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Thursday, December 15

Real Madrid - Barcelona: To 3-4-3 or not 3-4-3

A look at Barcelona's new formation of choice, the 3-4-3, for the current campaign.

Co-published by totalbarca.com and twelvepointsports.blogspot.com.  Part one can be read here.  Part three, the lineup projection, can be read here.
3-4-3 means more people in midfield and more possession.  If we have the ball we can hurt the opponent and stop them from hurting us. -- Lionel Messi 
3-4-3 an option?  We used it against Milan and things went well.  Ball possession is the key.  The coach will decide. -- Xavi Hernández
After overseeing a recent run of dominance that has led many football pundits to state their belief this Barcelona side is one of the best ever -- or, in some cases, outright declare their historical supremacy -- with a 4-3-3 system, Barca manager Pep Guardiola has flipped the script this campaign by favouring a new 3-4-3 shape, choosing the linkup play of Messi and Cesc Fàbregas over having a fourth defender at the back.  While the reigning La Liga champs are three points back of Real Madrid -- with Madrid having a game in hand -- it would be wrong to suggest the new shape is the lone reason for the points deficit, given how their opponents play them.

Much has been made over whether Guardiola is "daring" enough to try the 3-4-3 against Real Madrid, or whether it could even "work" against a side with Madrid's offensive prowess.  But, after considering the above quotes, would a 3-4-3 really be all that foolish?  And just what is Barcelona's 3-4-3?

Barca's average lineup and shape this campaign
Barca's 3-4-3 is of the diamond variety, as opposed to, say, Napoli's flat midfield approach.  Almost a 3-1-3-3 with how Sergio Busquets plays as the link between the defenders and the rest of the outfield, the new shape features much of the same as their old 4-3-3: wingers cutting in, Messi as a "false-nine", Dani Alves surging down the right touchline.

The differences, however, begin with Fàbregas and his "false-ten" role.  A traditional "ten" -- a central playmaker who can create for others or himself -- typically plays behind his strikers or forwards, looking to dictate play with the ball at his feet.  While both more than capable and, at times, an embodiment of this, Fàbregas is at his best with Barca when pushing forward towards goal, making runs for through balls or trying to play quick 1-2s.  The combination of his play and Messi's 'false-nine" hasn't just provided great fluidity to the Barca attack, it has also garnered prodigious production: over half of Barca's La Liga goals (24 of 47) have come from Messi (17) or Fàbregas (7, already more than doubling his 3 from his last Premier League campaign with Arsenal).

To say nothing of the chaos their partnership -- one which cannot be replicated in their 4-3-3 -- generates in a defense.  Who are the centrebacks supposed to mark?  The forward often dropping back or the midfielder often coming on?  This havoc creates knock-on effect after knock-on effect: an extra midfielder must drop back to either provide cover for the marking centrebacks or mark one of the players, which leaves one less body to deal with the rest of Barca's midfield, which will give Barca's midfield playmakers more time on the ball, which means another forward player with inferior marking skills must retreat, making it harder for them to advance possession out of their own half, and so on.  Having six players already in the attacking half, and with Alves flying down the right flank, the pressure this applies is nothing close to insignificant.

It's not without blowback, however: all those knock-on effects mean Barca face more men behind the ball, which can, as shown in the Sevilla or Getafe game, ugly up a beautiful game and turn the art of scoring into a real chore.

While having an extra midfielder gives Barca a better chance of maintaining possession even more than they already do, not having an extra central defender prevents Abidal from supplying width at a moment's notice down the left flank, independent of the actions of the defense.  And with both wingers cutting in, and Villa tracking back only to gain possession before taking up an advanced position again, there doesn't exist as clear of a way to bring the width that Alves provides on the right over to their left of midfield.

But Barca does have a few ways of achieving this width, however, and can do so without sacrificing Alves down the right.

LEFT: Movement        RIGHT: Result
One method comes from having one of the central midfielders move out wide to hug the touchline.  In this case: Thiago.  With Thiago of ball, Fàbregas drops deeper, both providing support and looking for ways to exploit the space he just opened.  For the defensive half, Eric Abidal provides support from the back and Busquets, while also free to do the same, will often drop between him and Javier Mascherano, creating a new back three.

LEFT: Movement        RIGHT: Result
Another similar option with Thiago -- or when Seydou Keita plays -- has him moving  wide as opposed to beginning  wide.  Cesc drops to the space vacated by Thiago, Busquets drops into the backline and Mascherano slides right, filling the void left behind by Alves.  Where as the previous scenario is when Barca looks to build from the left, this scenario comes about when Barca wants to switch flanks.  Compared to the first, it's not so much apples to oranges as it is a red apples to green apples affair, but it is still enough of a wrinkle to warrant mention.

LEFT: Movement         RIGHT: Result
When Keita gets the starting nod, however, Barca's approach is that comparable orange: it is Abidal who provides the width, pushing forward down the left flank.  In turn, Mascherano covers for Abidal, Busquets drops into the backline and Keita, while he also can come towards the touchline, generally takes a more retreated position where he can create a back three if possession is lost or provide support to Abidal if need be.

While these different approaches all result in similar shapes to each other, they also find themselves, perhaps surprisingly, not unlike a different system:

LEFT: Movement         RIGHT: Result
That's right, Barca's 3-4-3 shape often resembles their 4-3-3 from last season!  This isn't to say it is always the case -- like when Busquets doesn't drop back to join Abidal and Mascherano, leaving two men at the back -- or that it is the most common of cases -- when going against a team playing deep, Busquets behaves as a pivot more than an auxiliary defender or "modern centre-half" -- but, rather, that the structure of how Barca plays their 3-4-3, when needed to, can be no different than their main shape from the previous campaign.  Even though the personnel is different and Barca has to drop more bodies back when being countered to make up for the missing defender, the similarities between their two shapes cannot be ignored.
The important thing against Madrid won't be starting with 3 or 4 defenders, but the way we go into the game. -- Pep Guardiola
As shown on the "chalkboards", the chief difference between defending in the two systems is the who, not the how.  Yes, the 4-3-3 provides another defensive player, but the 3-4-3, as noted by Messi and Xavi, gives Barca a much better chance of controlling possession and limiting Madrid's chances.  Remember Guardiola's press conference before the away leg of the Champions League Clásicos last year?
I’m confident about the players we have. We are coming here proud to defend our style of play...
After only suffering one defeat in five games to Real Madrid last season and after defeating them in this year's Supercopa, which is more likely: Guardiola makes his most ambitious side yet play conservatively, or Guardiola tries to further his almost missionary-cause of proudly defending the Barca brand of football?
At the Bernabeu, we will try to compete and to win, as we always do.  We sure will be brave enough to play our own game.  If we go there being a bit nervous or thinking we'll sit back and see what happens, the Bernabeu is a very dangerous place to play. -- Cesc Fàbregas
The question isn't whether Barca is brave enough -- or foolhardy enough, one might argue -- to play the 3-4-3.  The question is whether it will ultimately be the right matchup for the myriad of possibilities Jose Mourinho can trot out on Saturday.

...but, for argument's sake, if the question does come down to a matter of bravery, perhaps 'Full Metal Jacket' has the correct answer:

                              GUNNERY SERGEANT HARTMAN
                    Private Joker, he's silly and
                    he's ignorant, but he's got guts
                    and guts is enough.


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