Barcelona’s 3-4-3 formation: Unsustainable nostalgia

Despite its glorious success on Monday, it's hard to envisage Guardiola persisting with the formation

By Simon Jalie in Barcelona
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Guardiola's gamble with a 3-4-3 formation paid off on Monday Photo: The Sport Review

pep guardiola

The Catalan press was purring on Tuesday morning.

Real Madrid laid down the gauntlet to their main rivals with a 6-0 win over Real Zaragoza at the Romareda on Sunday night but Barcelona responded a day later with an even more impressive feat, beating one of Spain’s Champions League representatives 5-0 at the Camp Nou.

Regional periodicals Sport and El Mundo Deportivo had plenty of material to saturate the multitude of pages they dedicate to exclusive coverage of the game.

The familiar style and authority with which Barca dispatched Villarreal, Leo Messi’s candid exhibition of his unique talent and the debut league goals registered by Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas took up plenty of column inches.

Occupying more space than any of those, however, was the Catalan journalists’ indulgence in a frenzied celebration of Pep Guardiola’s daring implementation of the 3-4-3 formation.

Any tactical strategy which includes just one recognised defender in the starting eleven and allows the manager to deploy seven attacking players all at once is a cause for celebration, especially when it pays off as handsomely as it did for Barça on Monday night.

But the affection for the 3-4-3 system emanates from a deeper recess in the Catalan psyche.

It harks back to Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team of the early 1990s which, until Guardiola’s current crop upstaged them, was justly acknowledged as the most stylish and successful team in Barcelona history.

The 3-4-3, however, did not survive Cruyff. It didn’t even last the duration of his managerial tenure in Les Corts, which eventually succumbed to his turbulent relationship with club president Josep Lluis Nunez. It is an unsustainable tactical model, one which is rarely applied in the modern game.

The formation worked for the Blaugrana on Monday because they didn’t allow Villarreal to test the vulnerability of the makeshift back three.

By playing almost the entire game in the visitor’s half and allowing Thiago, Iniesta, Fàbregas, Messi, Pedro and Sánchez to work their magic, Barcelona pressed their opponent furiously when they didn’t have the ball and passed them to death when they did.

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New boy: Cesc Fàbregas (right) has already scored two goals since moving to the Camp Nou and was an integral part of Guardiola’s tactical experiment on Monday

Lightening movement and majestic exchanges, combined with the ability of each of those players to beat his man one on one, led to countless openings.

Yet it is hard to envisage Guardiola persisting with the 3-4-3 unless it is entirely necessary.

As an integral part of Cruyff’s system 20 years ago, filling the role which Seydou Keita played to great effect on Monday, Guardiola is well aware of the pitfalls of neglecting the defence in favour of total football.

For all the success of Cruyff’s team, they conceded almost as many goals as they scored and people seem to have forgotten the fact that they relied on Tenerife beating Real Madrid on the last day of the season to secure two of their four consecutive league titles.

This was an experiment by Guardiola, an unqualified success, which may lead to application elsewhere if and when it is both viable and, more tellingly, unavoidable.

Guardiola’s alternatives against Juan Carlos Garrido’s team consisted of fielding attack-minded players out of position or calling up untried novices from the B team.

When Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqu̩ are fully fit Рthey are expected back in time to face Milan in the Champions League opener Рthey will come back into a more conservative back four with Dani Alves, who was suspended on Monday, on the right and one of Maxwell, Adriano or Eric Abidal on the left.

The Barcelona fans, a collective among which most Catalan journalists count themselves, should not be disappointed when the team returns to normality, even if their nostalgic instincts counsel them otherwise.

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