He finally did it.
Xavi went for the three-man line, something that has long been discussed, in a 4-1 win over Real Sociedad. But it was not all smooth sailing.
This was not your average 3-4-3 formation, although for simplicity’s sake I will refer to it as a 3-4-3. It was a very asymmetric formation that featured a winger playing through the middle and two very different wingbacks/wingers on either side. Some referred to it as a 3-2-4-1, which is something you don’t see every day.
It might have been baffling to see this version of the 3-4-3, but only if you hadn’t followed Xavi at Al-Sadd. In fact, this formation was quite similar he played in the Qatari league. Three weeks ago, I wrote:
“Xavi used the 3-4-3 formation at Al-Sadd with some regularity. At Barcelona, he could line up with Jordi Alba as a more defensive winger on one side, and someone like Raphinha as the more attacking winger on the other. Pedri could play as the most advanced midfielder, with Gavi and Franck Kessié as box-to-box midfielders, all supported by Sergio Busquets in the holding role.”
The names were different, but the idea wasn’t.
Alejandro Balde, in his first start, played as a left-wingback, with Ousmane Dembélé on the right as a more attacking option. Through the middle, the player called upon was Ferran Torres. Frenkie de Jong deputized for Sergio Busquets in the holding midfield role, and as his two box-to-box players, Xavi chose Pedri and Gavi.
Pedri was tasked with coming deep to help De Jong in buildup, while Gavi had to cover the right flank when Dembélé stayed high up the pitch.
Torres and Robert Lewandowski tended to drift to Balde’s side, and it was through that association that Barcelona got the first goal - Balde cutting a pass to Lewandowski to smash in the first minute.
But despite having possession, Barcelona lacked control, and surely Xavi was displeased. De Jong made a mistake and La Real pounced on it to put the scores level. The blaugrana had chances, but the frantic pace did not suit them as Real Sociedad also had their own opportunities.
The second half saw Barcelona more tidy in possession, and more deliberate when building up. The team was already doing better in the second half, but there’s no denying the substitutions changed the match. Ansu Fati was electric off the bench, and Raphinha for Balde gave the Catalans even more offensive presence.
Fati assisted Dembélé, who had had a fairly forgettable game to that point. Still, when you have your forwards getting into dangerous positions you always feel it’s only a matter of time until they get one just right. That was Dembélé, who had been imprecise but scored the all-important second goal.
Fati then assisted Lewandowski, before the Pole returned the favor for the youngster.
While the 3-4-3 experiment was not a total success, that second half looked exactly how Xavi envisioned it. A team that can protect itself without the ball but is extremely dangerous when they have it.
I don’t suspect Xavi will make the 3-4-3 his primary formation just yet, but will use it depending on the opponent and the situation.
Real Sociedad played with a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Take Kubo and Alexander Isak upfront. In his post match comments, Xavi highlighted that he thought a three-man line would deal well with two strikers. That means that you could have security with three defenders patrolling two strikers, and then you can add someone into the midfield. It’s a risky strategy, but it paid off in the end.
With Jules Koundé set to become available if Barcelona successfully register him, Xavi will have plenty of chances to go for a 3-4-3. However, Barcelona remain interested in buying fullbacks according to the latest transfer rumors. Of course, these fullbacks could slot into the 3-4-3, but then you would be targeting very attacking fullbacks capable of being wingbacks, and not someone like Juan Foyth (a more defensive right-back.)
I suspect Xavi might look at how the opposition line up before deciding whether to go 3-4-3 or 4-3-3. When the opposition fields a lone striker, or a three-man forward line, expect four defenders. If the opposition uses two up front, expect more 3-4-3. If Barcelona need goals, I can also see Xavi going to the 3-4-3, as it is more attacking. Conversely, he may prefer 4-3-3 when he wants to not risk as much offensively.