El Centrocampista

BARÇA AND THE DUTCH MASTER PLAN? – Would Fabregas mean a return for Cruyff’s 3-4-3?

By Lee Roden

As the Cesc Fabregas transfer saga rolls on, it is worth asking the question; why do Barcelona really want or indeed, need him so badly? (At least as we are lead to believe they do).

Standard answers tend to revolve around the issue of Cesc “returning home”, like the prodigal son from La Masia fulfilling his destiny. This does not suffice, Pep Guardiola is an extremely tactically aware man who, as I pointed out in my last piece, is constantly trying to adapt and revolutionise the football Barcelona play.

Guardiola frequently points out the Barça are only as good as the last title they won, and have to continue to alter their playing style as to keep ahead of the competition. The most notable example of this was Lionel Messi moving in to a central position, but we can also include the (failed) Ibrahimovic experiment, the use of fullbacks in the forward 3 (both Maxwell and Alves were used in the front three throughout 2009-10) and the increased importance of the midfield pivot, the role occupied by Sergio Busquets. Perhaps the biggest tactical achievement of Guardiola’s was creating a front 3 that pressed as well as any defence in the world.

What effect would Fabregas have if he returns to the Camp Nou?

Guardiola learned from the master, and has frequently paid homage to Johan Cruyff in both his interviews and tactics. Pep has taken many of Cruyff’s ideas and brought them up to speed with the modern game. The key to Guardiola’s next Cruyff revival may be the signing of Cesc Fabregas.

This summer, the Catalan press have been touting the possibility of a return to Cruyff’s 3-4-3 under Guardiola (indeed, there is an excellent article on this subject matter in avui by Alberto Robledillo, for those of you who speak Catalan). Fabregas would, theoretically, help to facilitate this with his “box to box” style of play as a midfielder.

Cruyff achieved much success with this system, but it is important to remember that such a formation would need to be adapted to modern football. Robledillo’s suggestion is that Barcelona could line up with a back three consisting of Pique as a sweeper, and Abidal and Alves as two side backs. A midfield diamond then compliments this with Busquets as pivot, Xavi and Iniesta as more traditional midfielders, and Fabregas playing at the tip, behind the attack. The front three would then consist of strikers, most probably Villa, Messi and Pedro.

On paper I can see a number of problems with this system. Primarily, it is extremely vulnerable defensively. Having Abidal and Alves as fullbacks with Pique as a loan sweeper means that the normally harmless “high ball over the top” tactic by opposition could become extremely effective.  Furthermore, with Fabregas potentially playing at the tip of the diamond, he would be using the space normally occupied by Messi, which he has so successfully exploited as a “false 9” over the last 2 years.

Offensively limited and defensively frail, two phrases that I cannot see appealing to Guardiola. The 3-4-3 should not be shot down hastily, but is, none the less, difficult to adapt to Barça’s current crop of players. Perhaps a more realistic version would consist of Pique in the sweeper role, with Abidal and Puyol asked to act as more traditional centre backs. The midfield could then be made up of Busquets and Xavi in a deep role, with Alves and Fabregas asked to provide width. A front 3 of Iniesta, Messi and Villa is then a possibility.

Once again there are clear problems with this system, however. In order to accommodate key players along with Fabregas, problems are created. Andres Iniesta is asked to play in the front 3 where, despite some decent performances there in the past, I still think his talent is wasted.  Fabregas would also be asked to work as a wide player, which, again, is not his area of expertise. Finally, Pedro would be relegated to the bench. Considering his performances over the last few seasons this is not only harsh but also entirely unrealistic.

In this version of the 3-4-3, defensive problems are solved and the attack looks great, but does it genuinely look better than the current 4-3-3 used by Guardiola? Asking already proven players to play out of position creates a whole new set of problems.

Of course, the genius of Pep Guardiola is that he thinks of things that seem so obvious in hindsight yet none of us ever guessed them before. Perhaps he has already conceived of a system that not only incorporates Fabregas to the best of his abilities, but also allows the current players to play in their favoured areas, and even accounts for Alexis Sanchez. Time will tell, but I am certain that if Barça do adopt a 3-4-3 this season, Guardiola will have added a spark of his genius in order to bring Cruyff’s idea into 2011.

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