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El Clasico: Real Madrid vs FC Barcelona: Accommodating Cesc Fabregas

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BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Andres Iniesta of FC Barcelona reacts during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Levante UD at Camp Nou on December 3, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain. FC Barcelona won 5-0.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03: Andres Iniesta of FC Barcelona reacts during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Levante UD at Camp Nou on December 3, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain. FC Barcelona won 5-0. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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After I took the time yesterday to dissect a possible Triovte for Real Madrid the attention turns to a much more comfortable topic: FC Barcelona. Tactically, this Barcelona side is not only one of the most effective, but one of the most complex and intriguing around. The emphasis on passing and movement is paramount, but for this to become achievable the whole side must have complete faith in one another.

Can you imagine Lionel Messi tracking back to cover the right-back position if he hated Dani Alves? What about Xavi? Would he place his faith in Andres Iniesta if they did not get on outside of the football pitch? This key fact is why Zlatan Ibrahimovic was such a failure in Blaugrana colours, why Spain are hitting a rocky patch and possibly why David Villa has been so off-form. Faith is the key theme for possession football.

Whatever he should decide, we as Culés will keep the faith in Pep Guardiola – within reason of course. So, when the teams are announced, probably at 21:00 CET on Saturday we will analyse the line-up as per usual, and if there is a "surprise" inclusion the general reaction will be to trust Guardiola. When Guardiola makes a decision, he is almost identical to Jose Mourinho in the sense that he believes this decision is the right one. He watches hours of film for each opponent, studying the weakness, strengths, key players; you name it, Pep invariably does it. All to minimise the chances of failure and maximise the effectiveness of the XI he selects.

Now, Pep has some massive decisions to make in regards to his team selection, with the most pressing concern being that of Cesc Fabregas and his place in an XI that is fully cohesive, but most crucially of all: balanced. Cesc was signed for a purpose. Perhaps there was a hint of spite and malice (karma) towards Arsenal in the transfer itself, but the main purpose was to continue the evolution of this all-conquering side.

As the old saying goes, "Standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards. Imagination is the highest kite one can fly." The part about the kite is not particularly relevant to my point, but had Barcelona kept the same squad that they assembled last year, then they would be a lot further than six points behind Real Madrid. Cesc Fabregas has added a whole new dimension to this attack, and quite rightly some are suggesting that he should start El Clasico, almost as a reward for his imperious form. Depending on the way he is implemented into the line-up, I have no objections.

Option One: Accommodating Cesc into the 4-3-3 as a striker

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Being honest, this is the only way Cesc can viably start in the 4-3-3. Not so much the exact positioning, but Cesc can only fit into this formation as a striker, whether that means a place on the wing, or in a "free role". For Cesc to start in the midfield Pep would have to drop one of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets or Xavi. Quite simply, no matter how good Cesc is, he cannot play the holding role anywhere near as well as Busquets (nor can Xavi before people suggest that permutation). In addition to that, he has not displayed the ability to control a game like Xavi Hernandez nor has he the same unquantifiable "clutch" factor that Andres Iniesta brings to the table.

Moving Iniesta forward to left-wing limits his effectiveness and placing Cesc in midfield would be in complete contrast to his usual role as a false #9. As a midfielder in the 4-3-3 there would be added onus on Fabregas to do his share defensively and he would be required to stay in a given position so that his teammates can rely upon him when looking for him to receive a pass. However, Cesc is much more effective when he doesn’t have to contribute defensively or constantly make himself available for a pass. Instead, it is better if Cesc is allowed to drift in and out of the game, thus limiting the time he spends on the ball and maximises his influence on the (seemingly) rare occasions he does gain possession.

Above is a rough guess at how Cesc could fit into the 4-3-3, although I stress that it is merely a 4-3-3 by name. In Barcelona’s usual system there are two wingers on opposite sides, along with Messi in his usual role. In this case, I have taken the opportunity to shift the whole attack towards the left of the pitch, but it could be equally weighted towards the right if necessary. This 4-3-3 would place Messi and Cesc in almost identical positions, which could create conflict, or improve their already telepathic understanding.

Now, from Madrid’s perspective, this is very difficult to defend. Of the three strikers, only one is likely to stay in position, and that is Alexis Sanchez on the wing. Whether he takes up a position on the right up against Marcelo or a position on the left, possibly against Fabio Coentrao, maybe against Lassana Diarra is inconsequential. That full-back would be the only RM defender able to mark an opposition striker.

Obviously that leaves the other three to their own devices, and in my opinion, this can only be a good thing for FC Barcelona. Imagine Marcelo on the left, with absolutely no opposition player to mark. Naturally, he may begin to drift further forward on the assumption that the space he leaves behind cannot be exploited. Here, he would be closer to our goal, but further from his, possibly leaving acres of space in between. In this case, either Lionel Messi or Fabregas can drift out to the right and exploit the space Marcelo leaves (if he ventures too far forward).

Then we get to the two central defenders. Pepe and Sergio Ramos are likely to continue their formidable partnership in the middle of the park, but neither are renowned for their discipline. Leaving them to their own devices means that they will need to stay focused, much like Barcelona defenders do, despite a lack of action so to speak. Unlike other matches, there is no target man to keep them on their toes.

Will they be able to stay focused? Can they keep their discipline, or will they too venture forward? if they do, it will be a clear indication that they are beginning to lose focus, as moving closer to Messi and Fabregas would show (to me anyway) that they need a constant challenge to keep concentration. Not only that, but moving higher up the field would lead to Madrid operating with a high-line, something Barcelona simply love to exploit. Casting my mind back to the 5-0, most of the goals came through Real’s high line and slide-rule passes between the full-back and centre-back. Well, if I were Mourinho, I would be concerned of the very same happening at the Bernabeu, especially with Marcelo in one full-back position and possibly an inexperienced right-back in the other.

Option Two: Cesc Fabregas in the 3-4-3

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Some of you will look at this formation and think that it is absurd. Two weeks ago, I would have agreed with you, especially with RM in such great form, but now, I could be persuaded otherwise. If Mourinho opts for that Trivote, it is almost a dare to Guardiola: play 3-4-3. Thinking of the Trivote in this way fills me with both optimism and caution. First off, expanding on the negative thoughts, why would Mourinho attempt to goad Barcelona into a 3-4-3 if he didn’t have a plan to stop it?

That is what scares me. Mourinho is rarely wrong in his decision-making, and if he does employ a Trivote he would at least be aware of the "vibes" it sends to Guardiola. Whether it would convince Pep to go for this high-risk strategy remains to be seen, but it would have undoubted positives.

The most clear-cut of these positives is the added ball retention. Keeping the ball has always been Barcelona’s primary defensive tactic, while working wonders on the offensive side of things. Should the Blaugrana turn up to the Bernabeu and post around 80% possession, there could be some serious ramifications for Madrid.

On one hand you are running the risk of Barcelona completely overrunning your defense, if they start well. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t, but the mere possibility of Barcelona playing well out of a 3-4-3 must concern Mourinho. Cesc would be in his usual position, as would the rest of the team, Alves aside. Mentioning Alves in a back-three always raises an alarm, but watching the Supercopa again, he was simply excellent up against Cristiano Ronaldo, and if he remains disciplined, he could be a valuable member of a three-man defense.

However, he could equally venture forward, leaving Busquets to cover his place, albeit with a slight shift for the remaining centre backs. I stress that up against the Trivote is the only time I would use this formation against Madrid, any other occasion would likely be suicidal.

Option Three: No Cesc, but Isaac Cuenca!

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Judging by recent form, Isaac Cuenca must be considered for a starting place in El Clasico. I understand how inexperienced he is and how he has never had the pleasure of playing in a venue where the capacity crowd would prefer him mortally wounded, but just when exactly is he supposed to gain this experience? Correct me if I’m wrong, but Cuenca will not get the relevant experience without taking part in the games themselves, and in my opinion, he is the lowest risk of all the possible options.

With the league title on the line, everyone knows that it is vital Barcelona escape from Saturday with all three points. Can they afford another 90 minutes of mediocrity from David Villa? Despite his brace on Tuesday, is there a guarantee that Pedro will play sufficiently well to ensure victory? No on both counts. Of course, both are world-class individuals equally capable of returning to form within a blink of an eye, but recent form suggest otherwise.

In matches like this, you simply need your best players all playing together and at this current point in time, Isaac Cuenca is very much one of them. Tactically, he would throw a huge spanner in the works for Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho. If he opts for the Trivote, it is a clear attempt to congest the middle of the field and make Barcelona play on the wing. Well, what if we grant them that request?

Isaac Cuenca would play on the right, lining up against Marcelo. As mentioned umpteen times before, Marcelo likes to attack, but Cuenca would be a constant threat on that wing meaning one of two things. Either Marcelo stays back to defend that threat and affects his team offensively, or he ventures forward and Cuenca uses the space he leaves behind. Either way, his sheer presence on the wing would cause Madrid to defend the whole width of the pitch instead of just the middle, meaning more space for the midfield players and of course Lionel Messi.

Not only that, but Cuenca would allow Alves to focus on his defensive duties, further constricting Madrid’s impact on the counter attack. If Barcelona can force Madrid as far back as possible, while limiting the offensive capabilities of the full-backs then they can commit more players forward with less risk, and the formation can change from a 4-3-3 to a 2-3-2-3 as illustrated by the runs above.

Option Four: Good Ol’ Reliable

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By this point, I will have done well to have kept your attention, so you are probably sick of all this debate about which formation would benefit the Blaugrana better. So, in a radical move, I am going to campaign for the standard 4-3-3 that has worked so well in previous years, albeit with one change. Previous years have seen Barcelona win trophy after trophy with their standard 4-3-3 because of the versatility. On offense it can change to the 3-4-3 without all the added risks. Defensively it remains solid enough to deal with almost every team it faces, unless someone makes a catastrophic error (see Real Sociedad, Getafe etc.)

Tactical, this is the most fluid of any formation that Guardiola could possibly employ. The full-backs can push forward with next to no risk, as Sergio Busquets falls back to form a back three. Andres Iniesta can run directly at a centre-back or venture out wide allowing David Villa/Pedro to cut inside as they so enjoy. Xavi can move into a central role and dictate the play spraying passes left and right, or straight down the middle. When the team is on song, the movement is impossible to follow, and the slick passing is so difficult to stop. Alexis Sanchez, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, each can evade defenders on the dribble or split the same defense with a through ball.

Simply, this formation is unpredictable, and Real Madrid have lost by large margins up against Barcelona playing a 4-3-3. Give it a little tinkering, (i.e. Alexis Sanchez on the wing and Cesc as an impact sub) and even if Barcelona doesn’t win by five goals, I would be thoroughly contented.

Question is: what formation will Pep choose?

For more on El Clasico, check out the SBNation coverage of Real Madrid vs Barcelona

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