The fluidity and flexibility of systems in the modern game have rendered traditional configurations such as the 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 almost trivial.
Antonio Gagliardi, a member of Andrea Pirlo’s coaching staff last season, explained: “A role in modern football is no longer a position, but a function”. It’s an idea that was ubiquitous throughout Il Maestro’s coaching dissertation and a notion echoed by many modern-day coaches.
While systematic efficiency and managerial principles remain pivotal to the success of teams, ‘formations’ have become superficial and almost frivolous due to the flexibility of systems nowadays. The positions of players of no longer fixed.
The likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola have pioneered such a change, or at least helped bring about a universality to the evolution. Guardiola is, of course, a Bielsa disciple, while Johan Cruyff, a coach who was a generation ahead of his time, is another who had a major influence on the meticulous Spaniard. Julian Nagelsmann, meanwhile, has taken systematic fluidity to a new dimension following his emergence.
A combination of healthy paranoia and proactivity has facilitated the change to phase-dependent (the phases being offensive, defensive and transition) structures, with coaches always thinking two steps ahead. How can our possession structure aid counter-pressing and mitigate the opposition’s threat in transition? Those are the sorts of questions perpetually pondered over by coaches in the modern game.
So, while your traditional formations remain, often they function as mere springboards to perhaps more complex configurations such as the 3-2-5 or 2-3-5 – common possession structures in 2021.
Roberto Mancini’s Italy at Euro 2020 are a useful case study. The Azzurri were widely renowned for being a 4-3-3 team, which is certainly true, but positional rotations meant that Mancini’s side often attacked in a 3-2-5 structure and defended in a 4-5-1. The 4-3-3 was merely a facilitator.
We saw such fluidity first-hand at Juventus last season. Andrea Pirlo’s default system was a 3-2-1-4 in possession and narrow 4-4-2 out of it.
What am I getting at?
From looking a the title, you may be thinking that I’ve totally contradicted myself thus far. “Surely it doesn’t really matter if Allegri’s using a 4-2-3-1 if systems are so fluid nowadays,” I can hear you cry.
However, if Gazzetta dello Sport (via JuveFC) are correct and the returning Juve boss does in fact deploy a 4-2-3-1 for the upcoming campaign, then it’s pretty significant and a wise decision.
Let me explain.
Allegri’s previous 4-2-3-1
The 4-2-3-1 is a formation the pragmatic Allegri utilised plenty of times during the latter stages of his first reign in Turin.
Within this system, Juve would transition to an asymmetric iteration of the formation in possession with left-back Alex Sandro – who could get forward with greater efficacy back in 2018 – advancing on the outside of inverted winger Mario Mandzukic, who often played a unique wide target man role, while right midfielder Juan Cuadrado held the width on the opposite flank. The result: a 3-2-4-1 structure with the ball.
Out of possession, Juve would exclusively defend in a 4-4-2.
Benefits of the 4-2-3-1
Presuming positional rotations are kept to a minimum, the 4-2-3-1 gives Juve a natural overload in the build-up phase due to the presence of the double pivot. The pivot also acts as the stabilising force in transition, thus aiding their team’s ability to defend the counter.
If a bona fide creator in Paulo Dybala functions as Allegri’s number ten, then less onus will be on one of the pivot members to play ahead of the ball and create an overload in the final third. Adrien Rabiot often did this last season and it left Juve a little short in defensive transition.
Moreover, the formation will typically ensure players occupy spaces between the lines and as Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham proved in the 2015/16 season, the close proximity of the attacking midfield triumvirate behind the striker facilitates effective counter-pressing.
Overall, though, while the aforementioned nuances are cool, the overriding benefits of the 4-2-3-1 are the natural balance and adaptability it supplies.
As I’ve already discussed, the transition to a 3-2-5 possession and 4-4-2 off the ball structures are seamless. The formation hands managers plenty of options and scope for flexibility in the build-up phase, in particular.
How does Juve’s personnel fit?
Juventus are blessed with a squad that seems ideal for Allegri’s proposed 4-2-3-1. The alternate profiles at full-back allow one to advance (Cuadrado) and one to shift across and create a back three (Alex Sandro or Danilo) in the progressive phase. Should Luca Pellegrini earn minutes at left-back, then Danilo would likely be used on the opposite flank to provide security.
In midfield, Juve boasts ball-winner (Weston McKennie and Rodrigo Bentancur), technically secure (Arthur Melo) and progressive (Manuel Locatelli – we hope – and Adrien Rabiot) profiles. Ideally, Allegri will want a balanced midfield pivot that offers progression, industry and savvy. Locatelli and Bentancur could be the optimal pairing should the Uruguayan rediscover his form.
Dybala will likely have the responsibility of being the Bianconeri’s chief creator from a number ten role. His function is imperative to the system functioning efficiently as he’s the link between midfield and attack. Juve will look disjointed should La Joya’s form subside. Allegri then has a superstar outlet in Federico Chiesa and an inverted, between the lines occupier in Dejan Kulusevski. The differing profiles of wingers are crucial.
Then, up top, Allegri has a pair of versatile forwards to choose from in Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata. The former has evolved into a masterful poacher, while the latter is superior at withdrawing from his forward position.
Overall, the balance that Juve exude from a personnel perspective will be accentuated by the use of the 4-2-3-1.