On Sunday, April 15th, 2018, one of the greatest attacking sides to ever grace the Premier League had their emphatically dominant title campaign wrapped up as struggling West Bromwich Albion narrowly defeated second placed Manchester United 0-1 at Old Trafford.
This surprising United defeat made it impossible for Manchester City to be caught at the summit of the table, and it cannot be said that they are undeserving.
Since the start of the season, Pep Guardiola’s side have outclassed (almost) every opponent in their path – apart from a Merseyside mishap in the Champions league quarter–final, and with no other side displaying anywhere near the level of consistency City have shown this season, it is hard to see who can pry the title away from their grasp in the coming seasons.
For all of City’s attacking plaudits, however, last season’s champions took a different approach. Under the guidance of Italian coach Antonio Conte, Chelsea, despite an indifferent start to the league season, ran out eventual winners after Conte switched to a more traditional Italian 5-2-3 (3-4-3) formation after defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal.
Following the formation change, Conte deployed Diego Costa up front as a target man, with him being flanked by two quick wingers, Eden Hazard and either one of Pedro or Willian. In the midfield, two men were deployed, both being expected to support in attack when necessary and also shield the defence when the two wing–backs overlapped.
Lastly, three centre–halves provided the perfect balance, allowing the wing–backs to display their full range of attacking ability, without needing to constantly worry about space being exploited in behind. The direct, counter–attacking play showing some similarities with Marcelo Lippi’s approach, whom Conte played under at Juventus.
Despite this success though, this system is rarely used consistently at this level. Aside from the likes of Massimiliano Allegri and a similar modification from Diego ‘El Cholo’ Simeone, few others in recent history have found even moderate success while deploying this tactic.
The first time an overall defensive system was used was back in the 1930’s, when Austrian coach Karl Rappan deployed a defender known a verrouilleur – today known as a libero or sweeper – in his verrou system. It was not made famous, however, until Argentinean born tyrant Helenio Herrera took over at Internazionale of Milan. Here, he deployed a modified 5-3-2, similar to Rappan’s verrou system, however, Herrera dubbed his ‘catenaccio’, literally ‘door–bolt’ in Italian.
Playing like this, Inter defended their goal ruthlessly and aggressively, and were lightning quick on the counter. This led Inter to three Serie A titles and two European cups with Herrera at the helm. Following this success, many Italian sides began to adopt this defensive approach. Whilst they all had the right vision, none had Helenio Herrera to guide them, and all, inevitably, failed.
After Herrera left, Italian football became a slow, methodical game. Whilst Herrera himself in an interview admitted that teams got his defensive aspect of the game right, they completely forgot his attacking principles. True, catenaccio is largely a defensive system, but Herrera again stated in the same interview that he was the first coach to have a full back score as many goals as the striker, in Giacinto Facchetti.
Although Juventus did revive Italian competitiveness in Europe in the early 80’s, spearheaded by French maestro Michel Platini, it wasn’t until 1987, when Arrigo Sacchi was appointed as manager of AC Milan, that the dominance began again. Who knew that to become a jockey you needed to be a horse first?
Over the next nine seasons, Milan, under the management of both Sacchi and fellow Italian Fabio Capello, would go on to win five Serie A titles and three champions leagues, cementing not only the legacy of both great coaches, but also of the formation and tactics used.
When Sacchi arrived and began using his 4-4-2 formation, he set his team out to be fast and fluid in attack, but still organized and compact in defence, while doing away with the sweeper in defence. Not much changed either, when Capello arrived in 1991.
The obvious reason as to why Milan could be a bit more adventurous than other Italian teams was their main two centre – halves, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi. The pair played together at the heart of this Milan defence 196 times, and incredibly conceded only 29 goals.
Consistently having world class midfielders in the middle of the park, such as Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard and Roberto Donadoni provided further defensive resiliency – not that it was needed – while also supporting the attack, again, not that the duo of Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten needed it. The Dutch duo scored a combined 128 goals in 172 appearances.
When Capello left to coach Real Madrid in 1996, trophies soon dried up for Milan. Since his departure, Milan have only won three league titles and two European cups in the space of 22 seasons. In general, the entire system has failed since Milan’s glory days.
Apart from Italy’s world cup win in 2006 and the sporadic challenge in the Champions league from Juventus or Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, football has been largely about the attacking play of Spain and Germany on the international stage, and Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich at club level.
Just as it did with defensive play, football will surely venture away from the attacking, high-press game seen today, but whether or not someone can pick up from where the likes of Fabio Capello and Marcelo Lippi left off and build a dynasty built on a foundation of defence remains to be seen.