After I wrote a blog called “Time for Three At the Back?” Barcelona fielded a three-man line the next two games after.
Now I know Luis Enrique reads this site!
Just kidding, of course. But maybe I did see something similar to what he saw, and we came to a similar conclusion. So I’ll try to get in his head a bit again and analyze the performance with the 3-4-3 system which resulted in a 2-1 victory over Atlético Madrid and a 6-1 smashing of Sporting Gijón.
It wasn’t just a 3-4-3 though, it was supposed to revert to something like a 4-4-2 without the ball. Against Atléti, Sergi Roberto would leave his post in midfield to go to right-back, while a central defender would shift over to the left-back spot.
This idea, by the way, is something similar to something Pep Guardiola has tried, notably with Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich and Pablo Zabaleta at Manchester City.
Luis Enrique thought he needed height against Los Colchoneros, so he picked Jérémy Mathieu ahead of Jordi Alba for the match, and even substituted Lucas Digne on when Mathieu was injured.
One of the main overall aims of the system was to get a little bit more midfield control and also to facilitate Lionel Messi’s positioning as a playmaker.
The issue with this changing formations idea is simply, that an attacking team is not going to wait for you to set back up into your defensive shape. Often, on counter attacks, Roberto could not get back in time to cover his spot. Piqué had to defend the right side, which would leave the middle a bit stretched.
In attack, we saw something like a midfield diamond, with Messi as the tip and Rafinha more as a wing forward, though certainly the situation was fluid... especially as, without the ball, Rafinha was tasked with getting back and defending, whereas Messi was free to stay forward and await service more.
Roberto then would play as something like a box-to-box and so would Andrés Iniesta. These were largely sacrificial roles, which meant neither sparkled. It obviously didn’t suit Iniesta, and he came off for Ivan Rakitić. Obviously, Iniesta is the better player but Rakitić is much better suited to this role, which means bringing him on isn’t as big of a downgrade.
So how was it, overall? Well, it was a win, but it was a tough one. And yet, it was a tough one against a very difficult opponent at their own stadium.
Barcelona clearly grew into the system, which is logical. They improved upon the first half with a better second, probably as they became more comfortable in the formation(s).
You can pick faults with the performance but at the end of the day, were these flaws a symptom of a new formation or something else?
For example, the defense was too open and had to be saved by Marc-André Ter Stegen. True... but wasn’t that true of 4-3-3 already?
Barcelona didn’t retain midfield control even with an extra man in midfield, but wasn’t that true of 4-3-3 already?
I think you can legitimately criticize facets of the performance but in the end, particularly as the game went on, the 3-4-3 looked a worthwhile experiment to me. The team was not exactly great with the 4-3-3 and the 3-4-3 was hardly a cure-all, but it was intriguing.
It may not be used every week, but i could see it being used frequently over the coming weeks, and particularly in the cup final.
While this experiment won’t get rave reviews across the board, it I think the team needed a shake-up, mentally if nothing else.
Against Sporting, it’s almost the inverse: difficult to gauge how much the system worked versus Barcelona simply having a good performance against not-so-stellar opposition.
Alba played as the left-sided defender in the three-man line, suggesting Lucho wants Alba if the other team does not pose as much of an aerial threat. Alba is a liability in the air, but his crazy speed and stamina are huge assets. Let’s remember he scored a goal as part of a 3 man line against AC Milan, in a 4-0 Champions League triumph years ago.
Javier Mascherano replaced Gerard Piqué in the right side of the three-man line, Denis Suárez was the left-sided midfielder, and Ivan Rakitić replaced Roberto as the right-sided midfielder.
This time it seems Sergio Busquets would drop into the middle of defense, moving Masche to right-back.
Meanwhile, the two wingers - Neymar and Rafinha - would drop to become wide midfielders, with Luis Suárez and Messi free to stay upfront.
I’m calling it now: this is the formation for at least the Paris Saint-Germain game, if not for the whole season.
The 3-4-3 led to a 4-0 comeback win over AC Milan, having lost the first leg 2-0, all those years ago. Does it stand a chance of repeating the feat?