Few tactical strategies have attracted as much controversy in recent years as the three-man defence, which - in the United Kingdom at least - has become synonymous with coaching gaffes, changing-room unease and on-pitch embarrassment.
Blame for England's 2-0 defeat by Croatia in a Euro 2008 qualifier in October 2006 was widely attributed to Steve McClaren's decision to send his team out in an untested 3-5-2 formation, with Gary Neville (author of a memorable own goal that day) revealing in his autobiography that the system had been introduced in training only "a couple of days before" the match. Attempts to ambush the Premier League's top teams by deviating from the four-man defensive norm, meanwhile, have often met with humiliating failure.
It is not just in England that feathers are ruffled by three-man defences, however, as new Internazionale coach Gian Piero Gasperini will unhappily testify. Gasperini made his name at Genoa, guiding the club to promotion from Serie B in his first season in charge and then leading the rossoblu to a fifth-place Serie A finish in 2009 that represented their best performance since a side spearheaded by Tomas Skuhravy and Carlos Aguilera came fourth in 1991.
Key to his success at Stadio Luigi Ferraris was his use of an enterprising 3-4-3 formation that allied a devastating attack with an admittedly quite porous defence, and which prompted Jose Mourinho to proclaim that Gasperini's side played "some of the best football in Italy".
Diego Milito, whose rejuvenation at Genoa paved the way for his move to Inter, said he was thrilled by the prospect of rejoining forces with Gasperini, but the 53-year-old's untypical tactical tastes have been seized upon by an unforgiving Italian media. Even before the season began, Gasperini was being bombarded with questions about how Inter's players would take to the new system, and a run of four games without a win - including a shock home defeat by Trabzonspor in the Champions League - has only intensified the criticism.
"When a team like Inter loses, it's normal to be criticised, but the level of discussion in the last few days wasn't normal," complained Gasperini prior to Saturday's 0-0 draw with Roma. "It seems as if it's been conducted by people who've never spoken about football before. It's wrong to turn it into a debate about three or four at the back."
Gasperini's portrayal as a tactical stick-in-the-mud is unfair, as analysis of his time at Genoa reveals that he readily shifted to a four-man defence when the circumstances demanded it (as he did in Inter's loss to Trabzonspor). The source of Gasperini's problems is not any supposed tactical inflexibility on his part, and may have more to do with the fact that he has inherited a squad of ageing players accustomed to playing a certain way and unused to operating in a more dynamic system.
The 3-4-3 is particularly effective against sides that deploy two central strikers and Barcelona's 5-0 demolition of Villarreal on the opening weekend of the La Liga season owed much to Pep Guardiola's courageous decision to counter the visitors' strike-force of Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi with a three-man back-line. Napoli's intrepid 3-4-1-2, meanwhile, has not prevented them from making the early running in Serie A.
Against a 4-4-2 (or similar), a 3-4-3 formation gives a team an extra man in defence and opens up the possibility of doubling up on the opposition's full-backs. What enabled Barcelona to crush Villarreal, and Genoa to achieve such impressive results under Gasperini, was not simply the formation, however, but the players' willingness and ability to adapt to a new system custom-designed to nullify the opposition's strengths.
Any new strategy takes time to introduce. Unfortunately for Gasperini, at an impatient big club like Inter, time is a luxury he can ill afford.
And in a new feature, each Monday this blog will bring you the European Team of the Week as selected by the boffins at stats company OPTA based on performances in the continent's top five Leagues.
Here is this week's XI: