Football tactics and formations have a habit of falling in and out of style. Apart from few exceptions, you won’t hear modern managers using the Flying Hungarians’ 2-3-3-2 tactic. Also, the once inescapable 4-4-2 rarely pops up in top leagues. Yet, Antonio Conte has built a tremendous career on the back of a versatile 3-5-2. He’s won the Premier League and Serie A on the basis of it. Furthermore, we all saw it coming. Then, why was no Italian team able to stop it?
Antonio Conte, the Serial Winner
It’s a good thing that Antonio Conte is not as vain as some of his critics make him out to be. If that were true, surely he would be angered by his lack of appearances in football pop culture. Jurgen Klopp gets to do commercials. Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa’s displays of managerial masterclass are often dissected in the media. Even Josè Mourinho, a man who has been fired from his past three jobs, has been the subject of more headlines than the most famous footballers.
Nobody doubts Antonio Conte’s qualities. How could you? Yet, few are busying themselves with singing his praises either. Can you refuse to register a manager that has taken on some of the biggest jobs in football and never failed, as a candidate for being the top tactician of his generation?
One of the things worth considering is the consistency of his vision. The likes of Carlo Ancelotti or Claudio Ranieri have shown a willingness to change with the times. They’ve adapted the tactics with which they’ve found success. Not Conte. He has stuck to his guns. And, while we always hear that any tactic can be foiled by the right preparation, Inter’s 2021 Scudetto success seems to prove otherwise. What makes this system so efficient?
What Is the History of the 3-5-2 Formation and When Did Conte Start Using It?
The first team to famously employ a 3-5-2 formation was 1980s Argentina. Their manager was former Estudiantes coach Carlos Bilardo. Their biggest star was Diego Maradona. The tactic allowed full-backs roles previously held by midfielders. It freed up a creative number 10 player, and it relied on the three central defenders’ discipline and positioning. Later, from Italian catenaccio to Germany’s rigorous approach, the tactic found disciples.
The greatest strength of the 3-5-2 is its versatility. It allows teams to easily switch to a 5-3-2, or a 4-3-3 when needed. Also, the team utilizing this tactic can, most often, outnumber across the football pitch.
Most frequently, the style prioritizes the engagement of wing-backs in attacking plays. This frees up midfielders. One of them tends to drop down as an extra pivot. Central defenders will, very often, be given more creative freedom. They will either act as ballplayers in central areas or play out wider as a way to counteract the wing-back’s runs into attacking areas.
Antonio Conte began using variations of the 3-5-2 as soon he started managing Juventus. He had experimented with different formations in his previous jobs. However, he had not benefited from a defensive partnership that included Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli. He was succesful, winning three Scudettos.
He later headed the Italian national team, and by the time he joined Chelsea, he’d gone back to experimentation. Results were poor initially, so Conte switched back to what he knew. Using the 3-5-2 he won the Premier League in spite of robust competition.
Why Can’t Teams Adapt and Overcome Conte’s 3-5-2 Tactics?
The above question can be best answered with an example. In January of this year, Inter defeated the previous champions Juventus by 2-0. The Nerazzurri’s continuous pressing and explosive counterattacks allowed them to create chances. Most of these attacks were carried out on the right flank. Achraf Hakimi, the wing-back, would advance up the pitch while Milan Skriniar and Nicolò Barella provided cover in wider areas.
Conte also likes to use two dynamic, strong attackers. With Inter, he has relied on Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez who form a great partnership. They helped pull opposition defenders out of their usual position. At Chelsea, Conte used Diego Costa and Pedro with Eden Hazard often joining as a third attacker. His first Juventus side had Alessandro Matri and Mirko Vucinic. These are players capable of slotting in the ball and of creating pressure on opponent defenders.
Why can’t teams adapt to Conte’s 3-5-2? Simply put, it offers few vulnerabilities. This is not merely because of the formula. It is a combination of factors that the manager is usually able to control.
Why Conte’s Stubbornness Is a Gift, While Other Managers Fail by Refusing to Adapt
Results should speak for themselves, even if the story is not a particularly dramatic one. Antonio Conte has won the championship with three different teams (Juventus, Chelsea, and Inter). More importantly, he has done so across the span of ten years, enough time for football to change significantly.
Conte won his first Scudetto in 2011 when the world of football was a much different place. Josè Mourinho was managing Real Madrid and his stock remained high. Sir Alex Ferguson was still managing Manchester United. Roberto Mancini was considered the most forward-thinking manager in the Premier League. Little of this seems to make much sense now.
There’s also the prevailing opinion that Antonio Conte has somehow found a golden formula and that the quality of his squad is not important. It is true that Conte has shown he can defeat better opposition.
Except, this a testament to his all-around abilities as a manager. The Italian is able to mold players, especially experienced ones, into jigsaw pieces that fit his system. This speaks of his man-management skills, vision, and winning mentality.
Others have tried to do the same. Josè Mourinho, the new manager for Roma, has lost some of his winning aura in recent years. Like Conte, he has refused to back down from the tactics that made him a champion. Changing trends and unwilling squad members have proven too much for him to maintain his record.
What the Future Holds for Antonio Conte
Will the system eventually fail Antonio Conte? It is possible. Tactics change because football changes. Lately, footballers have become faster and stronger. This has meant that their pressing capabilities have increased. Goalkeepers and defenders of top clubs are better on the ball than ever. And, the days of the striker floating on the edge of the offside line have all but disappeared.
Antonio Conte has achieved a tremendous amount during his career. He has experimented a lot before finding a formula that worked for him. Since then he has rarely changed it. He hasn’t needed to do so. His success is a testament to consistency.