While many nations will head to the World Cup with their tactical identity firmly established, Italy is one of a small number whose best formation remains uncertain. As recently as last week, Cesare Prandelli discussed the options available to him, listing three different ways his Azzurri could line up in Brazil this summer in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t FootballItalia).
The coach listing both 4-3-1-2 and 4-5-1 as potential frameworks offered little in the way of intrigue, as did him adding that it was “harder to think about the 4-3-3.” What truly caught the eye—and perhaps the imagination—most of all was his admission that deploying a 3-5-2 remains a distinct possibility. Prandelli went on to tell the pink paper:
To play three at the back is not a conservative option, it can become too defeatist if you do it with three pure centre-backs and defensive full-backs rather than wingers. But the wingers are offensive and one of the centre-backs is particular in that he can play the ball, like Nevio Scala did at Parma.
Italy has shown before that a three-man defence can be effective, never more so than in the opening game of Euro 2012 against Spain. That match—which ended in a 1-1 draw—was labeled a "fascinating tactical battle" by Michael Cox of ZonalMarking.net, who analysed the encounter in detail here.
The switch to the formation for that tournament was almost one of necessity, the absence of regular left-back Domenico Criscito limiting Prandelli’s options for that role. An injury to Andrea Barzagli also contributed, forcing the coach to field Daniele De Rossi in the central role, a position to which the Roma midfielder adapted perfectly.
There are three major factors contributing towards again making that shape Italy’s de facto formation this summer, the first of which is the personnel available. With Juventus continuing to use the 3-5-2 under Antonio Conte, the Bianconeri contingent is most familiar and comfortable with it, as are players like Napoli’s Christian Maggio, who thrives in a wing-back role.
With a core of players unsuited to playing in a four-man back line—and again with a squad bereft of a genuine left-back—it makes sense for Prandelli to lean in that direction once more. The second factor is the nullifying effect it had on Spain, congesting the central area in a manner which should also help stifle other narrow opponents, such as Uruguay and Germany.
Lastly, it allows Prandelli to field an extra midfield player, particularly if he opts to field De Rossi at the heart of the defence. Moving the 30-year-old out of the middle provides space for other players to join Andrea Pirlo in the side, with a variety of intelligent passers and tactically versatile options such as Claudio Marchisio, Thiago Motta, Riccardo Montolivo and even Marco Verratti.
With quality beyond the Juventus trio of Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini lacking in central defence, De Rossi’s presence also adds the pace the Bianconeri regulars lack. Perhaps an ideal line-up of Barzagli-De Rossi-Chiellini is the way forward for Prandelli this summer, as he looks to steer Italy beyond a difficult group containing Uruguay and England.
Another encounter with Spain lurks beyond those matchups, and with many international sides lacking top-quality wingers, the 3-5-2 formation allows the Azzurri to both nullify their opponents’ strengths while masking their own weaknesses. Reaping the benefits of so many of his squad being comfortable within that framework is also too big a positive to ignore, allowing Prandelli to minimise the time it takes for this incarnation of the Azzurri to become a cohesive unit.
Beyond the practicalities of the formation, there is something of an aesthetic beauty to watching a team deploy a three-man defence, and that is only heightened when it is a side as prestigious as the four-time winners of the World Cup. Italy playing 3-5-2 on the biggest stage of them all may be a football hipster’s dream, but it is also a smart move for Cesare Prandelli and the Azzurri.