“Pressure, pressure, pressure!” Pep Guradiola insists were it not for the suffocating pressuring of opponents caused by his team, his side would not have been as successful. Taking Johan Cruyff’s philosophies and adopting them with great effect, Guardiola has made Barcelona not just great with the ball but also without it.
The 4-3-3 has been made synonymous to the Catalan side ever since Johan Cruyff transcended on the club. He gave Barcelona an identity, a philosophy to continue for years to come. Frank Rijkaard and Louis Van Gaal tried to adapt the formation on the pitch to meet modern football but Guardiola has stuck to the ideal’s of Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ of the early 90’s.
The thinking was to make the pitch as big as possible; the 4-3-3 allows natural interchange, greater angles in the pass and creates high pressure in order to win the ball back early. It means energy is not wasted in needless tracking back.
Now, what is the actual reason for this article especially as there has been countless of Barcelona articles on this site already? Ever the coach, recently there has been an increasing demand from some Arsenal fans to implement a Barcelona 4-3-3. Arsene Wenger is fully aware of the history of the Barça and he is also aware that none of this would have been possible were it not for the youth system Cruyff remade. As Michael Robinson, Spain’s most famous football commentator, puts it: “put 20 kids in a park and I can tell you which two are at Barça.”
Wenger admits his most greatest influence was the “Total Football” Ajax team of the late 60s and early 70s. A team which was built up with a core of players from the academy and played revolutionary football, interchanging positions and keeping the ball. He is trying to implement his own style and right in doing so: “I want to have success by building a team with a style, a know-how, with a culture of play specific to the club and it’s fans and with young people,” said Wenger.
Just playing a 4-3-3 isn’t the be-it-end-all of Barcelona’s style. It works because they have created a DNA twenty years ago and have stuck to it. “Receive, pass, offer” is what they teach the young midfielders and you can see it in Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Arteta to name a few. Sir Alex Ferguson pin-pointed the central midfield as the heartbeat of Barcelona’s game but still failed to compete with it.
On the face of it Arsenal seem the best equipped to implement the same style on the pitch; they have Fabregas, Barça born and bred and play a similar brand of pass and move football. But in the Premiership is it as sustainable to pressurise opponents when teams just lump the ball forward and also play their forwards even higher up the pitch? As a result the gap will be huge in the centre and this in turn could place more work on the central midfielders. Xavi and Iniesta are fantastic at keeping the ball and there are not many players like them. Then there is Yaya Toure; great at keeping the play ticking, playing simple passes and has the required power to win the ball back. Reported interest in Mascherano seems perfect for Barça; he’s mobile, good in the tackle and an underrated passer too.
Arsenal played a 4-3-3 against Chelsea twice, in the FA Cup and in the League. Regarding the latter, the Gunners lost 4-1 and the high pressure back fired. A lack of organisation in the centre and also a poor willingness from the forward pairing except Van Persie to pressure the opponents. Song was found suspect positionally because of the amount of space he had to deal with and the fact Chelsea played a direct game disrupting the high pressure play. Previously however, a pressure game against Villarreal using Wenger’s 4-4-1-1 worked with greater effect but showed work must be done. Arsenal do press, you can hear at times, Pat Rice barking at the players to do so but that doesn’t necessarily mean a 4-3-3 is key.
The test for Barcelona will be to try and sustain the success; Rijkaard couldn’t continue for more than two years and the ‘Dream Team’ lasted about only four years. Increasingly it seems that the players make up the system and there should be a steady flow of players with the same identity to make it. Fitness is also a key issue; Guardiola worked vigorously in pre-season to make this work and halfway through the campaign ordered higher intensity training sessions. The short-term result saw a slight dip of form but ensured that Barcelona could continue their assault for the remainder of the season with such effect.
There is no reason to say that Arsenal couldn’t do it; there is just more deeper thinking to it than a no-thrills 4-3-3 like many are calling for. Their is a philosophy, an identity, a vision that Arsenal must strive towards, and in Arsene Wenger a manager working his way to building an Arsenal that will last years to come.