“Every now and then I come up with a mad idea and try it on the pitch,” Juventus Coach Massimiliano Allegri explained after a 2-0 win over Lazio. The tactician’s ‘mad idea’ had been to field all his attacking options at once in a bold 4-2-3-1 shape. The Bianconeri have stuck with the approach for the two subsequent games, and have won both of them.
It’s hard to argue with the benefits of the switch. In defeat to Fiorentina, the final game before the change, the Old Lady looked slow and unimaginative. In the subsequent fixtures against Lazio, Milan and Sassuolo, the opposition have barely been able to lay a glove on Allegri’s side.
Gonzalo Higuain's explosion in form predates the adjustment, but the Argentinian international is clearly thriving on the increase of service, with eight goals in his last six Serie A games. Similarly, the switch appears to have solved the dilemma of choosing between Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic. Where previously one would play off Higuain, the current system uses Mandzukic’s phenomenal work-rate and aerial ability to lock down the left flank, while Dybala can use his dribbling skill and creativity in a trequartista role.
Given the antipathy many Juventini now feel toward the 3-5-2 shape, it has been gleefully declared that this move should be a permanent one. However, while the 4-2-3-1 is another string to the Bianconeri’s bow, don’t be surprised to see it ditched for certain games as the season enters what Sir Alex Ferguson famously called ‘Squeaky Bum Time’.
With Juventus looking to go all the way in the Champions League this year, it’s legitimate to ask whether there is enough solidity in this new shape to contend with Europe’s biggest sides. Sami Khedira is tactically intelligent and capable of going box-to-box, but the German isn’t a tackler.
Miralem Pjanic adds vision and creativity, but must live in constant fear that Turin’s winter winds will blow him into the river Po. Would you be confident in fielding them as a pair against, for example, Arturo Vidal and Javi Martinez?
Perhaps the 4-2-3-1 will be retained to face Porto in the Last 16, but Allegri may opt for three central midfielders should the Old Lady advance to face one of Europe’s leading lights, with Claudio Marchisio coming in at the expense of Dybala or Mandzukic. A third option - other than 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1 - could be the 4-3-1-2 which took Juve to the Champions League Final in 2015, with Juan Cuadrado dropping out.
Another concern is rotation. The current system works, in large part, thanks to Mandzukic. The 30-year-old is willing to initiate the press, to track back, help out his full-back and to sacrifice personal glory for the team. On the other side, Juan Cuadrado may not be as diligent, but he’s comfortable in a more defensive wing-back role, and brings that to his more advanced position.
What happens if one of those players is injured, or simply needs a rest? Marko Pjaca is a promising winger, but it would be unfair to expect the same defensive contribution that his compatriot Mandzukic provides.
Familiarity breeds contempt, and there are limitations to the 3-5-2 - just as there are with any formation. But don’t forget, the ‘BBC’ defence became renowned as the best in Europe for a reason, and it was largely the balance provided by playing as a three. Why else did Antonio Conte build his Italy side on that bedrock?
As things stand, Allegri’s mad idea has given his side an extra weapon and a new way of playing. What really would be crazy, though, would be to abandon all else in favour of it.