A radical tactical change for Barcelona
Football throughout history has ebbed and flowed like a tide, with formations being created and adapted to counter other formational changes in the rest of the footballing world. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side and the increased use of possession-based football forced the most recent major formational development in world football; the massive rise in the use of
4–2–3–1. It’s almost like a race, Barcelona advanced above everyone else tactically for a few years, however now the defensive formations have caught them up. It is time for Barcelona, and other attacking teams to try something radical to avoid the deep-lying, counter attacking teams. I believe this radical change is a back three; made up of one centre back and two full backs.
At it’s most simple level, when written on paper as 4–2–3–1 it becomes easy to see why switching to a back three with one centre back or libero (sweeper) might not be too detrimental defensively to a team such as Barcelona. The simple fact is that with teams that line up with a defensive 4–2–3–1 sit deep with a lone striker up front. Having more than one centre back in situations like this seems almost ludicrous. Nonetheless, removing a centre back from an already fragile defence when facing 4–2–3–1 counter attacks seems inherently counter-productive. That however, doesn't take into account where the spare man would fill in and how he would prevent (especially in the current Barcelona squad) counter-attacks from really troubling the defence. I believe Barcelona should start to play to their strengths, and with two of the best Defensive Midfielders in the world, it seems absurd that sacrificing a centre back to be able to play two half-backs (DMs) has not been seriously attempted by any of Barcelona’s recent managers.
Barcelona should hark back to their roots, with 3 defender formations being the norm throughout La Masia, meaning in theory it should be simple enough for the defenders to re-adopt the positioning that they were brought up with and form a solid defensive line (although the natural inclination for the full backs to attack and overlap would have to be curbed). This may mean that players such as the overly attacking Dani Alves may have to be omitted, with my suggestion being Bartra as his replacement (having played RB as a youth player). With the Defensive Midfielders of Mascherano and Busquets lining up on either side of, and slightly ahead of a lone centre back Barcelona could effectively split the defensive zone into two rough halves. This would mean that the recent positional problems Busquets has been facing this season, through being left exposed and with too much space to cover due to a stretched midfield would be a thing of the past, with the space he would have to cover in looking to cut out passing-lanes and pressing opposition effectively being halved.
However, added to this increased stability in the sudden shifts from attacking to defensive phases that Defensive Midfielders are burdened with having to deal with, the cover for the lone libero or centre back would be unchanged from a traditional two centre back formation. The tactical positioning which would allow this to be the case harks back to Cruyff and Van Gaal’s legendary Ajax sides. Both of these sides utilised a Defensive Midfielder in a Half-Back position, essentially with two roles, recycling possession whilst in the attacking phase and subsequently being able to slip into a back four whilst under attacking pressure from the opposition, with Rijkaard mainly fulfilling this role for Ajax. In Barcelona’s case, Mascherano seems to have been created for that very role. A versatile player who is comfortable on the ball but can also read the game and time tackles and interceptions like only a handful of players can. It is this balance between the attack and defence of the Half-Back which would allow Barcelona, and other possession-based teams to play with one centre back without the fear of being over-run on the counter, especially with the toning down of attacking full-back play.
It is in this area that most attacking teams would have to seriously evolve and adapt, as many utilise overlaps from full backs as their main source of width. However, whilst in possession the two Defensive Midfielders mean the centre of the field would be largely accounted for, giving the usual holding midfielders, in Barcelona’s case Iniesta and Rakitic (or Xavi) far more attacking freedom in terms of utilising width. I have portrayed this by including the currently on loan Deulofeu on the right to show how he could over-lap Messi who would play as a number 10 who makes runs largely from the right. However, this idea could also work on the other side of the pitch with Iniesta pulling away slightly wider on the left hand side. Not only would this give more space and creative freedom to the number 10, it would drag Defensive Midfielders in the oppositions 4–2–3–1 to wider areas of the pitch, or conversely the wider players into more central areas leaving the wings open.
Although this formation seems radical, variants of it have been used by managers ranging from Cruyff, decades ago, to recent Biesla teams such as Chile in the 2010 World Cup. Personally I believe the best teams mould their formations to suit their players and the use of three defenders and a single centre back clearly fits Barcelona like a glove. It is not something I’ve thought up on a whim but a long-standing historical tactic throughout possession-based teams, which seemed to sadly die out and disappear from all knowledge. However variants of the system have been used, particularly by Barcelona’s La Masia youth system, leading me to believe that just as the switch from the two striker formations of 4–4–2 to the one striker formations of 4–2–3–1; the use of one centre back can drive forward footballing evolution, with Barcelona once again at the helm.