Last month's Confederations Cup was a fortnight of ups and downs for the Italian national team. After Italy gave up eight goals in the three group games, pessimistic fans panicked and labelled the team a squad in crisis.
Most of those fears, however, were allayed after manager Cesare Prandelli's phenomenal tactical display in the semifinal against Spain. As in the early stages of Euro 2012, injuries forced the Italy boss to play a three-man defensive lineup.
Last year, he had deployed a 3-5-2; this time around, the injuries forced a slight tweak to a 3-4-3.
The results, however, were much the same as when they were in the group stage opener at the Euros. The fact that Vicente del Bosque was playing a true striker rather than the false nine he had preferred in 2012 made no difference. The Spaniards struggled to find good looks at goal deep into extra time when the heat had taken its toll on both teams.
The 3-5-2—a much better option than the 3-4-3 when the team is fully manned—is looking to be a key part of Italy's potential for success in next year's World Cup.
Despite their loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final, reaching the World Cup final will necessitate getting past La Roja. And the 3-5-2 that is now sweeping the Italian club game is beginning to look like Spain's kryptonite.
Prandelli made his name—and resurrected a stagnant Italy side—with a possession-based 4-3-1-2 scheme. But after the Euros, Prandelli began tinkering with his tactics.
The 3-5-2 was used—without a whole lot of success, it must be said—in several World Cup qualifiers. As Stephan El Shaarawy broke out at AC Milan and made inroads into the Azzurri setup, the manager began experimenting with a 4-3-3 that would exploit the emerging star's ability to cut in from the left.
It was against Spain in the group stage of the European Championships that the 3-5-2 served the Italians the best.
Prandelli was forced into the formation by forces beyond his control. Andrea Barzagli had suffered a leg injury in a friendly with Russia on the eve of the tournament. Domenico Criscito, who had been heading into the Euros as the unquestioned starter at left-back, was dropped from the squad after being caught up in the calcioscommesse scandal, which led to uncertainty at the position.
Prandelli's solution was to drop Daniele De Rossi from the midfield to the center of a three-man back line and to use Emanuele Giaccherini as a left wing-back.
The result was stunning.
The Spaniards, whose false nine formation played narrow, played right into the formation's hands. The five midfielders funneled the six midfielders into the back three. The three of them were able to keep the Spaniards at bay for 64 minutes, taking the lead through Antonio Di Natale before an error by Giaccherini allowed Cesc Fabregas to equalize.
The 3-4-3 used in last month's semifinal achieved similar results. Even when playing with a true No. 9 in Fernando Torres, the Spaniards still played narrow, and the Italians were again able to funnel the ball into their center back trio, who ably brought Spain's attacking moves to a halt.
Apart from the advantage of funneling Spain's narrow tiki-taka game into the teeth of the Italian defense, the use of a three-man back line gave the Italians an advantage on the wings.
Prandelli's 4-3-1-2 depends on the full-backs to give the team width. This was a problem in the Euro 2012 final. Prandelli used his default formation in that game, and the Spanish full-backs—Jordi Alba in particular—marauded forward and pinned the Italian full-backs in their own half.
Without the width of the full-backs, the Italian attack was defanged, and the Spaniards were able to put up a 4-0 victory—a scoreline that belied how closely the game was played until the Italians lost a man due to injury with no subs remaining.
With a three-man defense and the freedom to move forward, Italy's full-backs became wing-backs and were able to press high up the wings, forcing the opposing full-backs to stay put and defend. Christian Maggio, in what may have been his best game in an Italy shirt, was able to pin Alba in just this manner, thereby neutralizing the threat on that side of the field.
With the opposing attack bottlenecked and stripped of its width, Andrea Pirlo was allowed to work his magic in midfield, and the Italians were able to press their own attack onto the Spaniards.
Last month, only a matter of lackluster finishing kept the Italians from winning the game in regulation time. The balm for that problem is Mario Balotelli, who was unable to play in the semifinal after suffering a leg injury.
The road to Rio de Janeiro a year from now will again go through Spain. After three years as Spain's bogey team, Italy finally has the blueprint to getting over the hump that is La Roja.
The 3-5-2 is going to be key for the Italians if they want to advance past the Spaniards in 12 months time and raise their fifth World Cup.