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Is Andrea Pirlo another reason for Antonio Conte to use the 3-5-2?

Valerio Pennicino

For several months now, an argument has been made for Antonio Conte's lack of flexibility regarding formation. When Conte started coaching at Juventus he went from playing a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 in a matter of months. Press and fans were impressed with his ability to adapt to different opponents and to even switch formations during the game.

However, after a few months it was clear that the 3-5-2 was the de facto formation.

During the summer of 2012, the purchase of Mauricio Isla suggested that Juventus will have a similar line-up as the previous year. Conte's success in Italy and specially in Europe, against Chelsea in particular, won him and his system praises. This, of course, ended in Juve's unceremonious exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich.Although last summer brought two top strikers to Turin (not Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci) the fact that they are not known as wingers suggested that Juve were going to stick to the 3-5-2 for a third season.

Fast forward eight months and Juve are on the verge of securing a third scudetto and may be able to break the record for points in a season. However, Juve's form in Europe has been poor to say the least. The recent loss to Benfica has only increased the displeasure of the fans. The tifosi and the press are loudly requesting that a four-man backline (4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1) be utilized in the future to achieve European glory. The pundits loudly cite Juve's great performance against Real Madrid when Juve fielded a 4-3-3. However, what they fail to realize is that this formation was used to stop Real Madrid, and that even then we lost on aggregate.

Now, I think the 3-5-2 has its merits and that no formation is bullet proof. However, I am sure that having a more flexible team that can switch from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1) can only be good thing. Of course Beppe Marotta would have to work his magic and buy wingers, but I am not sure that this would be enough to change our current setup. With that being said, Alexis Sanchez on a free loan with an option to buy for €5 million with payments stretched over the next 20 years sounds good to me, but I digress. In any case, even with wingers, I think having Pirlo in the starting line-up may be what is preventing Conte from really trying out a four-man backline.

What I am trying to say is that as long as Andrea Pirlo is the fulcrum of our team, the 3-5-2 will be frequently utilized.

Let me explain.

We all know that Pirlo is generally man marked and that his defensive attributes, although improved from his years at Milan, are still questionable at best. This is probably a genuine cause for concern for Conte. Imagine Juve playing with a four-man backline against a team with two strikers and a midfielder who is tracking Pirlo. If Pirlo looses the ball to the midfielder and a foul is not called, it would leave our backline in a 2v3 situation ... not really ideal.  It is also not unreasonable that the fullbacks will be too far up or too far wide to help defend. With a three-man backline the situation turns into a 3v3 which is likely to slow down the attack allowing the wingbacks to move back. The three-man backline also gives Pirlo an extra option for a back pass if he gets into trouble.

One way to alleviate this is by asking the midfielders to help out Pirlo defensively. Carlo Ancelotti did this effectively at AC Milan. In those years, Massimo Ambrosini and I-like-to-stab-people-with-a-fork Rino Gattuso would help back in defense. Moreover, two giants of the game were always willing to lend a hand at the back, I am talking of course about Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini (sorry, Kakha Kaladze).  At Juve that would come at a huge loss because it will force Arturo Vidal and/or Paul Pogba to play farther away from the opposing goal.

Vidal and Pogba are immensely more technically gifted than Ambrosini and Gattuso and are a bigger threat upfront.  Between 2003 and 2007 (AC Milan's recent golden years), Ambrosini and Gattuso scored nine goals and six goals, respectively, in ALL competitions. At Juventus, Vidal alone has scored 28 goals in Serie A only and in one less season than the totals given for Ambrosini and Gatusso above. That is almost double what the Milan duo accomplished during their best years.  For completeness, Pogba has 12 in Serie A in the last two seasons and Claudio Marchisio has 17 in Serie A in the last three seasons.

If you are Ancelotti you are not going to think twice to sacrifice Ambrosini and Gattuso because Kaka, Seedorf, Inzaghi and Schevchenko have you covered up front receiving Pirlo's out-of-this world service. On the other hand, if you are Conte, you are going to think twice before sacrificing Vidal, Pogba and to a lesser extent Marchisio by asking them to tightly cover Pirlo.  To highlight this point, Pirlo's efficacy decreased significantly when Seedorf was moved to cover Pirlo only a few months after Milan lifted the Champions League trophy (Milan finished 5th that season).

For this reason, I think Marchisio's move to the Pirlo role could pave the way for a four-man backline. Marchisio is defensively better than Pirlo and he is more likely to chase (or foul) the opposing player if dispossessed in a compromising position. Also, he is less likely to hold on to the ball for long periods of time making him a less risky player. Of course this will come at a cost.  Pirlo's range is arguably unmatched worldwide, and his control of tempo is world class. To make up for this Juve need to have good creative talent on the wings and up front. Carlos Tévez and to a lesser extent Fernando Llorente are already that, but one or two more players could complete the puzzle.

I am not asking for Pirlo to be removed from the team — far from it. His contributions are invaluable and in the right system, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, etc. with the right tactical approach he can be plenty useful. But I think that having a three man backline has a lot to do with allowing Pirlo to make mistakes and protecting the team from them, all while letting our midfielders score goals. The logical evolution from here is to move from to a four-man backline, but that may come at a cost that currently is too high. If Marotta does his job this summer, that cost may be an acceptable risk in the path to European glory.