Why has the CDB Pod been quiet for the past few months? Well, a big part of that is that I’ve relocated to Zaragoza in Spain for the year and so there have been various other things to sort out. But what that does mean is that I’ve been able to take in some Spanish football and it’s been a really interesting experience. Today, I’m going to discuss a team I’ve seen twice already this season, the reigning Liga BBVA champions Barcelona. Earlier in the season I made a pilgrimage to the Camp Nou to watch what turned out to be a pretty disappointing game, a 1-1 draw with Mallorca, as well as a trip to La Romareda to watch my local side Real Zaragoza host Barca, which ended 0-2, and in those two games I was really fascinated by Pep Guardiola’s tactics. I was treated to seeing two quite different but revolutionary formations, which confirmed to me that Guardiola is the most exciting, innovative coach currently operating.
We’ll start with Barca’s more frequently used formation over the last six to twelve months, which was in operation at the Camp Nou for the draw with Mallorca. Bearing in mind a depleted first team through injury, this is what it looked like:
The main innovation of this formation is the use of Sergio Busquets (or his stand-in in this instance, Javier Mascherano) in the deep-lying midfield position as essentially a modern incarnation of the Libero-style sweeper (as has been discussed by the likes of Jonathan Wilson and zonalmarking.net). Rather than being based behind the centre-backs when out of posession as was in the old 5-3-2 formations, Busquets/Mascherano starts around where Claude Makelele used to sit just ahead of them, but when his team are in posession drops further back, in line with the centre-backs, pushing them wider and allowing the full-backs to bomb forward safe in the knowledge that the defence is sufficiently guarded. Busquets isn’t the first to be doing this for Barca – Yaya Toure started the practice circa 2008 – but he’s much more rigidly a centre-half in posession than Toure was.
The benefits of this are several for Barca – one of the big plus points is that Gerard Pique, pushed out on the right of the defensive three, has more freedom to bring his considerable ball-playing technique into play, often instigating many attacking moves by bringing the ball out of defence. With Xavi out of the Mallorca match with injury, this was particularly evident in that game as Pique was arguably the main playmaker on show for them. Also it allows Dani Alves to utilise his full potential as a terror rushing up on the right flank. Alves is an absolute beast but is slightly defensively frail and the reduction in his responsibilities on that front allow him great freedom to rampage at opposition left-backs, who have to deal with him hugging the line as well as Pedro cutting inside from slightly further forward. It’s an effect that is replicated to a lesser extent with Maxwell on the left flank, although obviously Maxwell is not on the same level as Alves. I found it strange that Eric Abidal was playing that role instead of him against Mallorca, who is much more limited as an attacking force and is better utilised as the left centre-back in this formation, and I felt his presence in that position was a contributing factor to Barca’s empty-of-ideas performance in the second half as the game slipped away from them.
The other interesting thing about the Mallorca line-up was that there was no orthodox centre-forward. Where first Samuel Eto’o and then Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have been in seasons gone by, there was an empty space in the centre of the box around which Leo Messi, Bojan Krkic and Pedro floated somewhat nebulously, with Messi nominally through the middle and Bojan cutting in from the left in the role David Villa would presumably have played if he had been fit. Messi was outstanding in the role in the first half, orchestrating everything as Barca cut through Mallorca at will and scored a great placed shot from the edge of the area halfway through the first period.
Several things, however, were different about the system on show with a more complete first eleven away to Zaragoza a few weeks later.
This image is of the formation with Barca in posession, and the first thing to notice is Pique, rather than Busquets, in the middle of the three centre-backs, something I found quite strange, as it seemed to inhibit Pique’s playmaking qualities. Busquets in turn looked to be in a more typical holding midfield role. But really the fantastic thing about the system on show at La Romareda was that hardly anyone was actually bound to a particular position. To an extent this will have been prompted by the opposition (Real Zaragoza are a real mess at rock bottom of the the league, although they did manage to take a point off the impressive Valencia away recently), but the team was set up with a great deal of positional fluidity, everyone moving into space wherever they could find it, knowing that a team-mate would be aware enough to move themselves in compensation. A key example of this fluidity was the relative positioning of Alves and Puyol, Puyol playing noticeably wider than the Brazilian throughout the game, with Alves hovering almost as a partner for Seydou Keita in central midfield before moving wider when the ball found his feet. When Zaragoza were on the attack, however, Barca shifted to a more normal flat back four with Alves and Abidal at full-back and Busquets and Keita playing ahead of Pique and Puyol. All this versatility in defensive positioning allowed Guardiola to field essentially four out-and-out forward players, with Andres Iniesta very advanced on the left wing and Messi given total freedom to float around Villa at centre-forward, to devastating effect, might I add.
Obviously this is against the league’s worst side, but the sight of a team fielding four frontline attackers away from home is brilliant to see, and it does seem like Guardiola has arrived upon the evolution of the past six or seven years of defence-minded tactical innovations into its eventual attacking output. By that I mean that when Makelele made the single holding midfield player a must for every successful side, the pragmatic 4-3-3 became the dominant formation in top-level football, a formation that had room for only one out-and-out forward with the wingers having to do plenty of work in midfield rather than go all-out attack. Since then there has been a trend towards trying to open that tactic up to greater attacking flexibility. The previous stage of this was the 4-2-3-1, seen in use by the best teams at the World Cup, and the 4-2-1-3 at Jose Mourinho’s Inter last season, where a pair of defensive midfielders gave greater license to the full-backs to attack at will, and at Inter allowed for three genuine forwards as well. Now, with Barca making defenders less rigid positionally, there are six players in a broad defensive bloc, any of whom can cover for any individual starting or joining attacks. It’s hard to know what to call it (3-3-4? 4-2-4? Jonathan Wilson suggests it’s a return of the W-W or 2-3-2-3.) but Guardiola has managed to find a tactical system which seems to have given him essentially an extra man at each end of the pitch. I can’t wait to see how Mourinho deals with it in the upcoming Clasico.