The back three isn’t an unusual phenomenon in Italian football, but this weekend it will be on display in a direct clash between two of the finest tacticians in Serie A. When Antonio Conte travels to Rome for his second meeting with Simone Inzaghi this term, the two sides are likely to start with the same cards in hand and whoever finds the first Joker might take a big leap towards the Scudetto.
Lazio host Inter in a crucial fixture early on in the second half of the campaign and even if Inzaghi has brought a lot of joy to the fans, he has lost his three last matches against the Nerazzurri, including the reverse fixture against Conte at the Giuseppe Meazza in autumn last year.
The Biancocelesti coach has deservedly been getting a lot of attention for his philosophy in the Italian capital, as his style contradicts the immediate impression a copy of his 3-5-2 formation will look like on paper.
The dynamism of their attack has astonished and lifted them into the Scudetto fight this term, but it is based on a strong defence, who never seems to be put off by any opponent. The 43-year-old’s squad might not be filled with the same depth as his two main rivals this term, but his starting XI has proven to be one of the most entertaining across Europe, in my opinion.
And as Lazio are starting to pick up the odd trophy, with the most recent one coming against Juventus in the Supercoppa Italiana, the coach will understandably get on the radar of the even bigger clubs in Europe.
“We have known each other for four years,” is something you can hear both players and coaches say at the Olimpico and they are referring to the hard work put down to perfect the movements within a system that won’t be unfamiliar to most, but when it is used right, it is incredibly efficient. Just ask his colleague and opponent on Sunday, Conte.
The former Juventus coach perfected his back three when he took charge of the club he left as a player in 2004. With Leonardo Bonucci in the middle, accompanied by Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli on either side of the back three, you could say he was spoiled for choice. But he would later prove that the way he kicked off Juventus’ Scudetto run in the top tier, would work at international level and in the English game. And in 2020, it might be what ends it for the Bianconeri too.
To steer away from the obvious choice of looking at how Bonucci disseminated the first touches in the build up at Juventus, it’s interesting to see how Francesco Acerbi has taken on the similar task at Lazio under his rival Inzaghi.
Because the former forward had to compromise during his first season in charge after succeeding Stefano Pioli in 2016 and during his first season as coach, he started to implement a change at the back. Slowly and ever so slightly, he adapted his squad throughout the season and since 2017-18, Lazio have never shown signs of starting with a back four again.
Acerbi is relatively new at the Olimpico, as he was brought in from Sassuolo for €10m in 2018, but he was targeted by Inzaghi to replace Stefan de Vrij, who moved to their title rivals Inter. He was the playing defender the team needed to fill the void left by their former director. His abilities fit the Biancoceleste style perfectly and his link with both the midfield and the goalkeeper has helped give Lazio their dynamic also in attack.
His quality on the ball is for starters what pivots him into contention of being one of the finest of his trade in Serie A. But his movements, installed by his coach, have helped the defender become a key member also when Lazio are in possession.
He will move according to the midfield and could push up his wide men by taking a step back and controlling the defence as an old school Italian libero (sweeper), or take a step closer to Luis Alberto and give his colleagues at the back a diamond shaped option, including the goalkeeper – who has also been more and more implemented in the build-up play in the modern era.
And these simple, yet essentials details have helped give the wing-backs more time and space to perform their crucial tasks that such a formation creates in both phases of the game. The key to playing with a back three has again been highlighted by Conte during the transfer market in January, as he has mostly targeted wide men to fill in the missing blanks at the Nerazzurri. But they can only do their job well if the centre-backs are solid enough to carry the team.
When De Vrij met his successor at the Giuseppe Meazza in September, wing-back Danilo D’Ambrosio became the match winner in a tight 1-0 win where both teams were limited by the opponents’ flawless back-threes and it may be another game of Chess dictated by the performances of De Vrij and Acerbi at the Olimpico this Sunday.