The Golden Triangle – Calcio’s Trending Formation

A trend appears to be emerging in the attacking style of Italy’s major teams. All are highly aggressive, which makes for pleasing enough shows but interestingly they also seem to attack by means of similar patterns and personnel. This article will discuss Milan, Inter, Roma and Napoli, which among them hold three of the top four positions in Serie A and all three remaining Italian slots in the Champions League. All of them offend in a very similar fashion and their similarities may have something to say on the future of tactics for Serie A.
All four teams play with three men upfront and with the exception of Napoli, all deploy a similar 4-3-1-2 formation. This in itself would be of little consequence (there are many teams which use three strikers). What is striking is that the architecture of the triangle is almost identical for all of them. They invariably seem to be based around a trio of one fantasista, one velocista and one classical prima punta. Let us consider these roles.
The fantasista is asked to play behind the strikers, connecting play, holding the ball for the team to come up, providing assists and in general orchestrating the offence. These players include Wesley Sneijder, Jeremy Menez, Marek Hamsik and Antonio Cassano. Milan are the only team who can boast two different players for that spot with Robinho flexible enough to cover that role and that of the velocista as well. These players may pick up the ball from the flanks and then move centrally (Menez and Cassano), or they may start centrally with freedom to spread right and left (Sneijder and Hamsik). Technically speaking, they are all hugely gifted, and they represent some of the most prized jewels in the crown of Serie A.
The classical prima punta is a role that had been somewhat on the wane in Italy as of late but is now enjoying new life thanks to this triangular disposition of the offence. Players like Edison Cavani and Marco Borriello have positively bloomed in their new formations at Napoli and Roma, and the arrival of Giampaolo Pazzini at Inter has coincided with their return to treble-snatching form. Milan are somewhat of the odd ones out, in that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not a poacher in the traditional ‘Paolo Rossi’ mould of the other three, but his chores are still those of a prima punta. These players are asked to magnetize central defenders with a view towards opening spaces, provide a threat on aerial balls, defend high-pitched possession and of course capitalise on the opportunities created by the other players. The fact that other than January-transfer Pazzini they should all be their club’s respective top scorers should indicate how effective they have been.
The last element in the equation is the most interesting and uncharacteristic. We have described him by the term velocista for convenience but in truth this player is a category of its own. It cannot be called simply a seconda punta, in part because these players operate more broadly in terms of position, acting almost as wingers at times, but more memorably because they all seem to be characterised by unprecedented levels of speed. Samuel Eto’o, Pato, Mirko Vucinic and Ezequiel Lavezzi are any defender’s nightmare when they break on the run. This in itself would not be enough to distinguish them from past Serie A velocisti such as, say, Inter’s Obafemi Martins, but these players also possess a staggering level of technique, one which almost competes with that of their own fantasisti. It is almost a fusion between the roles of wing, velocista and seconda punta. To find a person so fast and so gifted is exceptional – to find no less than four is, perhaps, to identify a trend.
The resulting alchemy is so stellar in terms of global technique, and so hard to contain, that for the most part it can operate on its own. We must stress that this is the truly innovative quality of the golden triangle – not so much its particular composition but the fact that it seems to work almost independently as a unit detached from the rest of the team.
Other players come in to support but their presence seems almost aleatory. The focus is always on the understanding between Sneijder and Eto’o or Lavezzi and Cavani, with the third player ready to support and add further twists. This has corresponded to a relative decline in the role of offensive full-backs, an argument which we shall make in future articles and to the emergence of a muscular highly defensive midfield composed of versatile players all competent in the task of covering spaces. The independence of the golden triangle is, after all, a double-edged sword – they do produce dynamism almost out of nothing, but in turn they provide very little defensive coverage. The rest of the team is then re-designed to compensate for this imbalance.
Speaking about trends in football is always a risky business so it is best to wait and see how the situation evolves. There are major teams which have not adopted this style (yet), such as Juventus, who possess a similar velocista in Krasic but no real fantasista and Fiorentina although both these teams have been underperforming for a while now. In the meantime, the golden triangle certainly provides a great deal of entertainment in Serie A, as it emphasises a fast, spectacular game best exemplified by the recent 5-3 result between Inter and Roma. There is space for a great deal of speculation as to the how and why it evolved – perhaps as a response to the ubiquitous defensive mechanisms that were coming to play in the modern game as we saw in this remarkably low-scoring World Cup. That is a discussion for another day.

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