After Antonio Conte departed the Azzurri for Chelsea in the summer, former Torino boss Giampiero Ventura became Conte’s successor as Italy coach. The 68-year-old coached Torino for the past five seasons, securing promotion from Serie B in his first year and leading the Granata to two top-10 finishes in Serie A before last season's 12th-place finish.
Beginning his coaching career back in 1981, he went on to have Serie A stints with Cagliari, Sampdoria and Udinese. But Ventura only began to build a high profile reputation after taking over at Bari on 26 June 2009, replacing (guess who?) Antonio Conte.
Ventura guided Bari to a positive 10th-place in his first season and, although he agreed to part company with the club on 10 February 2011 following a tough 2010/11 campaign, he received high praise for instigating a proactive style of play. Subsequently, on 6 June 2011 he was announced as the new head coach of Torino. There he immediately gained promotion to Serie A following the same pattern he utilized at Bari (and earlier at Pisa): a 4-2-4 featuring two pure wingers playing high up alongside two forwards.
Ventura’s 4-2-4 system
There was much discussion of this system last season. The 4-2-4 is widely considered a non-existent formation, more of a classic 4-4-2 lined up as a 4-2-4 in attack. This isn't totally true. The way to run this pattern makes the difference between a usual 4-4-2 and a 4-2-4. To know more about it is worth turning attention to Conte's Siena and Bari formations. But it is Ventura that should have the last word on this formation, for he is the godfather of 4-2-4.
Although Ventura isn't the creator of the four-men-up-top-formations, his stints with Pisa and Bari mean he deserves a lot of credit for employing it. This 4-2-4 is a 6-4 pattern with six men defending and moving the ball and four attackers up top. The main question mark about the system is how to face attacking midfielders lined up in 4-3-1-2, 4-3-2-1 and 4-2-3-1 systems. This issue is usually solved through the use of hardworking midfielders. However, with Torino Ventura employed gifted central midfielders such as Manuel Iori or Giuseppe Vives. So the key against attacking midfielders was the tactical attitude of these players to stay deep and close the spaces between the defensive and midfield lines.
The battle of midfield in recent seasons has evolved into a battle for ball possession, so teams with a three-man midfield take the edge in this area. In this situation it is often the deep-lying playmaker who becomes free. Torino avoided troubles against the deep-lying playmaker using both forwards to cover passes to him.
In the offensive phase, playing with two holding midfielders rather than three usually means to play more direct football. This didn’t happen with Ventura's 4-2-4. Torino played a ball possession game to draw ahead of their rivals. This meant a long, continued, game control.
Ventura likes to use the goalkeeper to retain the ball control and, when the rivals came forward, his Torino started the attack. His gameplan is based on having numerical superiority and playing to the unmarked man. To do it, Ventura aims to create two versus one situations all over the pitch. As we said earlier, it isn’t unusual to see a 4-4-2 pattern switch to 4-2-4 in attack. And here we have something from the 4-4-2. But Ventura's 4-2-4 principles are different. It does not involve overlapping fullbacks, or shots by the central midfielders. Instead it involves a team that plays using both width and depth. The goal is to attack with the four-man attacking line.
One of the main offensive issues with 4-4-2 is that there are only two attackers playing upfront. In Ventura’s system there are four. For the forwards, playing the system is intriguing, with the possibility for a lot of offensive movements. They exploit the spaces open between their own holding midfielders and the rivals' defensive line.
The first one is a classic 4-4-2 movement with one striker dropping deep, and the other running a slant route across the defence. Another is the cross between the two centre forwards. Utilized as weapon to beat man-to-man marking during the 1980s, this movement is still effective against modern zonal marking systems, especially with the ball on the flanks.
But the best combinations here are created through fake movements made by the forwards.
With the ball on the flank, forwards assume a staggered position with the first one coming toward the ball to play the withdrawn forward role. In this way, this man can play a 1-2 punch with the flanker or he can play a fake, a veil, leaving the ball sliding to the second strike. So, the second forward, now with the ball, can play a 1-2 with the first attacker or shoot directly. Basing forwards' movements on these plays allowed Ventura to turn average strikers such as Nacho Castillo and Vitali Kutuzov into scoring machines during his stints in Pisa and Bari.
With Torino, a lot of goals and scoring opportunities came from the flanks, where Ventura’s side tried to create one versus one situations in isolation with its wingers. At the end, Torino showed enough to suggest why they won the promotion. And, while the 4-2-4 system is usually considered an attacking formation, the way Ventura ran this pattern also worked defensively; Torino conceded just 14 goals.
The switch to 3-5-2
His 4-2-4 continued to work in Serie A the following season. But towards the end of 2012/13 season Ventura thought long and hard about it. And, since a Derby della Mole clash with Juventus in April 2013, he switched to a 3-5-2.
This decision wasn’t based on following Serie A’s trend to employ a 5-3-2 formation. Rather, the change was made considering the qualities of the squad. Torino had lost goalkeeper Jean-Francois Gillet, the man who started team’s ball retention in the previous 4-2-4 shape, while central defender Angelo Ogbonna and iconic forward Rolando Bianchi were sold or let to go.
Ventura, having given new life to the 4-2-4 scheme in previous seasons, received some criticism for this tactical switch. But he was more pragmatic than initially expected.
Some tactical changes were made but the overall philosophy remained almost the same. Ventura solidified the defence, anchoring it around Polish leader Kamil Glik, but his side remained linked to counter-attacking tactics, playing with pace and few touches, absorbing pressure and trying to play forward as soon as possible, to get the best out from the speed of his two quick forwards.
The wing-backs, Matteo Darmian and Danilo D'Ambrosio, sat higher up the pitch. D'Ambrosio benefited from the chance to play higher, contributing more towards the attacking and posting impressive performances that made him worth of a look by bigger clubs such as Roma.
Owner Urbano Cairo and Ventura added Swedish midfielder Alexander Farnerud and former Brescia starlet Omar El Kaddouri to Giuseppe Vives in the middle of the pitch, building a narrowed midfield trio to protect the three-man back line. But the move that ensured Ventura’s 3-5-2 linked to his old 4-2-4 principles came up front, where he paired Ciro Immobile to Alessio Cerci. They showed a great understanding with Cerci delivering the assists and Immobile able to convert, or vice versa.
Ventura deployed Cerci as a second forward in his 3-5-2 formation, having previously fielded him as a wide right in the 4-2-4 to exploit Cerci’s left foot as an inverted winger. Although playing higher than he did in the 4-2-4, Cerci was still employed starting from a wide right role and his movement inside was ever impressive in pulling defenders out of position. In fact, Ventura settled his team more in a 3-5-1-1 than in a classic 3-5-2 shape.
This also helped Immobile to flourish. After scoring 28 goals to help Pescara to promotion under Zdenek Zeman two seasons ago, Immobile went to Genoa highly touted. But he had endured a hard season there, and looked uncomfortable playing as centre forward paired with another striker. Ventura recognized this and built the Immobile/Cerci partnership fielding the former Pescara striker as a lone forward and putting Cerci wide right. It worked well and Torino finished the 2013-14 term in seventh place.
The future of Italy
Taking all of this into account, Ventura’s recent statements about highly regarded talents Stephan El Shaarawy and Domenico Berardi were strange. “El Shaarawy has very few chances of being employed,” the new Azzurri boss told the media. “There isn’t room for him [in] that position. The same goes for Berardi. Wing forwards will struggle to find room.”
The successful Euro 2016 campaign showed the 3-5-2 can work and Ventura, as no stranger to this particular scheme, is set to continue utilising the same formation. But the success Ventura struck with Cerci playing as a wide forward at Torino makes his decision to ignore El Shaarawy and Berardi home all the more difficult to comprehend.
Add to this the fact Ventura was appointed with the expectation to get the best from young and as yet untapped talent such as El Shaarawy, Berardi, Lorenzo Insigne, Giacomo Bonaventura, and Franco Vazquez. With the next World Cup just two years away, the coach has the right to employ veterans, but he would be wise to take a look to the new blood.
This should happen after the poor displays Italy put in against Spain and Macedonia in recent qualifying games. The performance against the latter in particular raised eyebrows as Ventura fielded a 3-5-2 featuring no natural defensive midfielder, instead flanking Marco Verratti with Federico Bernardeschi and Bonaventura. With a midfield unable to defend, the backline was left exposed, and it was only after Italy went 2-1 down and Ventura switched to a more offensive 4-2-4 that the situation improved and a comeback was mounted.
History sometimes repeats itself and Ventura enjoyed a win on that night by returning to his basic system. Whether he will employ it successfully again in the future remains unknown.
Words by Michele Tossani: @MicheleTossani
Michele Tossani is a tactical analyst for Spielverlagerung, Rivista Undici, Futbol Tactico and many others.