Serie A Begins to Embrace Roma’s Front Three
This fourth round of Serie A fixtures saw the clearest indication yet that Italian sides are embracing a front three system similar to what Rudi Garcia brought to Roma two seasons ago.
The Serie A Garcia arrived in was in the throes of the resurgent back three. Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli and Antonio Conte’s Juventus were crowding their midfield with the extra man provided by the reduced backline and it was paying dividends. That Garcia took his Roma side and did what in effect was more or less the opposite seemed like it would be a gamble at best.
Garcia’s front three was seen as borderline reckless. Devoting three players exclusively to the attack means that there are fewer players who can contribute to all phases of play: defense, ball retention, and attack.
It might offer more options up top, but it puts undue pressure on the midfield and full-backs when out of possession.
It was a system that relied heavily on two players. Francesco Totti’s ageless versatility and his propensity to drop deep from his nominal striker role meant he was a vital spark in igniting attacks.
New arrival Gervinho was often at the end of Totti’s transitional balls forward, using his speed and wide play to befuddle Italian defenses not used to either.
What made Garcia’s system really work though was a disciplined set of centre-backs, tireless full-backs, and an adroit midfield trio. Together they formed the base of a team that conceded the second-fewest goals in the league in Garcia’s opening season, only bested by the two fewer goals conceded by champions Juventus.
The most common attacking trident of Totti, Gervinho and Alessandro Florenzi contributed – either via assist or scoring – to 53 of Roma’s 72 goals in the 2013-14 season.
Put rather simply, Garcia’s modern incarnation of the 4-3-3 worked by creating a dichotomy: a defense and midfield largely focused on containment while the attack is responsible for both creating and finishing.
This wasn’t the 4-3-3 of old, where the wide players of the top three could be expected to drop deep out of possession to form something closer to a 4-5-1. That still happened, of course, but more often than not the front three were asked to concentrate on getting on the end of quick, long passes forward once the ball was recovered.
Garcia’s innovation at Roma was paralleled by a much more successful incarnation of the front three in Spain.
Real Madrid and then Barcelona fielded wildly prolific teams on their respective runs to Champions League trophies, both of which featured the same methodology of Garcia’s Roma. The attackers attacked and the seven outfield players behind them focused on containment and shuttling the ball forward.
Those sides relied heavily on the fact that, taken together, those six players were easily among the top 20 in the entire world.
Many teams in Italy lack the clout and money to finance building a team like that. So when Italy took note of the technique’s success, they followed Roma’s model more closely than the two Spanish giants’. This past weekend that transition began to show fruit: Juventus won 2-0 against Genoa and Napoli dominated Lazio 5-0, both using broadly similar front threes.
Totti’s singular ability isn’t easy to replicate, so this role at both Roma and elsewhere has been converted into a more classic centre-forward, one that in the recent past might have played the ‘1’ in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Gonzalo Higuain already fit this mold at Napoli, but Mario Mandzukic and Edin Dzeko were bought by Juventus and Roma respectively to play in that role.
Each striker is typically flanked by players representing creativity and directness. Think about Lorenzo Insigne’s eye for an incisive pass or Juan Cuadrado’s nigh-unmarkable runs from out wide.
The players might not necessarily be like-for-like across the board. What’s important for the effectiveness of the system is that the attacking three contain multiple dimensions – passing, pace and finishing key among them – that in other tactical systems might be spread amongst attack, midfield and even defence.
The real beauty of the system that Garcia continues to espouse at Roma and other sides have just begun to implement is that it is effective both in possession and out.
Against Barcelona in their Champions League opener, Garcia earned a draw with a team that in shape looked largely the same as the team he would use against minnows in Serie A. They conceded possession and thus the midfield and defence’s duties were emphasized, but the attack’s role largely remained the same: move play forward, create and finish.
The front three’s virtue then is ironically the same as its liability: it is scalable and relatively simple to replicate at almost any level. Roma found themselves in a roughly similar position against Sassuolo on Sunday as they had put Barcelona in days prior.
Garcia’s men could only manage a draw that was itself earned by Sassuolo’s use of a three-man attack similar to the one Roma has fielded for the past two seasons.
That a more economical front three would take root in Italy before, say, the English Premier League makes sense. It exploits both sides of Italy’s defensive tendencies: the rigidness that would allow for containment behind your own side’s attack and the relative lack of experience in opposition defences not used to dealing with such firepower so high up the pitch.