Since 2008, world football has continuously evolved. A new generation of players has developed and adapted to the world stage, along with that a new generation of coaches and systems.
However, one thing had remained mostly consistent up until this year. Barcelona’s infamous 4-3-3 formation, a system engrained in the academy and up until recently, the first team.
Yet even that system has been changed by respective coaches of the first team. From Pep Guardiola to Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona similar to everyone else has evolved multiple times.
In 2008, Pep Guardiola assembled a side that began to resemble a team that could contend for any trophy in the world. By 2009, that same team had evolved into precisely that, winning a record six trophies in one year.
The 4-3-3 of 2009 had no over-reliance on any one player and focused around a team of world-class talents committing to the extravagance of a system. From the goalkeeper to the front line, a message of tiki-taka was engrained and the team prospered magnificently.
Over the years, Guardiola’s system began to pivot slightly. Close observation shows how even in 2011, the team was starting to rely on the little Argentinian, Lionel Messi to push the system forward. By the end of Guardiola’s tenure, the over-reliance was clear, Messi scored over 80 goals in a calendar year; a wonderful feat, but damning of the team game.
After Guardiola’s departure, a time of unpredictability and subpar play followed, an era that most Barcelona fans do not like discussing. With the legendary Tito Vilanova at the helm, Barcelona played beautiful football but were simply not getting the results. And then, a time that any Barcelona fan would describe as miserable, with Tata Martino at the helm. While Martino remained committed to the system, his variations on personnel and his ability to motivate the squad were left waning, and ultimately disappointing.
Which leads us to first large variation seen in the system under Luis Enrique. What differentiated Enrique from his predecessors was the pure talent found in his front line.
Due to the aging midfield Enrique inherited, with Xavi and Andres Iniesta beginning to influence matches less, Enrique decided to pivot once again. Instead of focusing mainly on possession, Enrique challenged his team to move the ball forward to the front line as quickly as possible; a front line that contained Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.
In his initial season, opponents found this pivot almost impossible to defend. Look no further than Barcelona’s 3-0 demolition of Bayern at the Camp Nou. That season, Enrique led Barcelona to their second treble ever and invigorated the side. After that first season though, the pivot became less effective as teams started to challenge and overrun Barcelona in midfield, which leads us to the present day.
While Ernesto Valverde began the season with the patented formation, we have begun to see his tactical decisions implemented in games. With a 4-4-2 formation being used in recent matches, Barcelona have certainly been successful, but at a cost. Still riding an undefeated season, the mentality in big games has shifted. Unlike the 3-0 hammering versus Bayern, under Valverde, Barcelona’s big games this year has seen them approach these matches with a glass half empty.
As seen in the draws versus Atletico Madrid and Valencia, the current Barcelona team approach is tactically defensive. Under Guardiola and Enrique, the team strived forward and believed in winning games while on the attack, under Valverde that strategy has changed.
Still undefeated, Valverde cannot be criticized, but this Barcelona team is certainly different. Moving forward in the season, we must accept that glamor is not essential to a successful season, and that realization might lead to another treble.