Tuesday May 30, 2017  
     
 
  17/10/2013: Under the Microscope: Petkovic and the 4-3-3
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Lazio are seventh in this season’s Serie A after seven Serie A games.

You may have been a little-tongue tied when reading the above sentence, and for the best part of the season so far, Vladimir Petkovic has been equally muddled up. Lazio have been treading familiar waters from the outset, and if our fortunes do not change in the very near future, Petkovic and the boys will be relying on cup competitions to bring a smile to our face once again. However, our most recent display against Fiorentina created a wave of optimism around the club. Although the result itself was nothing out of the ordinary, the overall performance was a step in the right direction and word inside the club suggests that Vladimir Petkovic has finally found a starting eleven he can trust and a system that (finally) brings us into the modern era.

I was very critical of our mercato – I felt President Lotito was investing too heavily in players that Vladimir Petkovic would not consider to be anything more than alternatives. It would have been in our short-term interests to simply add a couple of stellar individuals and raise the overall level of the team. It would have been in our long-term interests to completely overhaul the team, selling off our assets for prices that suitors could not justify and rebuilding the team. Somewhere in the summer, we got stuck in the middle of the road with absolutely no sense of direction.

In welcoming Fiorentina to the Olimpico, Petkovic chose to go down a road that almost every top coach in Europe is contemplating going down – route 433. In August, Nick Harris wrote an article for FourFourTwo magazine in which he claimed coaches were moving away from the 4-2-3-1 formation that had been in vogue since World Cup 2010, in favour of a switch to a 4-3-3 system, and he used André Villas-Boas’ transfer campaign as a case study. In the article, Harris argued that managers were beginning to realise the fatal flaw of the 4-2-3-1 – the disconnect in midfield that occurs when a team is on the attack – and the managers’ solution to that problem is to sacrifice an attacking-midfielder for a more dynamic midfielder.

Although Lazio fans may not have thought consciously about the implications of the 4-2-3-1, the issue is something Lazio fans can surely identify with. Much of Edy Reja’s success was built upon his use of the 4-2-3-1 system, but his harshest critics often had the same complaint – the lack of synergy between defence and attack. Cristian Ledesma and Cristian Brocchi often found themselves in holding midfield roles as there was a need to protect an ageing defence, but Reja often relied on long passes from Ledesma or kamikaze runs from Brocchi to get the ball forward and neither approach was wholly effective. In his final season at the club – and with a team ravaged by injuries – Reja found a solution to the problem with a 4-3-1-2 system that came about as if by accident. Reja introduced Senad Lulic to the midfield and his blistering pace enabled his direct runs to provide a much needed link between defence and attack. However, Lazio did not have the personnel to continue with the 4-3-1-2 and the prolongation of the injury crisis saw Reja opt for 4-2-3-1 more often than not.

The disconnect between defence and attack is something Lazio are still grappling with almost 18 months on. Vladimir Petkovic’s initial solution was to convert Reja’s 4-2-3-1 into more of a 4-1-4-1 system by swapping out a fitness-shy Cristian Brocchi for the tireless Alvaro Gonzalez. The Uruguay midfielder was less of a holding midfielder and more of a box-to-box player who was expected to fulfil the same duties, but cover more yards on the pitch and thus offer more cohesion going forward. While the defence was more than solid in this guise, the attack was rather impotent, despite admirable performances from Lulic, Hernanes, Antonio Candreva and Miroslav Klose. That forced Petkovic to reconsider the system during the winter break and the remainder of the season saw a number of failed experiments, such as Ledesma in a more advanced role and Hernanes in a less advanced role. Lazio began to leak goals and drop points, and it took a historic derby victory on the 26th May to spare Bosnian’s blushes.

Before the transfer window opened this summer, fans were obviously anticipating defensive reinforcements as problems at the back characterised the second half of the 2012-13 season. However, reading between the spoken lines of Petkovic’s press conferences reveals that the Lazio manager is reading from the same book as the Laziali, but is on a completely different page. Prior to the heavy Supercoppa defeat, Petkovic announced that his defence was solid but that more could be done in attack in terms of creating opportunities. That goes some way to explaining why Lazio brought in midfielders like Lucas Biglia and Felipe Anderson and a dynamic, pacy forward in Brayan Perea. The summer transfer campaign has raised eyebrows like Johnny Bravo on crack, especially as Petkovic has been made to look very foolish by his aged defence. Once again, these frailties can be attributed to the manager’s overwhelming desire to link defence with attack. Biglia and Ledesma did not work as a pairing, neither did Biglia and Hernanes or Ledesma and Hernanes, but Petkovic’s most recent experiment – the 4-3-3 - has beared fruit.

Despite the sudden change in system, and the Serie A debuts of Felipe Anderson and Brayan Perea, Lazio dominated Fiorentina - a team that usually dictates the play - and Petkovic’s defence emerged from the game with a clean sheet. That is a mammoth achievement for a squad that has, as Lotito continually reminds us, nine players on the treatment tables. The newspapers have been quietly discussing the 4-3-3 during the international break as journalists posit who may line up where in the system, and selecting the right players now becomes Petkovic’s greatest challenge. To make the 4-3-3 work in the long-term, the three centre-midfielders need to be good on the ball, they need to be comfortable in carrying it and distributing it, and they need to have decent defensive capabilities. The player who fits that description best is Lucas Biglia and I suspect he will now become an ever-present in the Lazio side. The other likely regular selections are Ogenyi Onazi and Hernanes. The 4-3-3 system sees the Brazilian shoved out to the left which may seem curious, but anyone who followed Hernanes at Sao Paulo will know that this role is familiar to him from his days at the Brazilian club. Hernanes’ goal against Udinese in August is a testament to what he can do in his new role for Lazio.

There are many unanswered questions about the system, however. Alvaro Gonzalez should be perfectly capable of slotting in where Ogenyi Onazi currently finds himself but is Ledesma versatile and dynamic enough to challenge Biglia for a starting berth? Do Felipe Anderson and Brayan Perea have a regular role when the infirmary is less busy? Where does Lulic enter when he is done covering for Radu at left-back and does Sergio Floccari have any function in the 4-3-3? If Petovic has indeed decided that the 4-3-3 is the future, then how he answers these questions will make or break his Lazio career. At the end of the day, Lazio must qualify for Europe. The club have been very frank and open about their predicament – no players were sold in the summer as the club is striving for better results. With a 5 million euro operating loss recorded for the period 1st July 2012 – 30th June 2013, despite a 25 million euro increase in revenue, a poor league and cup campaign would see Lazio make a catastrophic loss, forcing Claudio Lotito to sell next summer. For the first time in forever, Lotito has rolled the dice and by experimenting with various systems and formations, Petkovic is gambling with him. The club believe it could bring us Champions League football – in reality, it could cost us Hernanes. In any case, change is exciting and Lazio really needs to change.

Author: Cathal Mullan
 
 
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