didn't even start a striker.
Fast forward 12 months, and the two sides are set to meet in Thursday's Confederations Cup semifinal. In the tournament so far, both sides have changed their tactical approach.
Spain have actually been playing a proper No. 9 in Roberto Soldado, using formations that have varied between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. The "endlessly pass the opposition into submission" approach of previous tournament outings appears to have been refined for a more direct, attack-minded mentality, glimpses of which we have seen in recent World Cup qualifiers.
Italy, on the other hand, have been favouring a 4-3-2-1, which occasionally resembles a 4-3-3. The one-man attack has been led by Mario Balotelli, a man who appears to have reigned in his childish tantrums and outlandish haircuts to concentrate on the job in hand—and he has been doing a fantastic job.
Behind Super Mario, Giaccherini and Claudio Marchisio have been providing support, with Andrea Pirlo distributing passes from central midfield with his well-renowned commanding flair in the first two games.
The 4-3-2-1 has been successful in producing eight goals from three matches. However, Italy have also conceded eight goals, showing a defensive naivety that will be picked apart by Spain.
According to the Gazzetta dello Sport (translated by Football Italia), Prandelli is considering using a 3-5-2 against the world and European champions. To avoid a repeat of the Euro 2012 final result, this is a necessity.
The absence of key players may force Italy's hand into switching back to a 3-5-2. Balotelli has now been sent home, according to the Guardian (via The Associated Press) from the tournament with a strained thigh, so they can no longer rely on him as the lone hit man.
His Milan teammate Ignazio Abate has also been sent packing with a dislocated shoulder, while midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo—who was sorely missed in the Brazil defeat—has been training alone and may not feature (Alberto Aquilani will surely play understudy again if the Juventus star is unfit).
The absence of Abate leaves a defensive triumvirate of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. These three won Serie A with Juventus laying together in a 3-5-2 for Juventus, so why not give them a similar modus operandi against Spain?
Equally, at the other end of the field, Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Diamanti have managed 19 goals between them at Bologna, so why not pair them together up front?
In an environment where national teams rarely seldom meet up to train, it seems logical to play to their domestic strengths.
It's a pretty rare formation in the beautiful game, but Italians seem to have a close affinity with a 3-5-2. Juve and Napoli are among the sides who have used it to great effect in recent seasons. Going back a little further, Fabio Capello's Scudetto-winning side of 2000-01 relied on the formation.
Prandelli's reign has been defined by positive, attacking football: The defensive and counterattacking model on which the Italians used to rely is no longer applicable. The 3-5-2 arrangement is much more conducive to a positive style of play, utilising wingers who commit a third of their energies to defensive responsibilities and two thirds to attacking.
Ultimately, the fate of this match may be decided by Italy's personnel, rather than their tactics. They will be hurt by the lack of Balotelli, and the absence of Pirlo clearly made all the difference in the Brazilian defeat. Pirlo's fitness might make the difference on Thursday, too.
Yet Prandelli should be bold and try a formation that the Spanish aren't used to dealing with and which he believes his side are capable of switching to midgame.
To paraphrase John Lennon, "all we are saying, is give 3-5-2 a chance."