The 2009-10 Serie A campaign was all set to be the season of the trequartista. Juventus’s major pre-season signing was Brazilian playmaker Diego from Werder Bremen, Milan were so keen to get the best out of Ronaldinho that club owner Silvio Berlusconi made him stand on a table at a pre-season training camp and promise to stay out of trouble and Jose Mourinho, who has as much romance in his soul as the Terminator, was happy for Internazionale to shell out €15 million on the sublimely gifted Dutchman Wesley Sneijder.
Four months into the season, things have not gone strictly according to plan for Serie A’s most alluring talents. Diego is being booed off the pitch by his own fans, Ronaldinho’s ineffectiveness in a central role has seen him restored to the left-wing role synonymous with his Barcelona pomp and Sneijder has started just four of Inter’s last 10 league games due to a combination of injury and suspension.
Sneijder’s situation is the least troubling of the three. When fit he is usually assured of a starting role and, in any case, he is not a true trequartista. But what about Diego and Ronaldinho? How is it that two of the world’s most talented playmakers have failed to shine in a central playmaking role at two of the world’s most well-resourced clubs?
Ciro Ferrara’s aim was clear from Juventus’s very first game of the season: to build the team around Diego. Below is a screenshot from the ESPN Soccernet website depicting the average positions of Juventus’s players in their 1-0 victory at home to Chievo on the season’s opening day:
Diego (circled) is operating in a central position, just behind two strikers – Amauri (11) and Vincenzo Iaquinta (9) - and with a three-man midfield platform of Christian Poulsen (18), Tiago (30) and Claudio Marchisio (8) behind him (number 16 is substitute Mauro Camoranesi). It’s a classic 4-3-1-2.
Fast-forward to late October and the high point of Juve’s season to date arrives in the form of a 5-1 demolition of then second-placed Sampdoria at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin:
The system has changed. A run of just one win in five matches prompted Ferrara to experiment with a 4-2-3-1 and, briefly, Juve exploded into life. Against Sampdoria, Juve played with Amauri (11) as the lone striker, while Felipe Melo (4) and Mohamed Sissoko (22) protected the defence and Camoranesi and Sebastian Giovinco (20) provided support from the flanks.
With a midfield base behind him and wide players on either side, Diego inspired the Bianconeri to a crushing victory over Sampdoria and they were 2-0 up at home to Napoli in their next home game when things unravelled. Three second-half goals gave Napoli a 3-2 victory and since then Juve have floundered.
The 4-2-3-1 brought victories over Atalanta and Udinese, but also a 2-0 defeat at lowly Cagliari. They beat Inter 2-1 with Diego and Alessandro Del Piero alongside each other in what was approximately a 4-3-2-1 but the same team then crashed to a 4-1 defeat at home to Bayern Munich that sent them out of the Champions League. Last Saturday they reverted to a 4-3-1-2 and went down 3-1 at Bari.
“The fans were right to jeer me, as we did badly tonight and it’s normal they protest,” said Diego after an another below-par performance in the game against Bayern. “I am the first to say I need to do better.”
Ferrara is grappling with the age-old problem of balancing defensive ballast with attacking flair in his midfield. In a 4-3-1-2, Diego can easily be isolated and the team lacks width. The 4-2-3-1 adds width but, with creatively limited players like Melo, Poulsen and Sissoko in the defensive midfield positions, the team struggles to bridge play between defence and attack.
The same quandary confronts Leonardo at Milan. The Rossoneri lined up in their first two matches with Ronaldinho playing behind two strikers in a 4-3-1-2, but their 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Inter on August 29 forced a hasty re-think.
Ronaldinho (circled), and the 4-3-1-2, lasted one more game (a 0-0 draw at Livorno) but he was then dropped, before returning as a shadow striker alongside Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in the 0-0 draw at home to Bari on September 27.
It wasn’t until the 2-1 victory over Roma on October 18 that Leonardo happened upon the 4-2-1-3 formation that has since become Milan’s default shape, with Ronaldinho lining up on the left-hand side of an attacking trident with Alexandre Pato at its tip and Ignazio Abate on the right. Pato has since moved to the right to accommodate target man Marco Borriello.
“For me it’s easy to be able to play with intelligent players like Marco Borriello and Alexandre Pato who understand what I can do for them on the pitch,” Ronaldinho said after the 4-3 home victory over Cagliari in November.
“I feel great and where I’m playing I can do my best. I’m happy to play behind the strikers, but where I’m playing now is my best position.”
Including the defeat of Roma, Milan won seven times in eight matches with Ronaldinho on the left, culminating in the 3-0 victory over Sampdoria at the beginning of December:
Leonardo has found an effective way to accommodate Ronaldinho in his side, with Clarence Seedorf (10) now the central attacking fulcrum in front of two defensive midfielders, but it is an imbalanced formation that makes Milan seem just as likely to concede as they are to score. Their last game on Sunday, in which Pato started on the bench, resulted in a 2-0 home defeat to Palermo.
Diego’s problem is that the increasing popularity of midfield destroyers like his own team-mates Melo and Poulsen means that the space between defence and midfield, which was once the exclusive preserve of elegant playmakers such as Gianni Rivera and Juan Román Riquelme, is now the most congested area on the field.
Ronaldinho has found his salvation on the flank. Juve’s season might well depend on Diego’s own capacity to adapt.