Italian footballers are adept at flexibility when it comes to tactics, as Inter and Juventus illustrate, writes Ian Hawkey.
Strategic advances are the norm in Serie A
Italian football has been in better overall health than it is now, but in one area its confidence remains unshakeable. When it comes to tactical sophistication, Italy boasts high grades.
Italian coaches, from Carlo Ancelotti to Walter Zenga are appointed to many of the more lucrative positions across the world because they bring a reputation for strategic genius. They mostly deliver. Italian managers currently have teams at top of the league tables in England, France and Italy.
Roberto Mancini, manager of Manchester City, won the 2011/12 Premier League. He recently answered a complaint by one of his English players, Micah Richards, with an observation that amused fellow Italians.
Richards had grumbled about a mid-game shift between a back-three formation and a four-man defence. Mancini snapped back that modern footballers ought to be flexible and intelligent enough to adapt quickly to different tactics. In Italy, he implied, they are brought up that way.
In Italy, Mancini might have added, the leading teams adapt from a back three to a back four quite comfortably. Juventus won the last Serie A title varying between a 3-5-2 formation, currently their preference and, when Antonio Conte, their coach, deemed it more appropriate, a more orthodox back four.
Meanwhile,Inter Milan, Juve's opponents in the so-called Derby d'Italia this evening, have used a 3-5-2 often in their impressive climb to second place in the table, four points behind the title-holders. Their 36-year-old coach, Andrea Stramaccioni, like Juve's Conte, enjoys a midfield that exploits the full breadth of the pitch, a strategy that lets his creators breathe. He also appreciates versatility, the quality Mancini referred to when he told Richards "good players should be able to play in any system".
Examples? The two men who will be at the heart of the Derby D'Italia's midfield collision, both in their 30s, both with experience of dozens of highly charged encounters like tonight's, both with a scholarly gift for reading a game and with a shared history of redefining themselves as footballers.
One, Juve's Andrea Pirlo, 33, is being touted as a candidate for the 2012 Ballon D'Or. The other, Esteban Cambiasso, Inter's 32-year-old Argentinian, has been as a vital as anybody in blue-and-black stripes in Inter's eight-match winning run.
Over the past decade, Pirlo has caused countless sleepless nights to Inter's boardroom executives. Eleven years ago, Inter let him join AC Milan, having deemed him too short of pace and physical fortitude for his then-preferred role just behind the striker.
What AC Milan suspected was that Pirlo's passing and tactical intelligence would be better deployed at the base of midfield. The transformation of the player, hinted at while he was shipped out on loan as a 20-year-old at Brescia, would be one of the triumphs of the astute Ancelotti, Milan's coach for most of Pirlo's time there.
The rest is history. Pirlo's quarterback-style influence would help Milan to Champions League wins, Serie A titles and Italy to a World Cup victory.
Last year, though, Milan thought his powers had waned. Juve, whom Pirlo ushered towards the 2012 scudetto, are still congratulating themselves on the deal that brought him to Turin for no fee.
Cambiasso has known rejection too. Signed at age 21 from River Plate by Real Madrid, he arrived in Spain as an attacking, No 10 sort of footballer. Madrid had plenty of those already, notably Zinedine Zidane, so Cambiasso found himself shoehorned into a deeper role, a scuffler as much as a sorcerer. Like Pirlo, he had the gifts and savvy to redevelop his football accordingly. But Real Madrid, seduced by glamour more than gumption, failed to take note and let the understated Cambiasso go.
With Inter, he has won multiple Serie A titles, Cups and a Champions League.
Yet, last March, when he was caustically jeered from the field, substituted by former coach Claudio Ranieri, during a dire Inter performance against Catania, it looked as if Cambiasso's era of influence might be over.
Stramaccioni knew otherwise. He sees Cambiasso as a general, an all-rounder who can even be asked to play as a central defender, if needed. He knows he is best deployed, though, governing strategy from deep midfield, where he has been in vintage form.
"I think I have shown the criticisms earlier this year of me were not justified," Cambiasso said. He thinks right.