We all know the 3-4-3 has been good to Barcelona this season. With a wealth of midfield talent and a thin back line, Guardiola has played to his strengths and opted for the unusual formation with great success. Five goal and eight goal victories over Villareal and Osasuna, respectively, were accomplished thanks to the 3-4-3. But against Valencia, Guardiola started a very vanilla 3-4-3. Sergio Busquets and Seydou Keita joined Xavi and Cesc Fabregas in midfield, and Dani Alves started up top beside Messi and Pedro. That left Ibrahim Affelay, Thiago Alcantara, and David Villa—that’s right, Villa—on the bench. A 3-4-3 should employ all of the attacking talent available, not a mixture of defensive midfielders and converted wingers. A more defensive side could have been fielded with the traditional 4-3-3. This lineup was somewhere in between, and nothing looked right from the start.
The weakness of the 3-4-3 is the absence of a dedicated defender on either flank. Valencia exposed this weakness from the get-go. Attack after attack came screaming up the left wing, and Javier Mascherano looked frazzled trying to defend out wide. It’s one thing to ask the little man to play center-back after a career of playing defensive midfielder, quite another to ask him to play right back. Goals number one, two, and nearly three were all generated on the left of Valencia’s attack and came rolling straight through the right of Barcelona’s defense.
In the middle, Keita and Busquets looked out of sync—neither seemed to know when to drop back and when to come forward. Combined with Xavi’s tendency to come back to get the ball, Barcelona often lacked enough bodies forward in attack, despite an offensive formation.
Up top, Alves looked uncomfortable. While he’s a terror on the right wing, a Barcelona forward must fill space and be ready to play in the middle—or even switch completely to the other side of the pitch. Dani simply doesn’t have these instincts, and it showed. At the half, Pep Guardiola recognized the mistakes he had made, and reverted to a 4-3-3, with Alves resuming his customary role of right-back dynamo. Magically, Barcelona’s goal was rarely threatened again, thanks largely to Alves’ defense turning Mathieu back into the big, clumsy defender he really is. Unfortunately, Pep wasn’t done being unconventional.
Pep, finally coming to his senses, Inserted David Villa. One might have assumed that Keita would come off, Cesc would return to midfield, and Barcelona would again boast the most dangerous attacking three in football: Villa, Messi, Pedro. Instead, Pep pulled Pedro, who wasn’t tired after 60 minutes, and was obviously in fine finishing form. Even worse, Pep again stuck a defender into attack—this time Adriano, a right or left back, was inserted on the right wing. All of Alves’ issues up top were exhibited anew by Adriano, plus some serious difficulty staying on-side. He looked like a defender up there for goodness sakes!
Finally, Thiago came on for Puyol, moving Barça back to the 3-4-3. This time they played it better, with both Alves and Abidal able to effectively lock down their wings. In the end, Barcelona equalized against a very strong Valencia squad, and very nearly netted a winner. But the end of the game left a number of questions unanswered.
Why did Pep try the 3-4-3 in the first place? With Puyol, Adriano, and even Maxwell all healthy once again, Barcelona could have fielded a number of very traditional and very strong back fours. Whereas injuries and suspension forced improvisation against Villareal, all of the pieces were in place for a full-powered starting eleven. Why get tricky?
Why were so many players asked to play outside their comfort zone? Mascherano, Alves, Adriano and Cesc all played significant minutes in unusual places. Was this really necessary?
Why was Villa benched, Pedro pulled, and Affellay never given a chance? As talented as the entire squad is, Messi needed more help than Cesc could provide. In the end, Pep must be given the benefit of the doubt—after all, he has the silverware to silence any critics. But today, one can’t help but wonder if perhaps Mr. Guardiola over-thought things a little, and FC Barcelona payed the price.
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