Barcelona have had a pretty torrid time of it recently, with back to back defeats against arch rivals Real Madrid and some ordinary performances in the league. All this on top of a surprise 2-0 loss to AC Milan in the away leg of their Champions League match. There was talk of how this could be the end of a cycle for Barça, especially if they failed to get past Milan in the Champions League. No team has ever overcome a 2-0 first leg loss. But of course, Barça did so last night and did so with some style, winning 4-0. So is everything back to normal for Barcelona?
One of the most fascinating aspects of Barcelona’s victory was how much it owed to a massive change in tactics, one that had not been tried out in any of the previous matches. A bit of a risk in a way. Zonal Marking has a very good analysis of the match and Barcelona’s tactics, which you can read here. Basically Barça played in a 3-4-3 formation. They have used this formation before, but rarely on a regular basis. One of its main advantages for Barça is that with three defenders at the back to deal with any counter attacks by the opposition, there is greater security defensively. This was shown in last night’s match where Milan, despite a lot of pressure towards the end, created very little in the way of goal scoring chances. The one they did have was more the result of a mistake by Mascherano than anything else.
The other advantage is that with four midfielders the team has even more chance of dominating possession than normal. And they can do this without having to sacrifice an attacking player, which is what the team has tended to do in recent matches, when Iniesta was used as a false winger. The biggest surprise in the team selection was the inclusion of David Villa as the central striker. A position usually reserved for Messi. Last night Messi played off Villa at the top of the midfield diamond. This paradoxically gave Messi a lot more space in which to play than in recent matches. With Villa always ahead of him to keep the Milan defenders at bay, Messi had greater space in which to display his amazing talents and took great advantage of this to score the first two goals.
The other surprise of the team selection was to play Dani Alves as a right winger. He has done this before and is a very effective and physically powerful footballer. It is not clear if his selection in this position was because the coaches wanted the extra defensive cover that Alves can provide or if it was because they are not fully convinced by either Alexis Sanchez or Christian Tello. The net result was that Pedro was forced to switch to the left wing, where he did well, but he is much more effective and comfortable playing on the right. Perhaps the need to not loose a goal was the deciding factor here.
This 3-4-3 formation worked pretty much to perfection last night, so the obvious question is, will this now become the norm for Barcelona? There is no doubt they have the players for this in the current squad, though it is more suited to some than others. The role of Alves in particular will be crucial if 3-4-3 is to become the norm. Playing Alves as a right winger is probably not necessary against most opposition. Good though Alves is an attacker, one would assume that the likes of Sanchez would offer even greater attacking potential. Last night Jordi Alba stuck rigidly to his task as an out and out defender as part of the back three. But as he showed with his remarkable run and goal at the end, he is most comfortable and effective as an attacking full back. Indeed Barcelona have two of the most accomplished attacking full backs in the world. A happy position to be in.
We await with renewed interest Barcelona’s next matches to see if they stick with this 3-4-3 formation or revert back to their tried and trusted 4-3-3. I have felt for some time that 3-4-3 is the better formation for Barça, as many teams have learned how to try and nullify the previous set up. 3-4-3 is slightly more defensive, but this greater defensive security allows the attacking and midfield players that bit more freedom in which to play their passing game. In particular it allows the team to play with two genuine wide players. And historically Barça have been most successful with two wide attacking players.