By Kelvin YapFollow @@plevyakin
By Kelvin Yap
Football tactics evolve constantly - it's a constant ebb and flow of thrust and counter-thrust to gain the upper hand on the football pitch; from the archaic ‘inverted pyramid' popular in the early 1900s to the modern 4-3-3, each step of its development was forced by the need to better opponents.
A more recent example would be the 4-4-2. It was the ‘default' formation when the Premier League started but it was outdated coming into the 2000s after other clubs started using 4-3-3 to outnumber the midfield.
With many top sides employing a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 (a modification of the latter), it was only a matter of time before the next step in the tactical evolution came about and the past 12 months have showed signs of it.
Udinese played Arsenal in the Champions League playoff last season and were dismissed as a minor threat. However, they shocked the Gunners in the first leg at the Emirates Stadium and were unlucky to lose 1-0 after hitting the bar and wasting two one-on-one chances. Udinese scored first in the second leg and were only outdone by a second-half burst from Arsenal.
Napoli surprised everyone by holding Manchester City 1-1 at the Etihad Stadium before bringing their Champions League adventure to an end with a 2-1 win at Naples. They then sealed Andre Villas-Boas' fate at Chelsea by handing them a comprehensive 3-1 defeat in the knockout stages before unfortunately losing out to the Blues in extra time despite having more chances.
Spain, defending European and World Cup champions, were surprisingly held by Italy 1-1 in their opening game of Euro 2012.
The common theme in the abovementioned matches is obvious - the underdogs used a three-man defence and performed better than expected against the theoretically ‘superior' side, who were using 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Oh, and also, all involved Italian sides.
It's not surprising then that the Italian Mancini eventually decided that Manchester City need to take the next step and evolve tactically.
How does a three-man defence work?
Having only three defenders at the back is a notion that most orthodox managers would shudder at, but if played right, it is a useful tactical weapon which helps a team punch way above its weight.
Any coach (perhaps except the counter-attack-minded Tony Pulis and Roberto Di Matteo) will tell you that a football match is won in the middle of the pitch. Control the middle and you control the pace of the game. Control the pace of the game and you dictate how your opponents play.
Former AC Milan manager Alberto Zaccheroni once said: "In the medium and long term, games are always lost in central midfield and this tactical solution allows you to have a very dense one at that.
"The return of this kind of defence is borne out of the desire not to lose the battle in the middle of the pitch. The use of a three-man defence is not to add an extra striker to the team but an extra midfielder."
That is why 4-4-2 is a formation of the past - it offered too little in the middle and forced a side to defend with two banks of four, surrendering control of the game. It was evident in Euro 2012, where the sides using 4-4-2 (Sweden, Ireland and England) were out of their depth when facing tactically superior opponents.
The most frequent question that the 3-5-2 brings is: "I get how 3-5-2 throws more people forward, but how do you defend with three center backs?"
The answer is in their back three and the wing-backs, (the outside players in the ‘5').
The three center backs must be all-round defenders; meaning that they must be comfortable with tackling on the ground, strong enough in the air and mobile enough to cover half the width of the pitch within seconds (ironically, Stoke's trio of Marc Wilson, Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth would make an excellent back three).
When opponents break down the flank, the center back on that side has to play a dual role and act as an auxiliary full back to force the player wide, allowing his other team mates time to cover the middle of the pitch and vice versa if the opponent plays down the opposite flank.
Of course, this requires lots of positioning practice drills and an excellent understanding between the trio, which is the biggest barrier that deters managers from adapting a three-man defence.
The two wing backs have to be fast and have enough stamina to patrol the flank alone. More importantly, they have to be intelligent enough to pick their chances to make a run forward or choose to hold back and helped out in defence.
Why is it effective now?
The 3-5-2's biggest strength lies in the fact that they essentially have seven players in the opponent's half when attacking, allowing them to force the opponent into their own halves.
Most importantly, it is doubly effective against 4-3-3.
In a 4-3-3, the primary purpose of the wide forwards is to stretch the play vertically by playing high and wide up the field. This forces opponent defenders to play deep and prevent them from exploiting the space behind with their speed.
As a result, midfielders get more space the extra space between the defence and midfield to work on.
On the contrary, these wide forwards have almost zero defensive value up against 3-5-2 since the full backs they usually mark are now wing backs, which means that they are positioned higher up the field.
To help out defensively, the wide forwards have two options.
First, they can move deeper and follow the wing backs, which will in turn surrender their threat of running behind the defence line and allow the opponents to build from deep.
Or they can choose to move infield to mark the center backs and stop opponents from building the play from deep. The drawback is that the opponent wing backs are free to run at full backs one on one , which essentially means that there are seven attackers up against seven defenders in the defending half.
"But you said that the advantage of 3-5-2 is in the extra midfielder. If they play against 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, it will be a three-on-three in midfield, isn't it?" you may ask.
Therein lies the beauty of football tactics.
The 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 was developed to wrest control in midfield against 4-4-2 by outnumbering the midfielders or if failing to achieve that (i.e. up against a similar formation which employs only one main striker), follow Total Football inventor Rinus Michel's principle oft-repeated mantra of having one more defender than striker(s).
Up against a 3-5-2, the midfield does match up numerically in a three-on-three, but it is further up the field that the game-changing factor takes place.
With two strikers up against two defenders, one of them can afford to peel away from the line of defence and try to disrupt the opponent's defensive line.
This will force the defender to either 1) follow him into midfield, which will open up a hole in the line or 2) hold his position, which will leave the striker free rein to create since there will be nobody free to mark him.
Paradoxically, this was one of the major reasons for the evolution from 4-4-2 to single-striker formations.
This works especially well for Manchester City, as Mancini prefers the Argentinean duo of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero up front.
The former is excellent at peeling away to play as a second striker or sweeping to the flank and act as a winger; he has a fierce shot from far and has the ability to pick out a pass as well. The latter is a nightmare for defenders to deal with; give Aguero a yard in the box and he will more often than not have the ball at the back of the net.
Of course, if 3-5-2 were the ideal formation, every team would be employing it but it has its own weaknesses.
The team needs to be extremely well-drilled and can never afford to lose the ball in shallow midfield as it does not have enough people to deal with a counter attack.
Also, everyone needs to meet the required standards.
Against Chelsea, Stefan Savic was woefully slow to react on several occasions and had to rely on his team mates to rescue him or resort to commit a foul to stop play from developing. Costel Pantilimon's error also cost City a goal - he had less players at the back to help him and couldn't afford to make such rudimentary errors.
It's also a very tiring formation to play. The wing backs need to cover more ground, the center backs need to change positions more, the midfielders need to move more to generate space in a crowded midfield. So don't expect City to use it in every match - just the one that fits the occasion tactically.
Most importantly, Mancini will need more time to drill and familiarise his side with the new style of play, especially when center backs are plucked from their comfort zones. Even a top defender like Giorgio Chiellini needed quite a while to get used to it, so don't expect City players to take to the formation immediately.
What it means in Premier League football
There are ways to counter 3-5-2 tactically (that's another story for another time) - tactics come a full circle after all, but the point is that City are taking the initiative to gain an upper hand in the race for tactical superiority.
Wigan have shown at the end of last season that it can be used to devastating effect especially when it came to holding their own against the big boys.
It's not a guaranteed success, but if City manage to adapt to it effectively, they may trigger a wave of teams adapting the three-man defence, much like the Serie A where 17 teams started with a three-man back-line 215 times last season after Genoa, Udinese and Napoli used it to great effect the season before.
In effect, Mancini may just be a step ahead in the tactical evolution in football.
For more tactical insights and updates, you can follow Kelvin's Twitter account @plevyakin