Choosing a system is a tricky process. Some managers base it on opposition, some tinker with lineups until they arrive at a system that works, some choose one based upon the players available and some are ideologically married to a particular system. Despite all this there is very little variation in the formations played by sides with the majority playing 4 defenders and 2 wide players of some description leading to 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 being by far the most common formations. Modifications come mostly in the form of different interpretations of the same roles, a few popular examples are passers like Pirlo, destroyers like Mascherano and shuttlers like Ramires or on the wings speedsters like Walcott, more defensively aware wide midfielders like Milner or narrow creative players like David Silva.
Why is there such a standardisation? People argue that 3 defenders is too risky, that 5 defenders is too negative, that no wingers means a team lacks width. These are all valid observations to an extent but they aren’t universal. It’s natural that when managers stray from convention the new system takes the majority of the criticism and, generally, these criticisms are true. But that doesn’t mean they are true for all games, the systems often work and it’s only when their weaknesses are exposed that they are criticised, yet all systems have weaknesses. 4-4-2 can be outnumbered in the centre, 4-2-2-2 can be too narrow or create broken teams with no link from defence to attack, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 can lack bodies in the box. These criticisms are often levelled when these systems are unsuccessful but nobody uses it as a reason to completely disregard them, unlike departures from the standard template.
The strange thing about all this is that there are a lot of cases when these less favoured systems are remarkably successful. This is partly due to good players carrying out their roles well under the instruction of a good manager, as with any system, but the key is that they present a different challenge. After facing relatively standardised formations week in week out when players and managers come up against a fresh challenge they often struggle to adapt and the brave managers who strayed from the common templates prosper. This can be seen in the successes of Napoli and Udinese’s back 3 systems, Wigan’s late season switch to 3-4-3 and subsequent wins over Newcastle, Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal, Chile’s success at the 2010 World Cup and Roma’s classic 4-6-0. It can also be seen in more isolated incidents like Milan’s 4-0 win over Arsenal in the Champions League using 4 central midfielders, Athletic Bilbao’s win over Manchester United with its intense pressing and, most recently, Italy’s use of a back 3 versus Spain and Croatia and then a 4 man central midfield in subsequent games at Euro 2012.
Italy’s run to the final of the European Championships has been peculiar, they weren’t highly thought of before the tournament, they have been criticised for having an easy run against passive teams like England and Ireland and, prior to the Semi Final, hadn’t been particularly lauded for any of their performances. On the other hand they escaped a group containing Croatia, one of the best teams in the competition not to progress, they have outplayed their opponents in their last 3 games, most impressively against Germany, and they matched Spain in the opening game as well as dominating the first half against Croatia. The most impressive thing about their performances though has been that, aside from the second half against Croatia and the final against Spain, no side has really managed to get to grips with their system. The initial 3-5-2 and then 4-3-1-2 have presented new and puzzling problems for the opposition that have largely confounded them despite attempts by England and Germany to combat this by altering their own play to put pressure on Pirlo. The 3-5-2 presented a different style of defending to the Spanish, one that capitalised on their lack of width and stifled them, the 4-3-1-2 features 4 central midfielders which has outnumbered opposition in the centre of the pitch making it very difficult to press Pirlo in his deep central role without allowing players such as Montolivo, De Rossi and Marchisio time on the ball, something reflected in the standout performances of Montolivo in particular. The pictures below show the two systems used, the one on the left is a pre-tournament prediction from Zonal Marking so the personal differed slightly once the tournament began due to circumstances, though the only major difference is that Abate played at RB in the 4-3-1-2 system whereas Maggio played RWB in the 3-5-2 depicted on the right.
Italy have gone against conventions and despite the result in the final Prandelli has been brave and prospered, something a few more managers should try rather than looking for new players to solve their perceived problems.