Tactics Tuesday: Barca’s Dynamic 4-3-3 (4-2-3-1, 2-3-2-3?)

When looking for tactical insights to inspire Bob Bradley and his tried and true 4-4-2, why not shoot for the moon and analyze the (arguably) most tactically brilliant club on the planet? While it is undeniable that much of FC Barcelona’s monumental and persistent success derives from uniquely gifted players (the three finalists for the 2010 Golden Ball Award play for Barca and developed in La Masia, the club’s fabled youth system), make no mistake—a pervasive tactical philosophy is behind MOST of their goals, and we are talking about a lot of goals.

In Attack

Possession, possession, possession. The first and most obvious principle is the idea that the more you have the ball, the more good things will happen for you. Possession statistics often show Barca at 60+ percent. The key to possession isn’t greed, it’s patience.

Some might call it a vice, but Barca’s commitment to controlling the ball and defining a game’s tempo is unconditional. What facilitates this ability to hold the ball is a dynamic formation often called a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. In practice, however, it looks more like the ancient, ie 1930′s, 2-3-2-3 (much more on that below).

Second—while Barca is known for its entertaining and creative flair, notice that many of those almost mind-numbing passing sequences occur in front of their opponent’s goal. From the middle of the pitch back to their own box, Barca plays a very simple, even rudimentary game of direct passes. Pass it quick. Pass it straight. Pass it short. When you feel the gravity of the goal box, take your magic pills, but until then, you are hive mind.

Finally, the true key to the most prolific attack in the world: triangles. Barca’s whole formation is built on the principle of triangular passing. If you aren’t in a triangle, you are moving to make one, no exceptions. If you coach youth soccer, right now you are thinking something like, “Well, duh, that’s the first thing I teach my 8-year olds the minute I’m done tying up their boots.” True enough, but 8-year-olds can also build a model of the atom – that doesn’t mean they grasp quantum physics.

It’s amazing how the shift in mentality to thinking triangularly can completely transform your tactical outlook. Take a look at the following two diagrams. The first highlights how Barca’s 2-3-2-3 creates a series of interconnected triangles. The second displays a simplified example of the “geometry” of a traditional 4-4-2.

Barca's formation is built on the concept of triangles

In this simplified view of the 4-4-2, notice how a "square" mentality dominates.

In particular, focus on the passing options afforded to the midfielders in each approach above. By thinking triangularly, Xavi and Iniesta, at any given moment, have at least six passing options available. In the 4-4-2, on the other hand, trapped in a linear or “square” mentality, a given central midfielder has about 4 passing options. Lest you accuse me of exaggerating or glorifying some philosophical dogma, watch these triangles in action for yourself in this compilation in which you can practically see the triangles drawn on the pitch.

Of course, there aren’t any teams that play a rigid 4-4-2 anymore (if there ever were). The fullbacks push forward, one or both wingers cut inside, and a forward drops into midfield. But when your winger is inside, why not use another center midfielder? And if your striker keeps moving closer to his teammates, why not drop him in favor of an attacking midfielder?

These are the personnel issues driving much of the emphasis on the 4-2-3-1, and many top tier squads recognized these problems years ago. Barcelona often go a step further and use Messi as a false-nine, leaving David Villa, nominally the left winger, as the attacker highest up the pitch. Their positioning makes it even harder for opponents to dispossess the kings of tiki-taka.

In Defense
On those rare occasions when Barcelona doesn’t have possession, it relies on two defensive tactics. The first is to apply high pressure. Check out the following comparison chart of tackles in a recent Champions League match vs. Panathinaikos:

Notice how far up the pitch most of Barca’s tackles took place. This doesn’t reflect a hard-nosed backline having to make last-ditch stops (although some opposing forwards have been known to need therapy after certain Carles Puyol tackles); instead, these are forwards and advanced midfielders making tackles in their opponent’s end. As soon as a Barca player loses control of the ball, he and his teammates stop at nothing to get it back.

The second defensive tactic is the dynamic use of their holding midfielder, Sergio Busquets. Perhaps the most underrated player in Europe, Busquets’ similar role for both Barcelona and the Spanish national team has prompted a tactical evolution of sorts.

Essentially, he sits just in front of his two center back. His inglorious job while Barca is in possession is simply to distribute passes as a sort of second “hub” behind primary playmaker Xavi. The diagram below is a nice contrast between Busquets’ and Xavi’s positioning.

As Barca’s fullbacks push up the wing (especially Dani Alves on the right) the center backs split out towards the sidelines to fill the gaps. When Barca lose possession and are facing a counter-attack, this means a huge gap would exist between the center backs. Here is where Busquets comes in. At the first sign of distress, he slips intrepidly back into the slot between Puyol and Pique and, viola!, you’ve got an instant back line of three center backs! Michael Cox of Zonal Marking did a wonderful job of elucidating how Busquets played this role “brilliantly” in the World Cup Final for Spain.

Insights for USMNT
While Bob Bradley won’t have access to players from La Masia anytime soon, Barcelona’s system can provide valuable insights for the boys in red, white and blue. Let’s briefly touch on some major points discussed above and how Bob might utilize them.

Possession, Triangles and the Busquets Factor
FFG has discussed how Bob has effectively made the most of his squad with a 4-4-2 over the last few years. We’ve seen above, however, how the 4-4-2′s shape has to be broken in order to acquire triangles similar to Barcelona’s. Without being too radical, Bob could make some simple modifications that would help shift the squad to a more Barcelona-like philosophy.

In order to repartition the second line of four and place a Busquets-style holder in front of the backline, Bradley would have to drop a striker and bring on another possession-minded midfielder. An in-form Stuart Holden fits the bill. Then, either Jermaine Jones or Maurice Edu could be candidates for the Busquets role, allowing Michael Bradley to shift from a box-to-box midfielder to a more dedicated playmaker.

The most important change would be to release Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to pressure high up the pitch like the Pedro/Villa combination. The formation would look more like a 4-2-3-1 than Barcelona’s 2-3-2-3 (the USA is still seeking an attack-minded left back), but with an extra central midfielder Donovan and Dempsey could press deep into the opposing half without worrying about a counter.

Auditions are still being held for an American Messi, but if Bob has the guts to create an attack-minded 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 (and post-World Cup matches indicate he does), confidence in possession would gradually develop. In that kind of environment, individual brilliance has the best chance to evolve, and perhaps someday people around the world will be wearing the Number 10 jersey of one of our cosmically talented superstars.

8 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Blake Owen says:

    Having Claudio Reyna as the head of USA’s youth program could be our own answer to La Masia.

    Since there aren’t any massive clubs in the States (in terms of revenue), it’s even more important for the national team to have an excellent youth system. Hopefully Claudio can help develop some little Iniestas.

    Edit: That video was mesmerizing, by the way. And for those that didn’t catch it, that opening sequence was against Real Madrid.

  2. AG says:

    yes, make triangles and your passing game will take care of itself.

    though I would argue that you havent given the traditional 442 enough credit. I see plenty of triangles that arent drawn.

    That said, the 4321 is basically, like you said, a 433, but with players moved into slightly different positions, so that the triangles created will produce passes that are not as “square” as they say.

  3. AG says:

    something to mention also is that it is their touch count that makes their passing game possible against tightly marking teams

    • bensten says:

      Point well taken about the oversimplification of the 4-4-2. The diagram was more to make a point about the “mentality” of it. In real life of course it is much more subtle and complex.

      Also a nice comment on the touch count. It has often been observed how few serious injuries Barcelona suffers. Why? No single player is on the ball long enough to attract hard, premeditated tackles.

  4. AG says:

    Ben, I thought that you might be oversimplifying to make a point. Sorry my comments didnt reflect that.

  5. AG says:

    but, was a great great article!

  6. Felice says:

    many talk about work-ethic Barcelona practices it. all the time. even their attackers tackle. they play in a 4th dimension. quite glorious to watch.

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