Time cures all wounds, so a few days later, let’s talk about how Barcelona can move forward after a deflating defeat to Real Madrid.
Now, there’s a lot of time left in this La Liga campaign, including another opportunity to take down their rivals, and reclaim those three points.
The question is now, with the roster almost back to full health, is how Xavi should move forward to set his team up for success.
A loss is a loss, as Ilkay Gundogan strongly reminded the team. The correct reaction to that is to take responsibility, instead of making excuses, so as not to repeat the same mistakes again.
But in this case, we do have 45 minutes of tactical success to look at.
One of the biggest question for me now, is whether this 3-4-3 system (as I saw it) is worth investing in.
From the beginning, we should recognize that some players won’t benefit from this change. But on net, does it make the team better?
Let’s weigh the pros and cons.
Pros of the three in the back system from El Clasico
The most obvious reason why this works is because Barcelona have very good center-backs on the roster, so it makes sense to get them on the field.
Last season, when you had Eric Garcia and an ageing Gerard Pique, this wasn’t a viable option.
Now, you have Ronald Araujo, Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen and Inigo Martinez. If these four are healthy, you have a capable rotation to call on.
Together, they are strong defensively, and technical enough to allow Barcelona to keep the ball, and be creative in the build-up.
On set pieces, you also get the benefit of having another big man, able to rise up and provide a threat in the air. Conversely, Barcelona will be more solid in defending set pieces.
In my opinion, the center-backs may actually be the strongest area on this team, and could be the biggest factor in securing silverware in league and cup competitions.
The second benefit to playing this way is that it takes away from Barcelona needing to use Oriol Romeu as a single pivot, and will allow the team to experiment with and refine the success that we saw over the weekend with the partnership of Gavi and Gundogan.
Add Frenkie de Jong into the mix when he returns from injury, and throw in Romeu as a rotation piece, and Barcelona all of a sudden has options here.
Now, here’s the kicker. When you play this way, you are sacrificing a traditional number 10, and wingers, and replacing them with inverted strikers playing behind your center-forward.
Against Real Madrid, the center-forward was Ferran Torres, with Joao Felix and Fermin Lopez shadowing behind.
Fermin would thrive in a system like this.
A versatile player like Lamine Yamal could be trained to play in a more central position, and maybe even Raphinha, who featured in this part of the field once already, and looked very effective.
Now, there are other ways to play with a three-man backline.
Maybe with two forwards up top, and an attacking midfielder behind. Pedri would be that attacking midfielder in this system. Of the other midfielders, I don’t see them having the profile to have the presence to make it work. And even with Pedri, I have my doubts for tactical reasons, in addition to his woeful injury record of late.
But with the starting eleven over the weekend, it can’t be denied how successful it was, preventing Real Madrid from even getting one shot off in the first half, while getting plenty of chances themselves in front of goal.
But that’s not to say there aren’t drawbacks to continuing down this path.
Cons of the three in the back system from El Clasico
One thing we saw on Saturday is that Robert Lewandowski looked dazed, confused, and unable to help his team, when he came on as a substitute. It was the first domino to fall in Madrid’s favor.
A 4-3-3 seems to be the formation that would suit him best as a classic center forward.
Additionally, you can make the argument that he plays his best when an exceptional attacking midfielder, like Pedri, is playing behind him.
These two have already developed a special connection. The problem is that we haven’t seen it nearly as much as we would like, leaving us to wonder if this is a partnership worth investing in. It could help in the short term, but Lewandowski isn’t getting any younger.
The second question to answer is that of the wing-backs.
On the left side, Balde is a natural. He hasn’t had a great season so far in terms of his attacking contributions. Maybe this is the way to unlock his full potential, and get him going.
The right side, however, requires more discussion.
Joao Cancelo looked quite good in his Clasico minutes. He is such a versatile and motivated player, that you get the sense he would thrive no matter where you put him.
One thing we know is that he likes to get forward. We also know that when he does this, it leaves the defense exposed in transition. Have three center-backs, and the cover of a double pivot, may be just the thing to address the vulnerability, while maximizing the impact he can make.
But after Cancelo, the question is whether it’s worth putting Raphinha or Lamine Yamal in that role. I think either could do the job, but it’s far from ideal, and I don’t know for how long either, but especially Raphinha, would tolerate it. This system may push both players to the bench for the time being.
Finally, playing this way would seem to go against the Barca way of playing.
It sidelines the idea of building the attack systematically, in favor of playing faster and more direct. Barca is not known for being a transitional team, but honestly, when conditions have allowed for it, they’ve looked at their best this season, especially with the current crop of players.
There are no easy answers here. Maybe necessity was simply the mother of invention for Xavi last weekend.
But going forward, with so much bright young talent that is malleable, some outside of the box thinking couldn’t hurt.
So what will it be?
Back to the safe and traditional 4-3-3 when Lewandowski, Frenkie, and Pedri return?
Or is Xavi on to something that can only get better with time if he sticks with it?