At the World Cup this summer, Italy go into the tournament amongst the second band of teams that are not quite at the level of either Brazil or Spain, but with a team that could, with a bit of luck, reach the final stages. However, Italy possess something in their squad which the likes of Brazil, Spain, and most other countries do not even have – they are able to field an entire defence and goalkeeper that have experience playing together at club level.
Step forward Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. The four regularly play week-in, week-out for one of the best sides in Europe and as such will have a strong understanding of each other, which is evidenced by the number of goals Juventus have conceded in Serie A over three seasons of them playing regularly together, which reads: 23 (2013-14), 24 (2012-13) and 20 (2011-12). That totals 67 goals conceded thus far, which is incredible compared to the likes of:
Barcelona: 33 (2013-14), 40 (2012-13), 29 (2011-12) Total: 102
Real Madrid: 38 (2013-14), 42 (2012-13), 32 (2011-12) Total: 112
Man Utd: 43 (2013-14), 43 (2012-13), 33 (2011-12) Total: 119
Man City: 37 (2013-14), 34 (2012-13), 29 (2011-12) Total: 100
Chelsea: 27 (2013-14), 39 (2012-13), 46 (2011-12) Total: 112
The only side in the last three years with a better record than Juventus is Bayern Munich, which stands at:
Bayern Munich: 23 (2013-14), 18 (2012-13), 22 (2011-12) Total: 63
It is worth bearing in mind that the Bundesliga season lasts 34 games rather than the 38 played in Serie A, La Liga and the Premier League, so that is 12 less games Bayern would have played over three years.
This information presents a strong case for Italy coach Cesare Prandelli to use the 3-5-2 formation as default, as the club that he once represented as a player use with great success. It isn’t a new concept to Prandelli as he first used the formation in Italy’s opening game of Euro 2012 against world champions Spain, after Italy had lost 3-0 to Russia in a friendly match nine days before the start of the tournament. Italy controlled the ball well and really took the game to Spaniards, opening the scoring. The match eventually ended in a 1-1 draw despite Italy being the better side.
Prandelli used the formation again against Croatia, though after Andrea Pirlo opened the scoring, Italy were again pegged back and the match finished once more as a 1-1 draw. The next game against the Republic of Ireland saw Prandelli switch to a 4-3-1-2 in an effort play a more expansive game. Italy won the match 2-0 and Prandelli stuck with the formation for the rest of the tournament right up to the final against Spain. That time the match was far from a tight affair as Spain showed their class, cruising to a 4-0 win, taking apart the 4-3-1-2 formation with it by exposing Italy’s lack of width.
Many criticised Prandelli afterwards, saying that he should have reverted back to the 3-5-2 which caused Spain so many problems in the opener. Nevertheless, he persisted throughout Italy’s World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign with his trusted 4-3-1-2 formation, sometimes using a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1.
To Prandelli’s credit, Italy topped their qualifying group without losing a single game, yet an eye-opener came just before the end of the process at last year’s Confederations Cup.
The World Cup warm-up tournament in Brazil saw Italy finish a respectable third place behind Brazil and Spain. However, Italy came very close to bettering that achievement. The tournament started with a 2-1 win against Mexico, but they struggled in the second game against Japan, going two goals down before finally winning 4-3. Their defence was far too easily penetrated by a team that they would expect to beat with far less drama. They then played Brazil who defeated Gli Azzurri 4-2.
Up next in the semi-finals came Spain, a year after they had taken apart Italy in the Euro 2012 final. This time Prandelli showed the he had learnt his lesson and fielded a 3-5-2 once more. Spain struggled with the formation once more as Italy dominated the game, creating a number of chances, but lacking the cutting edge to punish them. The match finished 0-0 after extra time and Spain bested Italy on penalties 7-6, but it again proved that today’s footballing benchmark can be made to look vulnerable.
Whilst there is debate as to which midfielders and strikers should slot into the 3-5-2 set-up, there is no getting away from the fact that no other nation at the tournament will have a defence and goalkeeper who are accustomed to playing with each other every week at club level. This is key because the more familiar a defence is with each other, the better they will deal with defensive situations. Most countries play between 10-20 games a year, affording little time for players to get used to playing together, while many countries will be changing their defence often due to injuries, suspensions and form.
With Prandelli able to select the Juventus back four, it is a potential trump card that Italy have to play at the tournament, but as has been demonstrated by the volume of formations that he has tried with Italy thus far, he seems reluctant, almost too stubborn in wanting to play his own way. If he does line up with only two centre backs, it is likely that one of Barzagli, Bonucci or Chiellini will have to miss out.
This provides a quandary within itself as the Juve back three all seem to compliment each other well when playing together, often playing to each other’s strengths, whilst at the same time covering up their weaknesses as detailed below:
Strengths: Reading the game, determination, strength, heading – Chiellini has almost everything you would want in a centreback, so much so that one could easily make an argument for him being currently the best centreback in the world. Without a doubt he will be Italy’s number one defender this summer.
Weaknesses: Pace – He was exposed for pace by Cesc Fabregas in the Euro 2012 final, which lead to Spain’s opener and literally added insult to injury as he was forced off. Simply put Chiellini at left back doesn’t work.
Strengths: Interceptions, passing, heading, good on the ball – Bonucci is very much from the school of modern centre backs where you are expected to be more than just a typical physical defender. When Pirlo is man marked out of games you’ll see Bonucci receive the ball to start attacks such is his range of passing, which teams often don’t anticipate.
Weaknesses: Concentration, concentration, concentration! – Prior to Antonio Conte’s switch to 3-5-2, Bonucci was often seen as having at least one guaranteed mistake in him per game which sometimes fatally led to Juventus conceding goals. He still isn’t impervious to making mistakes but having Barzagli and Chiellini by his side make them less catastrophic.
Strengths: Positioning, heading, reading the game, determination – Barzagli has become a vital cog to the Juventus machine under Conte, finally living up to the promise he showed years ago for Palermo. What he does is unspectacular and often overlooked in the wider scale – when people discuss the ‘world’s best defenders’ you likely won’t see his name cropping up. However he is as solid as they come and similar to a certain Fabio Cannavaro, hasn’t had his best years until after 30 – could one good tournament on the big stage finally cement his name like it did for his predecessor?
Weaknesses: Pace – Similar to Chiellini, pace is not Barzagli’s greatest attribute either, as was shown in the 2013 Confederations Cup game against Mexico where he was forced to bring down Giovani Dos Santos for a penalty, luckily escaping a red card in the process. Such mistakes cannot be repeated in the World Cup.
Italy may never enjoy such an advantage over their opponents again, so it would be a shame for them to squander it when they have such a sound defence to call upon.