Thursday October 17 2013
The formations of Italy

What system should Italy boss Cesare Prandelli use at World Cup 2014? David Swan looks at the options.

The 2-2 draw with Armenia brought to an end another successful round of tournament qualification for Italy - securing their place in Brazil two games early and going unbeaten through a second campaign. It makes Coach Cesare Prandelli the first since Ferruccio Valcareggi to lead Italy through two qualifying sections unbeaten. To put that into context, Enzo Bearzot, Azeglio Vicini, Arrigo Sacchi, Giovanni Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi have all had chances to do so since Valcareggi and failed.

That Prandelli has been present for both Euro 2012 and 2014 World Cup qualifiers offers a chance to analyse where his Italy team is now, heading into Brazil, compared to where it was three years ago heading into Poland and Ukraine.

We knew before Euro 2012 how the team was going to play – Prandelli had used 4-3-1-2 for each game leading up to the event. It was only during his first four in charge, where he attempted to play with width, that he used a different system (4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1). Although he threw a curveball by introducing 3-5-2 for the first two games of the tournament proper, he soon changed back to what was then his stock formation. The team was set, they knew what he wanted, and by crunch time he had settled on a combination of players in midfield and attack.

Fast forward a few years and it is all change. He has used five different systems since the 4-0 Final defeat to Spain, a multitude of player combinations, and seems no closer to deciding how he wants his XI players to line up.

It is reminiscent of Lippi’s 2010 World Cup preparations, which also contained a number of system changes. He justified it using the ‘tactical flexibility’ line, but as useful as it was to be able to switch, all it produced was a confused team, albeit one not helped by the lack of talent available at the time.

The reality is that most tournament-winning teams do not win it by being able to change through a plethora of different systems – the majority use two at most, with one of those the alternative for when plan A isn’t working – similar to Lippi’s World Cup winning team in 2006.

The bottom line is that if Italy are to enjoy a successful tournament next year, Prandelli needs to pick a system now and stick with it. The last two qualifying games saw him start the match with two different formations – indicative of the luxury he had to experiment, but also the indecision that has been evident for the last 18 months. He probably has more talent to pick from than he did three years ago, particularly in forward areas, but it seems the options he has are leading to the difficulty in nailing down a choice. Here is a rundown of the five systems he has used since the Euro 2012 finale, and the pros and cons of each.


Pros: It offers the width that most teams desire at the top level, and allows Mario Balotelli – one of the most important players in the team – to be the focal point of the attack. Playing with two wide players also offers the chance to fit Lorenzo Insigne – who so far is playing in such a way that it is difficult to justify leaving him out in the team – in his best position. The Napoli youngster was one of the best players against Armenia and is forcing the 4-3-3 issue with his performances.

Cons: The left side is fine – Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy are not a bad duo to have competing for one spot. The problem is finding someone who can have an impact on the right side. The first thing to make clear is that Prandelli does not want to play with three forwards, so this spot has to go to a midfielder. Prandelli obviously likes Antonio Candreva, but it is debatable whether he has the quality to make a dent against the sort of teams Italy will need to beat to win the World Cup. Alessandro Florenzi has been brilliant for Roma at the start of this season, and his efforts in Naples on Tuesday did his chances no harm at all. Matches in which he has tried 4-3-3 have also seen Italy experience a lot of difficulty controlling the game – the midfield has often been overrun, and it has left Prandelli switching in the second half more often than not in an effort to regain control, even if he then returns to it for the next game.


Pros: It works incredibly well against Spain – still the team everyone is measuring themselves against in the international arena, regardless of the Confederations Cup. In the two games where they have played an Italy team lined up this way, they have been arguably second best. It allows the Azzurri to compete with the Spanish in the middle, but offers the width you need to hurt them when their wide midfielders inevitably wander inside to try and create superiority. That a large number of teams in Serie A are playing 3-5-2, including the reigning champions, is also a strong bargaining factor.

Cons: As great as it is against Spain, 3-5-2 doesn’t seem to work against anyone else. Croatia were comfortably the better team at Euro 2012 when Prandelli carried the 3-5-2 into the second group game (so much so that he reverted back for the rest of the tournament), Bulgaria took it apart in Sofia last year on their way to a 2-2 draw in qualifying, and it was so bad against Czech Republic last month that Prandelli switched to a back four after just 20 minutes.


Pros: The players are more than familiar with this, having played it for the best part of two years under the ex-Fiorentina boss. Italy have controlled games the best in this formation – the four central midfielders generally allowing for the lion’s share of ball possession, while also protecting Andrea Pirlo without the ball. Similar to the 4-3-3 and Insigne, the 4-3-1-2 allows another star performer in Serie A so far – Giuseppe Rossi – to play in his favoured position.

Cons: The lack of width is a problem – Spain exposed that in front of millions in Kiev just over 15 months ago, and that game seemed to trigger the experimentation with various shapes. There is also doubt over the trequartistaRiccardo Montolivo has little competition for the role in this system, even though he is not a classic exponent of the position.


Pros: A small variation on the above that sees Prandelli remove a striker and add a midfielder that, in theory, allows greater control of games with the extra man in the middle. It plays to Italy’s strengths in the middle – there is going to be fierce competition for midfield places in the squad next year, and if he picks the right combination this system could prove useful.

Cons: Unfortunately, Prandelli doesn’t usually pick the right combination. Candreva and Emanuele Giaccherini behind a striker are unlikely to concern top opposition. The options are there for the CT – if you assume a standard midfield three of Daniele De Rossi, Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, that still leaves him with Montolivo, Marco Verratti, Alberto Aquilani and Alessandro Florenzi to pick from and move around in the five midfield spaces. But such is the determination to pick other players that it weakens the potential value of the formation. This also suffers with the width issue detailed above for the 4-3-1-2.


Pros: It’s in fashion, to say the least. Width, close support for Balotelli and probably the most opportunity for different player combinations perhaps make it surprising we have not seen this more often under Prandelli. He switched to this during the second half against Armenia, though this is probably because he wanted to chase the win, rather than a desire to test a team with Giuseppe Rossi, Insigne and Balotelli all on the pitch.

Cons: Prandelli has used it twice from the start of matches – most recently was against Brazil in the Confederations Cup group stage, the other was his very first game in charge, all the way back in 2010, against Ivory Coast. Both were defeats, and the Brazil game in particular saw a ludicrous double pivot of Montolivo and Aquilani get overrun – a problem that was repeated on Tuesday night (and against lesser opposition) when the team’s double pivot consisted of Montolivo and Pirlo. That Italy, or indeed many Serie A teams, has not used this too often means we probably won’t see it in Brazil next year.

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Have your say...
IMO, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 should be the primary options with 3-5-2 as a tactical variation.


De Rossi-Pirlo-Florenzi

---De Rossi-Monto

Prandelli has different kinds of wide players to change the att/def balance with the same formation.

With the lethargic players in central midfield, the 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-1-2 may suffer against teams that play with wingers
on the 18th October, 2013 at 5:12am
I agree with others including Dink, who believe Pirlo may be a problem. Great player no doubt, but when pressed he does cough up the ball easily. Also other players tend to sit back waiting for Pirlo to marshall all our attacks. The other mids have to sacrifice way too much to protect Pirlo. Also if we wanted to play a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1 with a true #10 (like Totti) it creates too much weakness down the middle.
I like DDR & Motta in the middle. Both can distribute and defend. Forza Azzurri!!
on the 18th October, 2013 at 2:48am
3-5-2 Period.
on the 18th October, 2013 at 2:10am
What about a 3-3-2-2? My favorite combination will be
Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini
Di Rossi, Pirlo, Motta
Diamante, Insigne
Balo, Osvaldo

Also has the advantage of reserves that can be slotted in. Veratti can sub Di Rossi/Motta, Florenzi and Cerci can replace Diamanté/Insigne and Rossi can come in for either Balo or Osvaldo.
on the 18th October, 2013 at 2:01am
V need creativity upfront. Cassano n totti can bring it, both good at goal poaching,full of tricks n guile. Ther form n fitness shud b monitored. brazil is very humid n energy sapping. So v need mix of fitness,pace,experience,wisdom

23 from:

Buffon,sirigu,desanctis,chiellini,abate,bonucci,barzagli,ranochia,balzareti,derossi,pirlo,monto,marchisio,diamanti,motta,poli, Giaccherini,candreva,verratti,florenzi,Insigne,G rossi,SES, aquilani,Totti,dinatale,giovinco,cassano,osvaldo,quagliarella,Balo
on the 17th October, 2013 at 10:41pm
Ridiculous!!! Its a lottery and he still experiments! Look at all these formations! Prandelli has been on the bench for a good few years now and he still doesnt have a clue what system to use. If after all this time he still has no idea what to do I think its time to ask some serious questions
on the 17th October, 2013 at 10:18pm
3-4-2-1. This provides enough defensive cover but positive width and creativity in attack. For a more defensive approach we should go 3-5-2 and lose a forward for a deeper midfielder and my pick would be one of Verratti, Florenzi, Montolivo, Marchisio or Thiago Motta. These are players who could even be considered in the roles behind Balotelli in the 3-4-2-1.



De Rossi
Balzaretti/De Sciglio


on the 17th October, 2013 at 10:15pm
Italy has to play aggressively. Giaccherini can do a bit of inzaghi like the goal he poached against brazil in confed, He is not inzaghi class but has guile to create dummies to confuse opposition while 4 out of motta, verratti, G rossi, florenzi, insigne move wide n fwd with direct moves on goal to supplement balo. Pirlo shud play more floating role feeding balls to these attack minded players while de rossi holds the midfied supplementing defense. Marchisio n montolivo can be 1st off d bench
on the 17th October, 2013 at 9:45pm
3-4-2-1 is the way to go against Spain. They can't handle us when we play with that. I wouldn't rely on it though in all games, because I feel a 4-3-3 works best when playing weaker sides.
3-4-2-1 should include; Buffon ; Bonucci ; De Rossi ; Chiellini ; Abate ; Pirlo ; Montolivo ; De Sciglio ; Florenzi ; Insigne ; Balotelli
With these as backup; Sirigu ; Barzagli ; De Rossi (No Real Replacement) ; Ogbonna ; Maggio ; Verratti ; Marchisio ; Pasqual ; Totti ; El Shaarawy ; Rossi
on the 17th October, 2013 at 8:23pm
Great, we've made life a lot harder for ourselves by dropping four places in the rankings, typical Italy. As far as the first XI goes, take note Cesare;

Abate-Chiellini-Bonucci-De Sciglio
De Rossi-Verratti-Marchisio

Cassano over Rossi, and as much as I love Francesco Totti he just is too old to be playing every three days in the heat of Brazil, same for Pirlo and Verratti needs a chance.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 5:57pm

100% right.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 4:07pm
I think the 3-4-2-1 would be most effective.

Barzagli De Rossi Chiellini
Maggio Montolivo Pirlo Marchisio
Candreva Giaccherini

Florenzi, insigne, Rossi
on the 17th October, 2013 at 4:05pm
I may be mistaken, but didn't prandelli also use the 3-4-2-1 at times? Lined up like this it'd be my preferred formation by a long shot

Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini
Candreva, De Rossi, Pirlo, Giaccherini
Florenzi, Insigne

w/ Rossi and Marchisio first off the bench
on the 17th October, 2013 at 2:53pm
Quite frankly 3-5-2 is NOT the answer. This team needs to score and attack with skill. A 3-5-2 offers very little in the way of offense and is partial to workhourse players. Italy have skill and need to use it. Balotelli as the striker supported by Insigne and Florenzi will be the attack of choice come Brazil. Florenzi plays on the RW for Roma and has been amazimg. He could easily play as a Treq as well. Skill, vision, and work rate. He will be key. He does play with Totti everyday.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 2:40pm
The 3-4-2-1 we used vs Spain at the Confeds cup is the way to go. I think our defence looks better too when De Rossi plays there ...


De Rossi, Barzagli, Chiellini

Abate, Montolivo, Pirlo, Balzaretti

Candreva (just ahead of Rossi and Florenzi), Insigne

on the 17th October, 2013 at 2:28pm
I agree with Dink. Once Pirlo is taken out of the picture, Italy starts to look like a very ordinary team. Plus, Pirlo tends to give the ball away when put under pressure. If we have to stick with the Juve trio at the back then lets keep it a trio. If we have to make it a 4 back line then I am in favour of Abate as right back. I dont know whey there is no mention of Diamanti in the line up as he is one of the most creative players available to Prandelli.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 2:00pm
I really don't care what the formation is just as long as Prandelli chooses the best players at his disposal. A bigger push has to be given to the young players such as Florenze, Insigne, De Scigli, SES......let's face facts we're not good enough to win WC 2014 so let's develop the youth for Euro 2016. Osvaldo and Aquilani should not be on the National team. Quagliarella should be our super sub in 2014. Pick your players first then decide the formation.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 1:49pm
3-5-2 all the way prandelli!
...but, only if certain particular players play, and are in certain particular roles.

* buffon in goal
* de rossi in a play making center defense role with flanking two juventus defenders
* two wide attacking & defending midfielders (maggio one and another)
* tiago motta replaces de rossi in the midfield role next to pirlo
* a MUST that balotelli plays upfront, BUT not alone. a quality supporting forward must play next to him.

those are my personal conditions
on the 17th October, 2013 at 1:17pm
Think I might get shouted at for suggesting this but I think Pirlo is the problem. Against the better teams where they press higher he becomes a bit of a liability. I am not saying don't use him but i think we seriously need to look at a team/formation without him.


Abate Bonnuci Chiellini De Sciglio
Monitilivo/Motta De Rossi Verratti
Rossi Insigne/SES
on the 17th October, 2013 at 12:32pm
the whole issue is that italy can do a lot better than they are doing. Prandelli is 65% a good coach but for all these years he still cannot figure out the best italy formation. this is simply because of his choice of players. Montolivo and especially Aquilani are just not that good. Gilardino and Osvaldo also and even Giovinco. Why not call feryernood goal getter GRAZIANO PELLE? and Di Natale at least?
on the 17th October, 2013 at 12:14pm
I think 3-5-2 is the way to go, but Bonucci has to play the sweeper role and not De Rossi. De Rossi is awesome in midfield. If Prandelli is going to use Juve players at the back then he should pick the formation they're most comfortable with. I could also get behind a 3-4-3 btw...
on the 17th October, 2013 at 11:51am
I will prefer a 3-5-2 system with opposition such as spain and any other team that play more flair with their backs.
barzagli, bonucci , chiellini
maggio, machisio, pirlo, tiago motta,giacharini
balotelli, rossi

the 2nd option could be the teams like germany, croatia england the 4-3-1-2 system will be ok

machisio- pirlo-tiago motta
on the 17th October, 2013 at 11:42am
We do seem to have lots of left sided attackers. We have options on the right and Florenzi is looking quite good on the right. Also there's the Pirlo factor. We need a formation that protects him. Balo is big and strong enough to play up front on his own and Gila or Osvaldo can cover if needs be. I'd like to see a back 4 of De Sciglio, Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini (we lose something in attack). Midfield 3 of De Rossi, Pirlo, Monty and then Insigne and Florenzi either side of Balo
on the 17th October, 2013 at 11:38am
For me the problem with 4 at the back is our right backs are poor. Abate and Maggio cannot defend. We could play De Sciglio at right back and then we're short a left back. Also Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini seem to prefer playing in a back 3 and play that system every week. I quite like the back 3 with De Rossi but I can't think of anyone who could cover for De Rossi so it depends on him being fit. We also do not have a trequartista. Monty is not a trequartista.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 11:33am
Simple then 3-5-2 vs Spain, 4-3-1-2 vs everyone else. The real problem is that we don't score enough goals for chances create. we have never replaced Totti as the no. 10 and we haven't got a fox in the box goal scorer like Pippo Inzaghi. Unless the above is solved Itly will do well but will never win the 2014 world cup. Top 4 finish is the best we can hope for and still a more than decent result but winning the world cup forget it. Spain and Brazil at home are too strong.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 11:30am
Interesting article. Firstly I don't think anyone can criticise Prandelli. What he has done up to now with the players at his disposal has been quite remarkable. He has got us qualified unbeaten to two tournaments, comfortably out of a difficult group in the Euros, to third in Confederations nearly beating Spain in the process and he's got us playing decent football and has been able to manage players like Cassano and Balo. The only concern is the constant changing of formations.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 11:28am
Italy have to play 3-5-2. It is the only way they will not get over-run as none of the centre backs work well in a two. The need the insurance of the three and the width of the wing backs. Also allows for two out and out forwards. Any other system and good bye world cup. Also I strongly disagree re. Croatia Euro 2012. Italy were comfortably better in the first half and tired in the second. De Rossi in a back three. This system also protects Pirlo.
on the 17th October, 2013 at 11:06am

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