Skip to main content

Italian teams remain wedded to tactically narrow formations

Which raises the question of why, if that is so clearly the way to unsettle Milan, every side doesn't do it, and how, if it has such an obvious flaw, Milan manages to remain atop Serie A. And the answer is that most Italian sides are just as narrow as Milan. Perhaps there is a dearth of wide players. Perhaps there is a fear that by fielding players wide, a side would be swamped in the middle. But by far the most common formation in Italian soccer this season has been the 4-3-1-2.

That, in part, explains the success of Napoli. By playing 3-4-2-1, Napoli, when playing a 4-3-1-2, has three against two at the back -- the classic setup of two markers and a free man -- and four against four in the middle. Its wingbacks naturally play higher up the pitch than the opposing fullbacks, which means the key engagements on the flanks tend to happen closer to the opponents' goal than their own. Edinson Cavani can at times be left isolated, but he has been in such sensational form this season that it has hardly mattered.

But the question remains of why there are so few Italian wide men, why keeping things narrow is such a default in Serie A. This is not a new phenomenon; Italian soccer seems always to have distrusted the winger. When soccer began in Britain 140 years ago, the winger was fetishized; he was the artist, the player who was supposed to do something different, standing out on the touchline where the pitch tended not to be, away from the hurly-burly at the center. In the old English game, he was designated as the provider of skill, often physically slighter than his teammates. In the days of three-man back lines -- that is, until 4-2-4 and 4-3-3 began to take over in the early 1960s -- when the fullback would tuck into a central position when the ball was on the other flank, English soccer was dominated by long cross-field passes that sought to "turn" the defense. The idea was to feed the ball to a winger who, having stayed wide, had acceleration room to run at the fullback who was still moving out from the center.

By repute at least, the greatest example of English wing play came in the 1953 FA Cup final, as Stanley Matthews, the finest winger of them all, led Blackpool's comeback to beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3. At just that time, though, wingers were being demystified in Central Europe. As sides began to move toward a fourth defender -- whether a sweeper, as conceived in Switzerland and swiftly exported to Italy through the large numbers of Swiss professionals who played in Serie A in the years immediately following World War II, or a deep-lying midfielder, as in Russia and Hungary -- the old practice of turning the defense became less effective.

Six months after Matthews' finest hour, he was on the pitch at Wembley again, his jinks and feints all but an irrelevance against a Hungary side that had effectively done away with wingers, replacing them with inside forwards who interchanged positions and played anywhere across the front line. Roles became interchangeable, and fluency of the team unit became just as important as the ability of individuals. English superiority was over, and the role of the winger began to be questioned. His genetic legacy, though, lived on, and there remains in English soccer a distrust of creative players who play centrally, and a reverence for wing play.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

Italian soccer, meanwhile, developed along the Swiss model into catenaccio. As Helenio Herrera's Internazionale came to dominate, the wide players took on roles very different both to the English model and to each other. On the right, Jair was a tornante -- a returner, his job both to offer width and to provide defensive support to the right back, who tended to be used as a man-marker. On the left, Inter had Mario Corso, less of a winger than a forward who played to the left, looking to cut in and shoot or create space for the forward surges from left back Giacinto Facchetti. That remained the model for the next 20 years; Italy's World Cup winners (in 1982), for instance, had Bruno Conti tearing up and down the right as the tornante, with width on the left provided by fullback Antonio Cabrini.

Once that is written in a nation's genetic makeup, it takes a long time to shift. Talented children will be ushered toward preexisting roles, and the fans, media and former players who make up the game's critics will applaud a fine example of a role they understand, while being suspicious of that which they don't. The result is the perpetuation of the same model of the game, constantly evolving of course, but born of the same roots. Even somebody like Roberto Donodoni, perhaps Italy's greatest "winger," a key player as Arrigo Sacchi broke the tactical mold of Italian football and did away with the libero, was more of a midfielder who played wide than a winger in the English sense.

The most feted winger in Serie A today is probably Milos Krasic, himself a rare example of a Serbian winger. He had to go to Russia for his abilities really to be recognized, for the game there developed more directly from the British model. In Russia, wingers are still lionized, and he admits his job at Juventus is very different to the one he did at CSKA Moscow.

"What's different is what happens around me," Krasisc told Calcio Italia magazine. "I've got many more things to care about. In Italy, you play an active role whether you're attacking or defending. I'm supposed to create chances to score, for myself and other teammates, but also to help the defensive line."

That tactical rigor used to be Italy's strength. It's hard to avoid the sense now, though, that Italian football has become tactically moribund, wedded to a safety-first system that, lacking dynamism, has become outmoded. Internazionale, of course won the Champions League last year, but it did so playing 4-2-3-1. Since Leonardo took over, though, it too has retreated to 4-3-1-2, and so the template of narrowness is perpetuated once again.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.