Barcelona lead the way but their blueprint cannot easily be imitated

Arsenal fans want a similar implementation of Barcelona’s formation but it is not as simple as 4-3-3.
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Xavi-evades-Michael-Carri-001

“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.

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15 thoughts on “Barcelona lead the way but their blueprint cannot easily be imitated

  1. Xabi Alonso is not from Barca’s academy.

    Great article asides… I feel a 4-3-3 would be great, with Nasri or Diaby as a CM like Iniesta, near the 3 strikers, so Cesc can always distribute. I would like to keep Song and make him DM, not a new guy… Song was great from February on…

    1. Sorry your right. Alonso is from Real Sociedad’s academy and grew up in the Basque region. His father used to play for Barca. I will change that.

  2. I respect this blog, normally has a lot of common sense, and isn’t a WWE forum where people bash and demand what is working.

    I have spoken to a few journalists, and they told me that no one can use the Barcelona 4-3-3 the same way that Barcelona do. The recruitment is geared towards playing that system, Toure is used to playing a 2 man midfield from his days at ASEC and is a playmaker, so having another two to help plays into his hands, Eto’o has always been a tactically intelligent player and learned from the likes of M’boma. Henry was a wide player in his Monaco days so the 4-3-3 is not hard for him to interpret.

    In short, the 4-3-3 Barcelona style is in their DNA, and it makes it easier. I don’t believe we have the players to have a 4-3-3 with our current acquisitions. It isn’t getting the best out of our current players, neither does a 4-2-3-1 get the best out of them. I know that the team was experimenting with a 4-3-3 in training when L.Diarra was at the club, a proposed midfield of Diarra-Diaby-Fabregas was the trial, after he went, it was ditched.

    My personal and probably most logical is a 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-2-1. Arsenal has some able central midfielders and very talented attacking midfielders. Why not deploy them where they operate at their best rather than trying to pack them all in? A squad of 25 means some need to be on the bench when required. I would have a defence of Sagna-Gallas-Vermaelen-Clichy. In midfield, the three would be Fabregas-Diaby-Denilson. The attacking midfielder would be a straight choice between Rosicky(the best at the club)/Nasri/Arshavin. Arsenal have 6 strikers, so picking any two from that should not be a problem.

    Some say there is no width, no pressure, Milan won 9 trophies in 8 years this way, they built around having many central midfielders, lets not forget they managed to squeeze Rui Costa-Kaka-Seedorf and still win trophies without telling them to play as wingers. A good trainer builds a side around their core strengths, and we can still play the Arsenal way in a ‘wingless’ formation, afterall we don’t have wide players that can really make the difference out there. Van Persie hasn’t shone there in 5 years at the club, why would that change after 1 pre-season? Arshavin from his games for Russia hurts teams the most when he is in the hole, take away the 4-4 Liverpool, he is still periphery to the action on the flank. Nasri still struggles to bring the ball inside when on the flank.

    No to 4-2-3-1, no to a Barcelona 4-3-3(we only have 4 weeks of pre-season, how can that style be embedded in that time frame?), no to attacking midfielders being made wingers.

    1. Hi, the wingerless formations you propose is very interesting. It definitely allows passing and movement, and the creative players to play to their strengths. Could it work as well in the Premiership and would it leave too much space down the flanks? That’s a question been posed to someone like Spain but because they are so good at holding the ball they haven’t really been as punished. It can work.

      The match that stood out for me last season was the Villarreal one away. I’ve seen them a number of times but to out Arsenal, Arsenal was great to see. Similar set-up to the Invincibles team (4-4-1-1) and what Wenger likes. It lacked the pressuring and tracking back that RVP gives but with the two ‘creative wingers’ they cut in and had great movement. Eguren and Senna in particular protected well and reminded me of Edu/Gilberto and Vieira partnership.
      The 4-2-3-1 last year was just temporary according to Wenger; he will have a ‘proper’ set-up next season.

    2. It’s an interesting idea, but I think there are some potential flaws.

      First of all, some sort of width is always required from us in my eyes.

      Remember the seasons gone by when our narrow style was stifled by teams that ‘parked the bus’ (we still are to an extent)? This requires our full-backs to push on, which leaves channels down the side of our centre-backs to be exploited; hence making us very vulnerable to the direct balls – as the likes of Zamora and Agbonlahor highlighted.

      Furthermore, it requires a great deal of discipline and understanding, which can be easier said than done to instill.

      In theory, Brazil’s system (almost a 4222) leaves the full-backs to provide width, with the holding midfielders (Melo and Gilberto) tasked with protecting the full-backs.

      However, two wingers looking to cut inside playing for South Africa caused disarray; the full-backs naturally followed them inside, whilst the defensive midfielders looked to suffocate the space in the middle. To be fair, this limited the wingers creativity, but with everyone pulled inside, it left a lane for the full-backs to charge into.

      I’m an advocate of the 4231. I think Fabregas would benefit, not from being pinned into the AM role, but being given total freedom to roam, whilst in Arshavin, Van Persie, and Walcott, we have perfect wing-forwards who can help support the lone front man (Adebayor or Bendtner).

      Having said that, I think a basic 442 could work fine for us, but it is very demanding in terms of the midfield partner for Fabregas, which is why perhaps sharing the burden of supporting the Spaniard between 2 midfielders seems so appealing.

      1. DaStuDawg, you do raise some good declarations, but with the current players we have, we need to play to their strengths, and since we have no genuine star that can make the difference all the time, we need a style of play that emphasises the collective. A formation built around 1 or 2 players within this squad will not win Arsenal any trophies.

        If we had a fully developed defensive midfielder and two killer wide forwards, a 4-2-3-1 would be a viable alternative. In the crunch games when it was employed, it did not function for obtaining victories. From watching those 4-2-3-1’s last season, it reminded me of watching Ligue1 where the staple scheme is 4-2-3-1, very defensive and attrition. Most commentators would acknowledge that Fabregas operates better finding his passes from deeper, the trainer deployed him as a second striker, in a 4-2-3-1 he will be forced to try find the wide forwards more than dictating the tempo.

        With this current squad, a squad filled with central midfielders and attacking midfielders, why not play them there? We have 6 strikers in the squad, so why line up with only 1 striker? The channels could be open for the full backs in a ‘wingless’ formation, but it is up to them to come and use it or not, it is not default they must always attack, there is a saying in Argentina ‘if a full back comes forwards once or twice it is a surprise, if they come forward more than that, you can plan for it.’ Also having 3 central midfielders, 1 could break forward and the other two plug gaps, in a 4-2-3-1, you place more emphasis on defending and fast breaks, but we don’t have killer counter attacking players if we are brutally honest.

        1. As I say, I’m not suggesting pinning Fabregas into an AM position; simply allowing him greater freedom.

          It is with such freedom that he played some of the best football I have ever seen him play, when representing Spain at Euro 2008.

          As for the full-backs, I think our play over the last 13 years (Wenger’s time at the club) indicates there will always be an onus for them to push forward.
          If not just about pushing forward to attack, then it at least has something to do with the lack of support forcing Clichy and Sagna to push higher up the field in order to break the attacks before they get started, as well as denying deeper-lying wingers sufficient acceleration room in light of less support.

          I’m not trying to hammer square pegs into round holes here; the system does not necessarily lead to a counter-attacking style. The likes of Holland, Brazil, and Spain have all used such the tactic, whilst implementing an imposing, possession/flair-based system akin to ours.

          I envisage a very flexible, ‘total football’ system. Whilst one midfielder would be designated predominantly to a ‘water carrier’ role, Fabregas could interchange with another, deeper-lying midfielder (Nasri, for example) to reduce the effectiveness of man-marking.

          Whilst our forward could pull off and create space for our wing-forwards to exploit.

          We have 6 forwards, but 3 of them (Walcott, Vela, and Eduardo) have played down the flanks on a number of occassions for us, whilst Van Persie has had great success in the role for Holland.
          However, I am not suggesting we stick to this system irrespective of the opposition; an inability to adapt to counteract the opposition’s style has held us back in recent years, and whilst I would like to see the 4231 used on a reasonably consistent basis, it does not mean to say we can’t switch to a 442, 433 etc based on the occassion.

  3. We need another player like Cesc to pull off this formation.

    picture this: Almunia

    Sagna Vermaelen Gallas Clichy

    Song
    Fabregas Nasri
    Walcott Van Persie
    Adebayot

  4. Barcelona’s 4-3-3 has not always worked. Ok, so it worked a charm this year. But it looked very impotent last year.

    The blogger is right. The high-pressing game is something to copy from Barcelona. What makes that so effective is that their players direct the ball to a team mate when they make tackles up the field and in the middle of the park. It’s really beautiful to watch because it makes their game flow even more and saves the worry of tracking back.

    1. yes, i’ve noticed that our tackles always manage to find another one of the opponent’s players. it is almost as if we read their minds and pass the ball for them . . .

      collective pressure is an important part of our game. sadly we do not always do it properly. defense starts at the top of the formation – the strikers need to be hard working and willing to put pressure on the opponent’s CBs and FBs. that is partly why i dislike adebayor so much. he has not been as hard working as his teammates, he doesn’t hold the ball up well and he is constantly offside. his languid style is beginning to hurt arsenal.

      our team is starting to realize that they need to put more pressure on the opponents. just look at the two villareal games this season. the first game showed the opponents out arsenal arsenal with tough pressure to cut down passing lanes. the second game saw us mirror that tactic and blow them out of the water. we definitely have the more talented players, tho they were missing marcos senna in the second leg – their powerful, influential and tough tackling captain. we need someone like him.

    1. Which is kind of ironic given the article. It’s funny in a strange way as I didn’t think someone would like my article so much as to effectively claim it as their own. It’s sad to see some comments deleted; I could give the BBC 606 moderators a heads up but I don’t think it will be fair for him to be penalize harshly. There must be something in him to like by posts!

      1. Ha! Didn’t consider the irony in that!

        Annoyingly, it’s not the first time he’s done it.
        The previous time I called him up on it, and to be fair, he admitted you were the original author; yet this time, he seems to have deleted any attempts to highlight the plagiarism.

        It’s a shame because many of the comments seem to agree that it is an excellent read, but they are not aware of the original source.

        Still, the website seems to be increasing in popularity, and you’re finally beginning to get the credit you deserve for an original, insightful blog (Y)

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