After Napoli’s Champions League victory over Chelsea last week, there was much talk about the reemergence of the back three — and it has made a significant comeback in Serie A this season, with as many as 11 of the 20 sides employing the system on one weekend in January.
But Saturday’s 1-1 draw between AC Milan and Juventus showed the limitations of the system, or at least the limitations of Juventus’s application of it in this particular circumstance.
Antonio Conte, the Juve manager, preferred a back four early in the season — albeit with the right-back, Stephan Lichtsteiner, playing very high up the pitch. Of the first 19 domestic games, he used a back three only twice, against Udinese and Napoli, both teams who themselves use a back three.
He switched to a back three for the Coppa Italia win at home against Roma on January 24 and, since then, has used it in seven out of eight games, including in the 2-1 Coppa Italia victory over Milan at the San Siro.
Logically, a back three should work against Milan. The vogue for three at the back first emerged in the 80s when most sides played with two forwards. Three centre-backs against two forwards means two markers plus a spare man. Not only that, but the narrowness of Milan’s 4-3-1-2 means there is plenty of room for opposing wing-backs to exploit; they can push up even into Milan’s half before they’re likely to encounter Milan’s full-backs who, in theory, provide the width.
Marcelo Estigarribia is far more a winger than a full-back but there should have been no fear about using him as a tornante — a returner.
That’s how Italian back threes have often worked — with an attacking full-back on one side and a defensive winger on the other.
The problem for Juve on Saturday, though, came in the battle between Urby Emanuelson and Andrea Pirlo.
Pirlo has been excellent this season as a regista, a deep-lying playmaker, strolling about in front of the Juve backline, directing the play.
He is not, though, a natural defender and that means that an attack-minded player in his zone can unsettle him. Emanuelson isn’t just a creative player, he is also a ball of energy, constantly fizzing and irritating; he not only troubled Juve in an attacking sense, but also prevented Pirlo settling into his usual rhythm. The statistics showed he completed 15% fewer passes on Saturday than he normally does.
With Pirlo unable to pick up Emanuelson’s runs, the advantage Juve should have had at the back with the spare man disappeared, and with Milan getting the ball forward quickly — as Napoli do — and Robinho constantly dropping deep, there were times when the back three looked ragged.
That in turn negated the advantage the wing-backs should have had, partly because they were forced deep to help and partly because when they were able to take up advanced positions, the ball rarely got to them.
With the two central midfields — Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio for Juve and Sulley Muntari and Antonio Nocerino — effectively canceling the other out, and Mark van Bommel neutering Fabio Quagliarella, it ended up being Milan who had a spare man at the back, which goes some way to explaining their domination of the first half, in which Nocerino scored and Muntari had a header that clearly crossed the line without being given as a goal.
Recognising his error, Conte removed Estigarribia for Simone Pepe at half-time, switching to a 4-3-3. That meant Pepe and Quagliarella, who moved to the left, occupying the Milan full-backs, while leaving it four (plus Pirlo) versus three at the back. The arrival of Alessandro Matri with 20 minutes remaining gave Juve more potency, and he had a goal ruled out for offside even before he found the late equaliser.
In beating Arsenal 4-0 in the Champions League, Milan had looked awesome, a powerful and dynamic force. Here, even without the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there was a sense early on that they might replicate that sort of performance, only for Conte to show how a tactically aware manager can wrest back a game that seems to be running away from him.
Juve may feel they got away with it and the way Milan exploited Pirlo early on must be a concern, perhaps offering a blueprint for other teams for the rest of the season.
Trailing Milan by a point with a game in hand, though, it is they who have the advantage.