Napoli and Udinese inspire revival of the back three

In a period where the four-man defence is almost a given when it comes to tactical deployment, it is refreshing to see a mini-resurgence in the popularity of a back three in Italy. Eight different teams have played with three central defenders at varying points in the campaign, and although not all of them do it on a regular basis – at most, only four can be included in this category – it shows an increasing acknowledgement in the benefits of the system from Coaches.
There are a number of catalysts for the sudden rise in its usage but the most prominent is Napoli and their incredible success this season. Under Coach Walter Mazzarri, they are one of the biggest proponents of the system, using it in every game this season to great effect. Mazzarri’s take on the formation is slightly different – he uses Marek Hamšik and Ezequiel Lavezzi behind lone striker Edinson Cavani in a 3-4-2-1. The deeper positioning of Lavezzi in particular has worked wonders, allowing him to assist 10 times this season.
The front three take a lot of the credit but the efficiency of the team as a whole has caused opposition Coaches to change the way their team is set up in an effort to combat the Partenopei. Roma and Palermo, two sides that regularly play with a conventional back four, switched to three central defenders (Palermo used a 3-4-2-1 shape similar to Mazzarri’s) specifically for their respective games against Napoli. Roma Coach Claudio Ranieri did so after a positive result last season when he made exactly the same switch, though this season it failed, as did Delio Rossi’s attempt with his Palermo team.
Chievo, on the other hand, succeeded when they suddenly went with three central defenders for their home game against Napoli. Having spent the season playing 4-3-1-2, Stefano Pioli’s switch to a conventional 3-5-2 worked (they won 2-0), and he has since stuck with it. However, he encountered problems at the weekend against Cagliari.
They struggled to retain the ball in midfield because they had few players in that area attempting to find space between the lines (in the way that Hamšik and Lavezzi do for Napoli), with Kévin Constant appearing a little inhibited by the system. They were able to match Cagliari numerically, but without options when in possession they became predictable in trying to hit wing-backs Gennaro Sardo and Bojan Jokič.
It is perhaps for this reason that Udinese, also enjoying great success with a three-man defence, employ a shape that is best described as a 3-5-1-1, with Alexis Sánchez deliberately deployed to find that space. They have played arguably the best football in the country this season with an open, expansive style. They are not as efficient as Napoli, but are certainly more exciting and are being duly rewarded. Brescia have also attempted to copy Udinese’s method since Giuseppe Iachini was rehired as Coach.
Far from it simply being a case of matching successful teams, there is another catalyst – many Serie A teams are currently playing with a narrow 4-3-1-2, or similar systems with little width and three central midfielders. Three central defenders can be an effective way of dealing with two strikers while at the same time ensuring a numerical equilibrium in central midfield.
Crucially, however, the wing-backs can take advantage of these narrow systems and offer an attacking threat down their flanks. Napoli’s Andrea Dossena and Christian Maggio have a combined seven assists this season, as do their Udinese counterparts Mauricio Isla and Pablo Armero, a statistic that highlights their ability to take advantage of the space afforded to them by 4-3-1-2. As long as Serie A continues to be dominated by narrow formations, the 3-5-2 will continue to grow.

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