Over the course of the summer, Pep Guardiola has only added two new signings to the squad. Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas have joined Barcelona in what seemed to be expensive deals for players that would most likely not play. However if Alexis and Cesc did indeed join to play and not to spectate then something has to change to accommodate these players and that is the formation of the squad.
Barcelona have achieved their current run of success playing a standard 4-3-3 formation that produces fluid football, excellent passing lanes, and retention of the ball. The opinion is really divided on whether this is the ideal formation Barcelona should play.
Many would argue that Barcelona have only been able to achieve their current style of play in a formation of this nature because it creates space on the field and this causes Barcelona's current game to thrive. Without this formation, they say Barcelona wouldn't be the squad it is today. As the old saying goes, if it isn't broke don't fix it, and so they feel Pep is right to choose this formation for the squad. However, this formation does have it's drawbacks in that it makes Barcelona's game and their lineup very predictable. When something is predictable it is very easy to find a tactic to counter it. Teams such as Inter Milan and Real Madrid have exposed Barcelona's vulnerabilities to counter-attacks in this formation as well as used a defensive approach to render it ineffective. The 4-3-3 relies heavily on defensive backs to join the attack and pressure the enemy with overwhelming numbers to achieve a breakthrough. When opposing teams defend deep, if they can regain possession and send a long ball into the spaces left by the defensive backs, they find that they can easily get into 3 on 2 or even 1-on-1 situations with Barcelona's central defenders. This usually leads to situations that Barcelona would like to avoid. In the recent Clasico's this tactic proved effective for Madrid's initial goal when Benzema moved into the gap left by Adriano to feed Mesut Ozil the pass to score the opener. What was also plain to see was how Barcelona suffered in the midfield when their backs could not support the attackers due to being pressed into defensive duties. Therefore without support Guardiola was forced to do something which he has done in the past to win matches based on the situation at hand, he changed formation. But he could only due this because of the depth added to his squad by Fabregas, Adriano, and Keita. With the addition of Mascherano, Adriano, Fabregas, Alexis, Afellay, and Thiago, Guardiola now has the flexibility to change the shape of the squad to meet the on-field challenges.
Football is an ever evolving game, though one set's a formation, a tactic, a plan, the possibility of victory is always uncertain. What is certain is that at some point, every team will be figured out by a rival squad and loose. The reason teams usually loose is errors, luck, opponents talent, or bad tactics. Errors, luck, and talent, are variables out of the control of a manager but his tactical choices can usually swing the balance in his favor or leave his team for dead. If a manager cannot act fast to change the tactical scheme of the situation to his favor then he has no choice but to play and hope that no errors befall his squad, that luck is on his side, and that his players have superior talent. This is why Barcelona have stuck with a 4-3-3 for so long, because they lacked players who could be as talented as Iniesta, as visionary as Xavi, as fast as Pedro, or as brilliant as Messi. Pep always knows that teams will try and park the bus on him, but with his new additions he can now turn the tables on them and so I've compiled a list of possible formations Barcelona have used to win matches and which I'm sure will become more common to see in the near future.
If Barcelona really are the squad of total football and each player can interchange position with another , then there is no reason Barcelona cannot return to formations that were the root of todays total football. Many have wondered why Guardiola hasn't added a new central defender in the absence of Puyol. But if the past is any indication of the present, then the reason is because Guardiola has found his new Koeman in Javier Mascherano. Ronald Koeman initially started his career as a midfielder and later was converted into a center back for Barcelona. Thus, Javier Mascherano has now been singled out as the adequante midfielder than can be converted into an equally effective center back. This is the reason Pep has chosen not to pursue a central defender. If Mascherano is indeed this hybrid, then a formation that allows Guardiola more offense as well as defensive cover will be choose. Such formations are hydrid systems that Barcelona played around the late 80s to early 90s in which Koeman was both a defender and a DM. Although Guardiola has in the past stated that he cannot play without a line of three defenders,he would be pressed to play in such a formation in case of injuries. A formation such as a 3-5-2 which Barcelona used in 1992 to defeat Sampdoria could be on the cards. This is the formation Cruyff developed from Ajax's 3-3-1-3 but provided more stability in protecting from counters with the addition of another man in midfield. Barcelona now could easily adapt this formation since it's origins are from the school of total football. This formation would only be adopted in extreme circumstances such as the shortage of defenders which as we know, occurs quite frequently in this team. The key is to have a line of three static central defenders protected by a defensive midfielder which would equally help in attack and defense. Alongside the DM are wingers who will also defend as well as support the attacking midfielders and strikers. Theoretically, at worst you can defend with four players should you loose possession and at best, attack with six to overwhelm any defense. A Barcelona in this formation would most likely line up in the following fashion.
Barcelona do not need to adopt such a radical formation to become more innovative in it's tactical approach. In fact what Barcelona could now do is switch to more conventional but effective formations that are more stable both offensively and defensively. Since a large portion of Barcelona players do play for the Spanish National Team, it is easy to see that Barcelona can simply adopt the same formations as Spain on the club level. In the past Spain choose a 4-1-4-1 formation with which they won Euro 08 and currently employ a 4-2-3-1. If Barcelona adopted these formations their rhythm and passing would not be staggered since the players are accustomed to playing these formations. I believe Barcelona would simply become a much harder unit to attack since these formations are more defensively minded. It would also make Barcelona's possession game more difficult to disrupt because with a midfield of Barcelona's quality and in larger numbers, possession would be even more monopolized. However, Barcelona's attacking punch would suffer with one less striker but that would have to be the sacrifice made to gain even greater possession and better defensive capability. The addition of Fabregas to a 4-1-4-1 would ensure an even greater percentage of possession should Barcelona employ this formation. Likewise the addition of Cesc and Mascherano in a 4-2-3-1 would not only add greater ball retention but more defensive solidity as well. The potential lineup would look something like the following.
In the very recent past there have been times when Barcelona has found itself needing to be the team that takes the initiative because it is loosing on aggregate. Since 2009, Barcelona has face off against two teams which during the course of a match have offered very little threat of attack to Barcelona and have generally played with the goal of keeping the aggregate in their favor to survive. When a team offers almost zero attacking threat it's really time to implement the only formation that can give you hope of breaking down the defensive dam and that's a 4-2-4. This formations main defense is high pressure and wingers that have good lungs to run to the aid of a midfield that can be easily overwhelmed with even the slightest counterattack. The midfielders who sit in a midfield that is isolated will always be outnumbered so it is important that they have good ball retention and passing skills. These two midfielders must also be able to defend as well as string passed to the attack. Usually what works best is a team of two, a more attack minded playmaker accompanied by a more defensive midfielder. Each support and protect each other against superior numbers. Starting from the game against Estudiantes in which Pep employed this formations for the first time, until now, Barcelona lacked the four striker needed to execute this formation correctly. Part of the reason I attribute to being unable to overturn the aggregate against Inter in 2010 is because in that moment Barcelona lacked an effective pack of strikers that could get the job done. It was a time in which Pedro was just emerging as a player, Ibrahimovic had lost his scoring touch, Bojan was hardly up to the challenge, Henry was eclipsed, and neither Alexis nor Villa was around to help us. Messi was thus isolate and ineffective. Villa was added to the squad last year and adapted rather well and thus far he has started out on the right foot this season. With the acquisition of Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona now have the fourth striker that can play in case Pep ever needs a battering ram to take down a defensive wall. A 4-2-4 in Barcelona colors would probably lineup in the following way.
Probably the question that is on everyone one's mind is what formation was Barcelona playing in the second half of the most recent Clasico? The obvious answer is that they used their regular 4-3-3 but as for the formation that was in play when the actually winner was scored by Messi, that was a 4-3-2-1 formation. I assume Pep introduced this because he himself was thinking about extra time, but didn't predict that it would immediately produce the winner. The 4-3-2-1 formation relies on a basic line of three very centralized midfielders who attempt to regain possession from deep positions to control the entire midfield area. It doesn't rely on a defensive midfielder and instead employs three regular midfielders to be ball winners. Up top it has two offensive midfielders whose job is to associate with the loan striker and be his support package. These two midfielders create plays for the striker and attack in coordination with his movements. Guardiola used this formation because it allowed him to commit three men to attempt to wrestle control of the midfield which Real Madrid had controlled up to Benzema's leveler. It also provided his most dangerous man, Messi, with a supporting cast he could use to do damage. Pedro was drained and Villa was substituted. Alexis wasn't going to be risked, so Pep picked his utility player, Adriano, and his new playmaker Cesc to go help out Messi. He introduced Seydou Keita to be his box-to-box midfielder in the center, and gave Xavi and Iniesta more deeper and static roles. In the end it all worked out and Adriano and Fabregas went to work with Messi to do what they do best, win it. If you watch the sequence unfold you clearly see how Messi, Adriano, and Cesc, attack as one. Xavi and Iniesta are nowhere near the area when the play unfolds because they are covering, and Keita as the box-to-box is right around where Messi is right when the ball arrives at his feet. Pique is in the shot coincidentally but he is not part of the plan, he just happened to be there at that moment. To back up my claim I've added video evidence which if you really want to take a glimpse at Guardiola's checkmate play, I suggest you freeze the following video at 1:40 and look at that beautiful 4-3-2-1.
[HD] Lionel Messi Goal #2 vs. Real Madrid (Super Copa Final 2011 - Leg #2) (via EdwinTV42)
I know, I'm obsessive with Barcelona, what's next you ask? Can I tell you their shoe sizes? Not quite but I'll try my best to provide information that I see as interesting at moments such as these when one has time to reflect on the brilliance Guardiola has managed to do. As if Barcelona wasn't a handful for any team, now they'll have to play the guessing game. That's all for now, I didn't include Thiago because as of yet he's to new in the squad to see him used as a regular tried and tested member. When he has more La Liga games in him I'm sure Pep will pick a spot for him, but that is whenever La Liga resumes action. I leave you thus to ponder over what I've seen from the beginning of the 90s till present day. Enjoy!
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