Martin O'Neill has to work out how to break through Italy's back-three puzzle

Ireland take on Antonio Conte's side needing a win against a impenetrable defence

BY Raf Diallo 14:43 Tuesday 21 June 2016, 14:43 21 Jun 2016

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill ©INPHO/Donall Farmer

There's a cliché that goes 'a week is a long time in football'.

So what would two years be then? An eternity if you're following that rule.

This time two years ago, departed Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal was being viewed as a visionary for guiding an uncertain Netherlands side to the brink of a World Cup final.

It's an even more outstanding achievement when you consider that Netherlands are at their lowest ebb and managed to find a way of failing to qualify for an expanded Euro 2016.

Van Gaal did so by noting where the Dutch weakness lay. Their defence as a four-man line was weak and lacked individual talent and authority.

So what did he do? The former Ajax and Barcelona boss configured his team into one that was based off a back-five or back-three depending on your view point and the role of the wing-backs in the system.

Netherlands' head coach Louis van Gaal, right, stands with his players after the World Cup third-place soccer match between Brazil and the Netherlands at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday, July 12, 2014. The Netherlands won the match 3-0. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

It meant the Dutch always had one extra body back and further up the field Arjen Robben was moved away from the wing to a central role where his pace proved to be the key counter-attacking key as a foil for Robin van Persie in a system that attacked directly.

As we all remember, the Dutch lit up the group stages in Brazil, before grinding out wins against Mexico, Costa Rica (on penalties) and then losing to Argentina in a semi-final shootout.

As it happens, Ireland's final Euro 2016 group opponents Italy also employ a back-three, although it's for different reasons and it's not like-for-like given the different individuals employed. Their perceived weakness - even if it has been efficient thus far - is also further forward in midfield and attack

While Van Gaal was trying to cover up a weakness, Italy manager Antonio Conte has wisely stuck to Italy's pre-tournament strength by keeping Juventus' rock-solid centre-back trio in a tournament which has been marked by above-average organisation among most participating nations.

Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci (arguably the best central defender in the world at the moment due to his defensive nous and ball-playing ability) all bring different qualities but not only have the advantage of playing together successfully at club level but all being outstanding defenders in a country which has the best reputation for honing them.

The big question so for Martin O'Neill is how Ireland go about piercing that well-drilled and daunting defence while protecting ourselves from the Italian counter-attack.

Italy team group shot. Top Row (left to right) Giorgio Chiellini, Graziano Pelle, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci and Gianluigi Buffon. Bottom Row (left to right) Marco Parolo, Alessandro Florenzi, Emanuele Giaccherini, Citadin Eder and Antonio Candreva. Picture by: Martin Rickett / EMPICS Sport

One thing that may play to our advantage of course is the fact that Conte may choose to rest some key players in the knowledge that Italy are already assured of topping Group E and are through to the knockout stage.

But beating the system - if Conte does not experiment - as well as whatever individuals are fielded is the other challenge for Ireland.

Netherlands' struggled as a creative force in the World Cup knockout stage by Mexico and Costa Rica's sides that mirrored their own system in some way by also having systems with three centre-backs throughout the tournament.

The Dutch could not score against Costa Rica and needed two goals between the 88th and 94th minute - the last a controversial penalty - to overcome Mexico in searing heat.

Their back-threes meant they always had a man extra to deal with the Van Persie-Robben tandem rather than a back-four which leaves midfielders having to cover runs more often.

As Ray Houghton told Team 33 before Euro 2016 started, he would love to see O'Neill try a back-three because of the personnel we have at our disposal.

"I think they've got wing-backs who love to get forward," he told me at the time.

"If you look at Seamus Coleman, he's probably as good as anyone going forward. I think his defending's very, very good so Seamus can fit into a formation of playing five - three centre-halves and wing-backs - or he could play as a four as a normal right back. That wouldn't be a problem for him.

The relatively deep passing positions of Italy's midfield trio of Daniele De Rossi, Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini against Sweden

"Robbie Brady, I think, is much better suited to a five. You take away that defensive situation for him and just let him get on with what he's good at into an attacking position."

It's true that we have natural wing-backs like Brady and Coleman who can make the system work, as well as centre-backs in John O'Shea and Ciaran Clark who have played at full-back during their careers which could allow them to play as the two flanking centre-backs in a three.

But the main issue is that while diamond midfield formations for example have been honed over time, a back-three might founder on the rocks if it is a last-minute tactical change - which it would appear to be in our case. And O'Neill would have to decide who to partner Shane Long with.

Either way, width will be key. Aside from Wes Hoolahan we don't have much strength centrally to pick our way through an opposition defence, let alone Italy's, in any case. Plus Belgium showed that narrowness was of no benefit against the Italian back-three and midfield protection provided by Daniele De Rossi and co even with the talents of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne as the nominal wide-men.

A diamond would not necessarily be out of the question if the full-backs have licence to break forward at will.

Where central midfield is concerned in any system, it may well require midfielders like Jeff Hendrick for example to make runs from deep if balls are whipped across from out wide and if a back-three is not involved, a system close to a 4-4-2 may be the best one so that two forwards occupy the centre-backs on paper and a midfield runner darts beyond the line as the match wears on and urgency is required given our predicament.

We need a win to hit the magic four-point mark that gives us a chance of qualification as a third-place team (or an unlikely second depending on goal difference) in the group - the result in the Sweden-Belgium match which takes place simultaneously will be of interest to us in that regard - which means attack is a necessity for us from a certain point in the match. 

O'Neill is confident that Ireland can break down the Italian defence but on Wednesday we will have to do something no one has achieved at Euro 2016 yet: Score against Italy.

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