It all started with an away game in Naples half a decade ago.
Juventus travelled south to face Napoli on a chilly November night aiming to retain their unbeaten start to the 2011/12 season. Newly appointed manager Antonio Conte had exceeded all expectations at this early stage and the Bianconeri were within two points of the Serie A summit.
Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli had been playing some scintillating football and were one place behind The Old Lady. Mazzarri’s 3-5-2-formation contained the ‘Three Tenors’ of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, and all three members were in devastating form.
Conte, who had previously favoured a very attacking 4-2-4 whilst coaching Siena to Serie A promotion in 2010-11, had originally wanted to implement the same formation upon returning to his old club. However the signing of Andrea Pirlo deemed that unworkable given the nature of his characteristics. Conte had started the season using a 4-4-2 and later alternated with a 4-3-3 in the matches leading up the Napoli fixture. But he had an ace up his sleeve.
Worried about Mazzarri’s 3-5-2, he mirrored Napoli’s system with Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini all starting together for the first time as three centre-backs. Napoli raced into a two-goal lead before Alessandro Matri pulled one back just after half-time. Goran Pandev, starting in place of the injured Cavani, scored a second to restore the two-goal lead. Juve’s unbeaten record looked finished with less than 20 minutes left.
Marcelo Estigarribia won’t go down in the annals of Juve’s history; the Paraguyan winger only stayed in Turin for one season, however his contribution in this game proved monumental. He stabbed home his team’s second goal having found himself unmarked in the Napoli box.
Simone Pepe then silenced the San Paolo by scoring an equalising third from the edge of the box with ten minutes left. Juventus hung on to earn a draw, 3-3. Despite a shaky beginning, the comeback proved to Conte that the 3-5-2 was a system that could work, and the rest, as everyone knows, is history.
Juve beat the last good Milan side to the title that season and continued to rack up Scudetti at a rate not witnessed since the legendary Torino side of the 1940s.
From the beginning of the 2012-13 season the 3-5-2 became the default formation with Conte very rarely deviating from it. And his successor in Turin, Max Allegri, wisely didn’t rock the boat upon taking over, gradually shifting away from the system towards the climax of the 2014-15 season as Juventus reached the Champions League final. However the following season saw him revert to type and the 3-5-2 returned.
Some 17 months on from that defeat to Barcelona and the side has a very different feel to it. Only Claudio Marchisio survives from the midfield that started in Berlin and what was arguably Juve’s strongest area during the Conte years is now by far the weakest.
Five years after the system was first introduced, the Juventus of 2016 simply do not possess the tools to make the most from the system any longer. The departures over the last two summers of Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Pirlo have robbed the side of dynamism and creativity in midfield. The signing of Miralem Pjanic will pay off in time but due to the current state of the midfield and with Marchisio only just returning from a six-month lay off, Pjanic hasn’t been utilised to his best strengths.
The failure to adequately replace Paul Pogba last summer is unmistakable in the majority of matches played this season. Short of the Frenchman’s drive, directness and ability to beat players, Allegri’s men have been lethargic and plodding in their approach with the only hint of dynamic play coming from either Paulo Dybala or Alex Sandro.
The system has undoubtedly turned Bonucci into one of the finest defenders in the world (his ability on the ball is almost unparalleled in the game amongst defenders). However, opposing teams who are shrewd and adventurous have realised the best way to stifle Juventus is to press the centre-back, thus stopping him from orchestrating play.
A further question needs asking, does Allegri really need to field three defenders against teams who defend deep and with just one forward? Logical wisdom says to replace one of the ‘BBC’ with an attacking midfielder. One could make the case of using the system against a heavyweight, but when playing the lesser teams in Serie A, having the extra defender makes little sense.
So what system should Allegri implement?
Four at the back is a given – Giorgio Chiellini has become increasingly injury prone in recent years, further reinforcing the argument for the abandonment of the back three. With Juve’s lack of quality midfielders at present, a two-man midfield consisting of Sami Khedira and Marchisio would offer the best solution.
Further ahead an attacking trio of Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado and Dybala would offer all the ingredients for Gonzalo Higuain to gobble up goals. El Pipita has at times looked lost since joining Juventus, not sure of when to drop deep and when to stay further afield. At various times he doesn’t seem quite in sync with his teammates, losing possession and often passing to the opposition due to not understanding the movements of his colleagues. Had he the aforementioned trio supplying him, Higuain would just need to focus on the one thing the club bought him for; scoring goals.
The abundance of attacking players the club now have that they lacked even a couple of years ago is evidence that Allegri needs to permanently move away from a 3-5-2. While merely switching systems won’t solve the problems Juventus currently face – the midfield issue needs to be addressed in the next two transfer windows - it will make better use of the players in the squad, and if played in positions that work to their strengths, the Bianconeri should in theory produce better performances.
The 3-5-2 has served its purpose, but the time has come for Allegri to let it go.
Words by Emmet Gates @E_I_M_G
Emmet is a freelance football writer based in Italy. He has written for FourFourTwo, These Football Times and InBedWithMaradona.