It's one of the oldest questions in football, and the first every coach has to ask himself: do I get players to fit my system or do I change the system depending on the players I have on my team?
For Antonio Conte, it's been the latter. The Juventus manager has seen his stock rise tremendously in the past two years, and his tactical evolution has been a big reason for it.
B/R's tactical expert Sam Tighe might be his biggest fan, and he wrote an article last week detailing Conte's rise to fame in which he explained the evolution his team has gone through at a tactical level.
In short, Conte went from a basic 4-4-2 to a fairly extreme 3-5-2 in a span of six months in an attempt to find a system that made optimal use of the personnel available to him.
To say his evolution was a success would be an understatement. Juventus won the Italian Serie A in his first season at the helm, going undefeated in the process. This year, the Bianconeri again find themselves at the top of the table and in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League.
The 3-5-2 works because it fits Conte's best 11 like a glove. It allows Juve to field their three world class centre backs, gives Andrea Pirlo two dependable bodyguards in Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, creates a ton of space for the team's stable of athletic wing backs and puts players like Sebastian Giovinco and Mirko Vucinic right in front of goal, where they have to worry less about filling lanes and can focus exclusively on creating chances.
There would appear to be no reason for Conte to change his approach, but the Italian Serie A is not just your average league. Italians take tactics incredibly seriously, and they're good at it. It's only a matter of time before teams catch up with what it is you're doing, and Conte knows this.
His activity on the transfer market is a strong indication that a tactical change is on the horizon.
Spanish striker Fernando Llorente will be joining the team this summer, and he provides us with a first clue. Llorente is a big, physical forward with an excellent nose for goal and a strong aerial game. Even though he should be capable of playing in a system with two forwards, he plays his best football as a lonely striker surrounded by creative wingers.
Then there are the reports of the Bianconeri's strong interest in Schalke's Julian Draxler and Barcelona's Alexis Sanchez (per Goal.com, here and here). While both players would theoretically be able to play as a second striker, they do most of their damage cutting inside from the wing and are best used in space.
Sebastian Giovinco is another one of these quick, agile players that can be deadly when given the space to roam the field. The Juve youth product has seen his productivity fall this season as a result of his continued usage as a second striker, and played his best football on loan at Parma as a winger in a three man front line.
Lastly, there's the arrival of Federico Peluso. After a rough start for the Bianconeri, the wing back has put together a solid string of performances and seems to have gained Conte's trust to the point where's he's starting over Kwadwo Asamoah, one of the team's strongest performers in the first half of the season.
Peluso has done a good job as the left winger in the 3-5-2, but he is most comfortable as a left back in a four man defense.
Conte has tinkered with a 4-3-3 lineup in the past, and he'll still occasionally use it when the 3-5-2 isn't getting the job done. Should we be expecting a full-time return to the 4-3-3 next season?
While I think it's a strong possibility, there is another system that would seem to be a perfect fit for this Juventus team, and a natural evolution from the 3-5-2: the 3-4-3.
Juve's three-man back line of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli is simply too strong to just toss to the side. There's a reason the Bianconeri have the best defensive record in the UCL at the time of this article: the back line is rock solid.
So, the 3-4-3. Let's go back to B/R's tactical mastermind Sam Tighe:
The two formations are similar: They both house three centre-backs and have a presence up top; they both hinge largely on the successes of failures of their respective wing-backs.
When a formation fails to win a wide battle, it has to change. Case in point, Mircea Lucescu's Shakhtar Donetsk ditched the 4-4-2 diamond, which hinged on its explosive full-backs, when Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat lost the wide battle against AC Milan in 2008.
That's where the 3-4-3 comes in—you've got wing-backs and wingers. With four players situated into the wide areas, you equal the amount usually found in a 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3.
This means the battle to stay touchline wide doesn't hinge upon the left- and right-wing-backs, and if it's not going their way, the wingers can join in.
The 3-4-3 would solve Juve's riddle up front. Even without any additional reinforcements, the current personnel would be able to excel in a three-man front line with Giovinco on the left, Vucinic on the right and Fernando Llorente as the spearhead.
The three-man back line would be left intact, and the midfield would open up a lot of interesting possibilities. Kwadwo Asamoah has proven his abilities as a left winger, but his natural position is that of a centre midfielder. As a pure left midfielder, he could flourish.
Claudio Marchisio also has a lot of experience as a LM, and he does a lot of his damage on the wing in the current 3-5-2. Even Arturo Vidal seems to have embraced playing in a wider role in recent weeks, as he has developed a tendency to drop onto the right wing.
The MVP midfield in his current form works brilliantly, and as a fan I would wish to see as little changes as possible. But let's not forget that Andrea Pirlo is getting up there in age, and chances are that next season will be his last of playing at the high level we have grown accustomed to. You don't just find another player to plug into the role of regista and expect him to be as effective as arguably the greatest regista the world has ever seen.
You can be sure coach Conte is already thinking hard about how to fix that problem, and if spending big bucks on someone like PSG's Marco Verratti isn't an option, a tactical change might be.
The safest bet might be a dynamic system that changes depending on the personnel: Asamoah can play as a wing back in the 3-5-2 with Andrea Pirlo on the pitch, and move to central midfield once the maestro takes a seat on the bench and the system changes to a 3-4-3.
The 3-5-2 can easily be converted to a 4-3-3 when the team is in need of extra bodies in the box, and the 3-4-3 can take on the face of the more conservative 3-5-2 when Juve has to defend against a strong opponent.
Antonio Conte is a tactical genius, and we can only speculate as to what it is he's planning to do with his new toys. But if the transfer activity is any indication, change is on its way.