BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 10: Lionel Messi played a role he does not normally for Barcelona, behind a central striker. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
When Culés saw the starting line-up for yesterday's game versus Getafe, there was a lot of confusion because the players named did not naturally fit into any system we had come to expect. Most surprisingly, Pep Guardiola had four natural strikers (Lionel Messi, Alexis, Pedro, and Isaac Cuenca) on the team sheet. He named three defenders, which suggested a three man line, but the left-back was an attacking winger (Adriano Correia) not thought to be suited for a more defensive role in a three-man formation.
But as the game went on, there was some familiarity there. Previously, I wrote about Barcelona's odd shape versus Milan. Some people called it a 3-3-4, others a 3-4-3 diamond or a 3-3-3-1. It worked well enough in that game, but it was vulnerable in defense and Milan capitalized with a goal. Pep eventually switched to a more conventional shape as he wanted to play slightly more conservatively. In this match, he opted for that risky system again. How well did it work? Well, the final scoreline should be a clue.
As much as the system was similar to the one in the Milan game, only four players reprised their roles: Xavi as a regista, Andres Iniesta as an attacking midfielder, Sergio Busquets as a holder, and Victor Valdes as a goalkeeper. Alexis took Lionel Messi's place as the main striker as the Argentine moved to Cesc Fabregas's "free" role behind Alexis. Cuenca switched from the left side to the right, taking up Dani Alves's spot and allowing Pedro to play as a left winger. With Gerard Pique unavailable, Javier Mascherano took his spot as the central defender. Carles Puyol switched from the left side of defense to the right to accommodate Adriano.
Width in attack
Cuenca proved his worth without the ball again in the first goal. Most of Getafe was sucked in to Barça's left flank as the ball was being played there. Iniesta lobbed the ball in towards the middle, where Messi assisted Alexis Sanchez with a deft touch using his chest. The wide forwards deserved credit for creating the space he needed, and Alexis finished off the move by cutting to his right and scorching a shot past the keeper.
Getafe's central defender Cata Diaz challenged Messi for the ball, which is probably in itself not a bad decision. However, Leo was able to pass the ball to a player in space, as he had another striker in front of him in Alexis. At this point, Getafe's other defender, Alexis Ruano, moved to cover Diaz's vacated spot. Crucially, the Catalan wingers' forward runs from wide positions on either flank meant that neither Melsilela nor Juan Rodriguez could squeeze Alexis's space. The Chilean forward thus had a wealth of options. He darted towards his right, catching Ruano wrong-footed. If Mesilela rushed to help he would leave Cuenca wide open. At the last second he did just that, but it was too late: Sanchez had already taken his shot and an instant later Barça were one up. The following diagram shows what is about to unfold as Sanchez receives the ball, with Diaz out of position and Alexis Ruano covering for him:
Barcelona's dedicated wingers meant they had space to play through the middle, but they also added another dimension: crossing. The Catalan side are known for their lack of height, so they have resisted trying to swing balls in. However, we saw plenty of crosses in this match - and two headed goals. In all, the Blaugrana crossed it 32 times, including 11 from Cuenca. In contrast, they had 25 against Zaragoza, 18 against Athletic Bilbao, 13 against Granada, and so on.
So of course, there was an offensive payoff. But how was this three-man line going to hold up? Busquets did drop to create a back four without the ball, but with the ball, he wasn't in charge of marshalling Miku. No, that was Javier Mascherano's duty, with help from Adriano. Yes, as strange as it sounds, it was Puyol who ventured forward more (despite being a central defender normally) not Adriano, who has played as a forward this season. Partly, it was because Miku tended to curve his runs to the right, towards Adriano's natural side, but Adriano frequently was in the middle of the pitch to double Miku. Three-man line? This was more of a two-man line! Adriano usually was the one to help, but other times it was Puyol or Sergio.
Getafe's other attackers - well, what other attackers? Without the ball they collapsed into a deep 4-5-1, with the 1 isolated from the rest. Barça were happy leaving only Mascherano permanently goalside of Miku and killing his supply. Because of Adriano's movement to mark Miku, sometimes Barça were without a left-back... but Getafe were not ambitious enough to capitalize and Busquets deputized effectively there.
Barcelona's second goal effectively killed the match. It really was only a matter of how many they'd get after that. The wide forwards helped in that goal, too, but it was really down to the individual brilliance of Messi and Iniesta. In truth, it could have been more than four goals - and it really should have, as a Xavi chip was deemed not to cross over the line, though freeze frames and multiple angles suggest that was an incorrect decision. What Pep must wonder now is, "how often will this formation work?" Against Milan, it did work, though the defensive vulnerabilities were apparent and the team switched systems. In this match, it worked very well, but against a team that had no interest in attacking. Against Real Madrid, it is unlikely to be used - perhaps only in a truly desperate situation. Simply, the capital club's wingers are too fast and too keen to attack... though Pep is obviously not a stranger to surprising the world. At the very least, the Catalan coach has found a good sledgehammer to break down a team that tries to "park the bus".