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TACTICS: Barcelona’s shape changes when Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi play

With Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembélé, Barça have two wingers more suited to playing further from the middle

LaLiga Santander”FC Barcelona v Villarreal CF”

Barcelona’s shape changes depending on who joins Antoine Griezmann in attack, which results in structural adjustments to the way the team operates. Because of injuries, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez have not featured much, giving playing time to Ansu Fati, Carles Pérez, and Ousmane Dembélé.

Dembélé has also missed time due to injury, with Pérez taking up his minutes instead, but it doesn’t seem to change as much whether it’s Dembélé or the B team player.

The real change is when Messi or Suárez join Griezmann, and particularly if it’s both who play alongside the Frenchman.

Suárez starting forces Griezmann to play on the left wing, and Messi if he plays, operates on the right. Both Messi and Griezmann like to play closer to the middle, though, which is a contrast to how Fati, Pérez, or Dembélé interpret their roles.

To accommodate the “MSG” forward line, Valverde is relying on a variation of a formula he used last season, which has one attacker (Griezmann now, Dembélé or Philippe Coutinho last season) tasked with tracking back more than Suárez or Messi. Effectively the team can morph into a 4-4-2 without the ball, giving the keeper two banks of four men to protect him.

In attack, Griezmann can play on the wing, but he is also given license to make runs as a striker would. Messi can then play as more of a traditional #10, moving form the right into a completely central area. The width then must come from the fullbacks.

That’s how Barcelona started in their 2-1 win over Villarreal, but things changed as the match wore on.

With Fati and Dembélé replacing Suárez and Messi, Barça adjusted their approach. The younger players tended to stick closer to the sideline, which meant the fullbacks could either stay back or make inside runs.

In defense there was not a recognized forward who became a midfielder in defense. Instead, it depended. In some situations, one would drop back, but sometimes it would be the other one or both making a move back. Sometimes one would press, and then sometimes the other one. This approach is a bit more straightforward, the way most teams would use their wingers. The other way is more unconventional, and tries to make players adjust to positions on the fly to best utilize their strengths.

With Messi back on the treatment table, Barcelona will have one of Fati or Dembélé starting, although the question remains as to whether Suárez should continue in the side. Afterwards, while Messi will surely start once he has healed, it remains to be seen how Valverde will manage the team. Will he stick with Messi alongside Griezmann and the Uruguayan? Or will he drop Suárez in favor of a younger player, allowing Griezmann to play in the middle?

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