Last year, Pep Guardiola's alternative formation to the traditional 4-3-3 was a 3-4-3 formation. It was highly controversial, and the experiment has to be labelled a mixed affair. There were some good wins and thrilling attacking football, but equally there were disappointing losses and overrun defenses.
Now, Tito Vilanova is the manager and he has yet to play with a formation other than 4-3-3. But certainly, the option to play 4-2-3-1, one of the most popular formations in world football at the moment, seems more attractive than ever.
Credit must be given to Inder Methil, who a couple of months ago was one of the first to suggest the idea. You can read that first if you'd like, because I will try not to repeat much of what he has already said.
The biggest change since then is the signing of Alex Song, which gives the team license to play a much more conservative midfield three and the possibility of a double pivot. Another recent development which is quite interesting is the ability for Pedro Rodriguez to play in a central striking role, as he did recently for Spain, which only boosts the options Tito has at his disposal.
The Spanish national team won Euro 2012 with a formation that was broadly 4-3-2-1, and with so many players from that squad making up the Barcelona team, it makes it even more logical for Barcelona itself to try it out.
Against Milan at home in the Champions League, an even more aggressive version of the 3-4-3 was used. It bordered on a 3-3-4, with both Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas attacking through the middle. It's defensive risks were exposed, as Milan scored, but the match was won 3-1 and progress into the semis.
Its two biggest failures came later, as the 3-4-3 lost to Real Madrid in the Camp Nou, essentially conceding La Liga, and it failed to win the tie versus Chelsea. However, the Chelsea match was also a mixed result: Barcelona clearly dominated and were winning 2-1 for much of the game. Barca had the game to win, but only razor-thin margins - a missed penalty, shots hitting the post, and a barely offside goal - kept the result. It was only due to away goals that the team had no one back defending in the last minute to prevent Fernando Torres from scoring an equalizer.
In the summer, many Cules watched closely as a good amount of Barcelona players were part of Vicente del Bosque's Euro 2012-winning squad. In the media, much was made about the supposed 4-6-0 formation that Don Vicente used. In reality, it was much closer to a 4-2-3-1.
Cesc, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva are all most naturally midfielders, but it's foolish to think they could not operate as forwards. Cesc in particular was very effective in leading the line for Spain - remember the opening goal in the final against Italy? He made a run any "true nine" would be proud of, receiving the ball in a very deep position and passing it into the center for Silva to put into the net.
The appeal of that Spain system is, obviously, that it won the big prize. More specifically, however, what is appealing is the brick wall it creates: Spain conceded one goal in the opening 61 minutes, and then none for the remaining 509 of the tournament.
How did they manage to concede only 0.17 goals per game while Barca gave up 0.75 this past season? OK, Iker Casillas is a better keeper than Victor Valdes but that does not explain it fully. Dani Alves is better than Alvaro Arbeloa, too, but that doesn't make a difference of that magnitude.
The truth is Spain played much more conservatively, because they scored 2 goals per game while Barcelona very nearly scored 3 per game. There are other reasons of course, but that one sticks out. So while it's not a better option it does have one great advantage in knockout football. If you don't concede, the worst that can happen is you'll go to a penalty shootout. In the league, if you don't concede you can still drop points.
For that reason, the 4-2-3-1 is most attractive for Barcelona to use in matches where it does not necessarily have to score, like when they are holding a lead.
This is one way Barcelona could line up in the 4-2-3-1:
With the signing of Song, Barcelona have another option in who to play in a midfield two. Song and Sergio Busquets are both capable defenders and good passers, which is a requirement of a a midfield duo in a 4-2-3-1. In a central striking role, Cesc can reprise his role from the Euros. but it could also be David Villa, Alexis Sanchez, or even Pedro, who played that role for Spain in their last friendly.
Iniesta would have to then take up the left wing spot to accommodate Messi "in the hole" behind the striker. Arguably not Andres's best position, but it only contributes to the security in possession this lineup gives.
This XI would help keep more clean sheets, and we would hope that players like Messi can make up for the drop off in attacking bent of the system. In addition, if the desire is to buy a Llorente or Falcao-type striker, it would be good to see if we have a good solution "in house" first, or, at the very least, if that formation would be functional.
Remember that "parked buses" are not really our biggest threat. It's a team that can both defend AND pick its spots to attack. The best parked bus jobs in history - Inter Milan and Chelsea in Champions League semifinals - still did not beat us on the game. Inter lost the match and needed a Bojan goal to be questionably disallowed to progress. Chelsea relied on a 1-0 win at home, a missed penalty, and the away goals rule to win the tie. The point is the biggest threat is actually a team that can both score and keep us at bay.
The 4-2-3-1 could be useful in tough away trips and to defend leads at home.