Following a 4-0 humbling at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie, something had to give for Barcelona.
Fresh ideas were needed to revitalise the flagging side after one of their most humiliating defeats in recent memory. Manager Luis Enrique soon announced that he’d be walking away at the end of the season, while speculation turned to what tactical tinkering he would do to get Barça back on track in what remained of the campaign.
Barcelona-based newspaper Mundo Deportivo claimed that the former Roma and Celta Vigo coach would move away from the Blaugrana’s traditional 4-3-3 formation in favour of a 4-2-3-1 shape; they were half right.
Enrique did ditch 4-3-3 after the reverse at the Parc des Princes, but he instead opted to use a type of 3-4-3 system that was not wholly unfamiliar to those inside the Camp Nou.
Barça had toyed with a form of 3-4-3 earlier in the season, which, similar to Chelsea under Antonio Conte, utilised inside-forwards in the front three rather than wingers, wing-backs providing width and a central midfield duo. Recently, however, Enrique has been sending his side out in the version of the formation used by Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team” in the early 1990s, as well as by Pep Guardiola in his final season in Spain.
This means that the midfield four is set up in a diamond shape, with one deep-lying pivot holding the fort, two shuttling interiors and a No.10 at the foremost point. Rather than moving closer to the central striker à la Chelsea, the wingers stay as wide as possible, giving the side width and opening space for marauding midfielders.
Results have been generally positive since the change. A 6-1 mauling of Sporting Gijón was followed up by a 5-0 trouncing of Celta. Then came the historic, remarkable turnaround against PSG, with Barça winning 6-1 on the night to progress 6-5 on aggregate.
A dip in concentration and motivation was perhaps to be expected following the giddy high of the remontada, and Enrique’s men duely slipped to a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Deportivo La Coruña at the the Riazor, dealing their title bid a significant blow.
But the coach stuck with his new system and was rewarded with a 4-2 victory over Valencia at the Camp Nou on Sunday.
How Barcelona’s 3-4-3 Works
One of the main reasons that this new formation has been so effective is, quite simply, Neymar. The Brazilian has showed a level of aptitude and work ethic this season that he does not receive enough credit for.
With his position on the left wing, the shape shift has meant that he is less able to drift into central zones; the absence of wing-backs in this system means that all of the width has to come from the wide attackers. The 25-year-old also has to be cognisant of the greater defensive responsibility he now has, as he is no longer protected in behind by the presence of a full-back.
Yet, Neymar has not only stuck to his task, he has elevated his game to a whole new level in this role, covering every blade of grass up and down the left flank while instigating attacking manoeuvres with his typical flair and creativity.
Against PSG he was the star man, scoring twice and producing the goods when it mattered most to set up Sergi Roberto for the game-clinching goal. And the former Santos star was equally impressive when Los Che visited the Camp Nou last weekend, making seven ball recoveries, completing five take-ons, creating six chances and laying on two assists. It’s no wonder that Barca’s only loss in the since the Paris catastrophe came against Deportivo when he was not playing.
— Ryan Baldi (@RyanBaldiFW) March 19, 2017
Lionel Messi in another player who is benefitting from a change of role in the new set-up. Even in the 4-3-3 that they have used for most of the season, the Argentinian had begun to drift inside from his right-wing berth, moving closer to Luis Suárez and forcing Neymar deeper and wider on the left, effectively becoming a 4-4-2.
But now Messi’s starts centrally, at the point of the diamond, and is able to drop deep to get on the ball when necessary, or push forward to join the attack, without Barça suffering a loss of width as a consequence.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner was having a stellar season to begin with, averaging a goal a game, but Enrique’s switch has allowed the diminutive No.10 to see more of the ball in dangerous zones, and that can only ever be a good thing.
Room For Improvement
The new system is not without its faults, however. The trip to the Riazor was evidence to the fact that, without Neymar, the shape is far less effective, while Enrique is yet to find a viable option for the slot on the right side of the attacking trident.
Rafinha has been favoured there but the Brazilian has failed to offer the requisite width, being naturally left footed, and lacks the pace, dynamism and dribbling skills of his compatriot on the opposite flank.
Arda Turan is another option for this position, having played his best football at Atlético Madrid on the right side of Diego Simeone’s midfield, but he too will be inclined to drift centrally in search of goal-scoring opportunities.
Without the right winger staying wide, the central zone becomes clogged and the opposition’s backline can easily limit space by staying narrow. Only when stretching them wide do gaps start to open up. With this in mind, it is no surprise to see that Barcelona have been linked with a move for Borussia Dortmund’s thrilling 19-year-old French winger Ousmane Dembélé.
There are issues to be resolved at the back too. Gerard Piqué, with his strong aerial presence, positional awareness and passing range, is the perfect candidate to play as the sweeper at the centre of the back three, while Samuel Umtiti has shown his ability to defend in wide areas on the left.
But former Liverpool anchor man Javier Mascherano appears far less comfortable. The Argentinian looks like a fish out of water when covering the wide spaces, as evidenced by Barça’s trip to lowly Leganés earlier this season, in which he struggled on the right of the back three. And against Valencia, although he managed to register an assist, he was frequently caught out of position and largely culpable for the away side’s second goal.
In addition to a right-winger, a malleable and versatile defender for the right side of the backline may also be sought in the summer.
Overall, though, the 3-4-3 looks like being a success. Credit to Enrique, a coach who has been criticised for a lack of tactical nous, for finding a solution to a sinking ship he already intends to jump from.