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STICK OR TWIST? – Pep Guardiola and the 3-4-3 question | El Centrocampista
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El Centrocampista

STICK OR TWIST? – Pep Guardiola and the 3-4-3 question

By Lee Roden

With the international break finally over, it’s time to turn our heads once more to the primera, and the second (or is it third?) game in the calendar.

Strike action followed by international games mean we have had a measly one game in around three weeks of the league calendar, but fortunately the one Barcelona game we have had the pleasure of seeing was absolutely breathtaking.

Guardiola’s vintage or revolutionary (depending on which way you look at it) 3-4-3 that crushed Villarreal has been well documented already.

Pep now faces a choice however.

With Barcelona travelling away to Real Sociedad this weekend, will Guardiola revert to his tried and tested 4-3-3, or again deploy the formation that was so successful against the yellow submarine?

It goes without saying that Guardiola will most likely opt for his latest formation again throughout the coming season, what is intriguing however is whether he is ambitious enough to do so away from home.

Playing at the Camp Nou in this manner is one thing, but at Anoeta, San Mames or, dare we say it; the Santiago Bernabeu is something entirely different.

Admittedly, with the last suggestion I’m being flippant, but strip away the exaggeration and the question remains, could Guardiola really deploy such an attacking formation away from home?

It’s an interesting debate and one we aren’t normally faced with surrounding Barcelona.

By now the adage about knowing what to expect from Barça’s style has been done to death, and as such it’s something quite new to question exactly how Guardiola will approach a game in terms of ambition.

Minor changes have been made in the past by Guardiola(the use of wingbacks as forwards for example), but his line-up against Villarreal was undoubtedly a change more radical than anything he has opted for before.

To get to the heart of all this we have to take an educated guess at what Guardila was (and is) really trying to achieve with his 3-4-3.

Was Pep laying down a marker for things to come; a rallying cry to his players in which he asked them to revolutionise world football and prove that player positions, at least as we have came to know them, are now a thing of the past?

Or, was it simply a case of Guardiola’s hand being forced by injuries, making the formation the only feasible option?

I suspect it may be a bit of both.

If we break down the fundamentals of Guardiola’s changes to the Barça style over the last few years, we can begin to understand his philosophy in greater detail.

The first most obvious change was making the forwards lead the defensive line.

To put it simply, increased pressure from the forwards means decreased pressure on the Barça back line, who have to worry less about the ball even reaching them, as chances are the players in front of them will have reclaimed it before it does.

Also important is more emphasis on ball playing centre halfs, who often aren’t even really centre halfs at all.

This means that possession is retained from the front to the back of the pitch.

Villarreal were blown away by a rampant Barcelona side at the Camp Nou.

Warriors will always have their place in the Barça philosophy, but being able to combine that mentality with technical expertise is the mark of the Barça defender of the future.

Under Guardiola, it began (and is perhaps best exemplified) with Gerard Pique.

Gradually, Eric Abidal was moulded in this manner too (and indeed, looked almost Pique’s equal before he was hit with cancer last year).

Even Javier Mascherano, a man so often criticised (admittedly, myself included) for his poor distribution is now showing the signs of morphing into a cultured central defender with an eye for a pass.

Finally, the diminishing role of the centre forward comes into play.

Let’s face it, for a while Barça haven’t exactly loved the centre forward (it sounds obvious, but they usually only play with one at the most).

This train of thought was only vindicated by the Ibrahimovic experiment, too.

The man who does regularly play in the middle of attack for them, Lionel Messi, has changed from winger into false 9 into something we don’t even have a term for yet.

Leo’s role in the Barça system is fundamental, and the way he bridges midfield and attack into one single role has proved vital for Barcelona over the last two years.

Indeed, until recently it was easy to say that this was only possible because, well, he’s Lionel Messi.

In many ways that’s true; the way Messi does things cannot be replicated, but recently, we have witnessed Cesc Fabregas playing in a very Messi-like role, and doing so well.

To make matters more complicated, against Villarreal they both done it. At the same time.

To bring this increasingly abstract piece back to reality, it’s also true that Guardiola has had some pretty clear injury problems to deal with too.

An overwhelming number of midfielders in the squad (who also, might I add, showed impressive form in pre-season) coupled by a complete lack of proven central defenders meant that a change in formation had a clear advantage.

The adjustment permitted Pep to field the largest number of experienced players possible, albeit at the expense of deploying traditional central defenders.

Would Guardiola have opted for this formation so early in the campaign were it not for these injuries?

Unlikely. It’s more likely that he would have tested it occasionally against the smaller teams in the league, and then deployed it when he felt it was ready.

The complete absence of the system in pre-season seems to support this.

When Guardiola did eventually drop the 3-4-3 on Villarreal, perhaps even he was amazed at how quickly and indeed how well his players adapted to the system.

As I suggested at the beginning of my article, this brings up a whole new dilemma for the coach. The question is, does he feel the necessity or indeed the urgency to adopt the system against Real Sociedad this weekend?

I’d suggest that if it isn’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

Five goals against a champions league team are nothing to be sniffed at, and I wouldn’t be at a all surprised if the same formation is adopted this Saturday.

That being said, I also wouldn’t be surprised if Guardiola returns to a 4-3-3 and never uses a three-man defence again.

Such are the dangers of trying to second-guess Pep. Nonetheless, he knows how to keep us interested (and me in a job).




5 Comments

  1. Jamie

    9 September, 2011 at 16:43

    Very interesting article. I watched the game and Barca were very impressive but you’d have to imagine Pep would go with the 4-3-3 system for most games. Barca would be a different, and in my opinion, inferior side without Dani Alves in the team. Plenty of options but which is always good.

  2. leeroden

    9 September, 2011 at 21:35

    It’s a good point and one I’ve deliberated over for a while. I suppose Alves could be worked in as a right sided midfielder (so then you have Pique, Puyol and Abidal in defense with Xavi playing deep) but that probably means no place for Busquets….

    Perhaps Alves in a front three? Don’t think he does his best work there either. It’s a dilemma for sure, I wish I had the answer! It almost seems like Barça have went over night from having a ridiculously strong 11 to a ridiculously strong squad. Perhaps there’s an article in that last point somewhere…..

  3. Varun

    10 September, 2011 at 02:39

    It will most likely be 4-3-3 as defenders are coming back from injuries, plus Alves.
    He can indeed play in the midfield as he did against RM at Bernabeu once.

    Also depends on opposition, if the Barca get pressed really high up with 2 attackers, then he’ll drop to 3 at the back mid-game, which was already happening a lot last season as well wit Busquets.

    • Sato

      11 February, 2012 at 19:25

      The arcitle was based on a piece about Guardiola, so it would be hard not to talk about Guardiola.Not pro-Barcelona at all.

  4. leeroden

    10 September, 2011 at 08:43

    Re: Alves, I remember that game well, I remember the surprise on everyone’s faces when the starting lineup was revealed too (I was watching it in a bar in Barcelona with some Catalan friends). I do think Alves is less effective there, and giving him free roam of the pitch from back to front (so to speak) brings out the best in him.

    The idea of the defensive mid dropping into centre back has been happening for a while indeed. In Guardiola’s first season Toure tended to tuck inside with Pique and Puyol, though occasionally Abidal would drop back too.

    Will be interesting to see how they line up tonight. I suspect you’re right and it’ll be a 4-3-3, but perhaps if it isn’t working he’ll change it up.

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