(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
In brainstorming for this article, I contemplated simply typing "FC Barcelona is better than your team" 200 times and calling it a day.
Barring a catastrophic turn of events, the 2011-12 incarnation of FC Barcelona squad is at risk of drowning in a sea of superlatives. Provided the performances of the nascent season bear even the slightest resemblance to Monday’s opener against Villarreal, every last syllable will be warranted.
On the heels of Real Madrid’s 6-0 dismantling of Real Zaragoza on Sunday night, Barcelona took the pitch at the Camp Nou and proceeded to methodically dismantle last season’s fourth place finishers by a score of 5-0 - the sixth such score line of the Guardiola era. While it is worth noting that in light of the departures of two of the squad’s best players - Joan Capdevila and Santi Cazorla, sold to Benfica and Málaga respectively - Villarreal will be hard-pressed to replicate the aforementioned fourth place finish, it’s difficult to fathom any side in the world overcoming Barcelona’s dominance on the day. Each of the club’s three high-profile additions - Thiago, Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas - managed a goal, with (ho-hum) Lionel Messi finding the back of the net twice.
Statistics provided on the club’s website underline the absurdity of the domination. Barça controlled the ball for nearly 75% of the game. Of that, 70% came in the attacking half. They made 981 (!!) passes - or roughly 11 per minute - compared with Villarreal’s 313, with Thiago connecting on 90% (108) of his 120 attempts. This was second-half-at-Wembley good. Staggering.
A scenario that’s played out with some frequency in recent years, on Monday night Barcelona took the pitch not to defeat eleven men wearing shirts different from their own, but to explore the outer reaches of their own ability, the potential of eleven world-class players (at a time) unified in philosophy and approach to the game. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Barcelona’s fourth goal of the contest, a characteristically effortless finish from Lionel Messi, made possible by a picture perfect through ball, the 38th pass of the possession.
However, for all of the entertainment and aesthetic value provided by Monday’s romp, the most meaningful storyline to emerge from the game is Pep Guardiola’s reintroduction of a tactic inextricably linked with Johan Cruyff’s great teams of the early 1990s- the 3-4-3 formation. With Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué still nursing injuries and Dani Alves suspended for Monday’s game, the move was undoubtedly inspired (to some extent) by necessity. However, given the incredible arsenal of attacking talent at Guardiola’s disposal, and the fluidity and regularity with which Barça invaded the Villarreal half on the counterattack, it can be said with some certainty that we’ve not seen the last of the 3-4-3.
As part of the formation, the triangles that are synonymous with the Barcelona style are replaced with - a shout out to Euclid and Archemedes - rhombuses. The formation, seemingly custom-crafted for FC Barcelona, works beautifully when employed by a deep and talented side that passes the ball quickly and accurately and is able to force opponents to play the majority of the game in their own half. The 3-4-3 is deadly on the counterattack, allowing a side to move forward aggressively with two each of wingers, central midfielders and forwards, along with a roaming attacker - in this case Leo Messi.
Meanwhile, on defense - there is admittedly precious little to assess from Monday’s game - the side’s midfielders are called upon to aggressively pressure opponents in possession of the ball in the middle third of the pitch, while also drifting back in support of the defensive trio.
Make no mistake. The 3-4-3 is not a viable long-term, week in, week out strategy. For starters, it places a huge burden on the defensive unit, whose every mistake is magnified by a lack of back line support. Additionally, it is highly susceptible to the counterattack and threatens the depth that is an area of strength by a) sapping the attacking quality available off of the bench (as most of them are all already on the pitch) and b) forcing attacking midfielders to assume far greater defensive responsibility, a role which does not play to their strengths and increases their exposure to possible injury. Much like that of Cruyff, Guardiola’s FC Barcelona will not be severing ties with a four-defender setup.
With all of that said, however, when used judiciously with the proper personnel, the 3-4-3 is nothing short of devastating. Pep Guardiola is deserving of praise for his creativity in the use of arguably the most talented roster in world football. While not "innovating" per se, his willingness to recognize tactics that have worked in the past, he has given himself yet another weapon with which to baffle opponents.
Don’t expect to see a three-man back line against teams with comparable quality in attack, but against talented defensive-minded sides, Guardiola should occasionally flood the field with A-list talent in search of an early knockout. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Any excuse to roll out a lineup boasting Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago, Alexis, Fàbregas, Pedro and, oh yeah, David Villa, should be welcomed with open arms.
Until next time...