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Analysis

FC Barcelona and plausible formations on the pitch

Analysing the pros and cons of the different viable formations for Barcelona

Nassif Ali

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Header Image by Xavi Bonilla via Imago

As coach Quique Setién continues to search for the right formula, and while the systems should not be definite and rigid, what are the main strengths and weaknesses of the different formations for Barcelona?


In a match that meant more than points gained or dropped, FC Barcelona faced its city rivals Espanyol yesterday at the Camp Nou. As the hosts scraped through a victory on the smallest possible margins, the visitors succumbed to their fate of relegation from first division. At the end of the day though, it is three more points in the kitty for the blaugranas. But what did the performance yesterday tell us, especially in light of the previous match?

Barça’s performance against Villareal over the weekend, which led to a 1–4 triumph, was hailed by many as the turnaround for the team, as well as for certain individuals, especially Antoine Griezmann. While nothing should be taken away from that victory, reading too much into it was always going to be troublesome. Any proper assessment needs valid data, and a one-off match is not really enough data.

The facts speak for themselves. With all the major attacking personnel in the team – Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann – being central in their position, manager Quique Setién had no choice to adopt a 4–3–1–2 formation, thereby allowing those attackers to roam around in their favoured positions. It helps offensively in the sense that it allowed them to find each other easily. But is it without drawbacks? Is it the solution for this stuttering side in the short term at least? If not, what formation would suit them best, and why? This is what we will try and discuss here.

4–3–1–2

The manager’s thinking behind utilising this style is simple enough. You have three world-class attackers at your disposal. None of them prefer to cruise near the corner flags. Nor do any of them fancy a stint on the bench. So Quique Setién deployed Suárez and Griezmann in the advanced positions, with Messi right behind them. The biggest positive of this formation is that all three of them were happy, and that showed on the pitch. The quick passes between them were there and so were the switching of positions. It worked against Villareal too, only to be exposed against Espanyol. So what happened?

Well, the issue is as systemic as it is dependent on the opponent. When the attackers are all stationed close to each other, the attacking division of the team becomes too narrow, which makes it easier for resilient defensive units to snuff it out. The formation worked against Villareal, because they were attacking by pushing numbers forward, leaving spaces for Barça’s front three.

“I felt truly satisfied with the performance and I’m sure the players did too because they played a great game and enjoyed themselves. I would like to play like this in every game but it’s not an exact science. Every game is different but today we did everything right”

Quique Setién
after Barça beat Villarreal on Sunday by 1–4

Against an Espanyol side, with solid banks of defenders though, it was more or less nullified. Owing to the fact that there are no wide-positioned wingers in this system, the opposition’s backline is not stretched. They can comfortably concentrate on the centre, sit back and be happy. In order to break this, then, the wing-backs would have to push forward, leaving their own goal post thinly covered.

This was exposed in the game against Villareal too, when the Yellow Submarine produced a counter-attack, and found Marc André ter Stegen almost isolated in Gerard Moreno’s goal. Espanyol did the same, except Ter Stegen came up with his heroics this time and saved the team literally with his palms.

4–3–3

In light of these observations, there are surely people who would believe that Barcelona should go back to their traditional 4–3–3. Because, as per this formation, there would be two pacy wingers stretching the defence, making overlapping runs and drawing the defenders away from the attacking outlet – something that generations of Barça forwards have successfully emulated. But the fact that it worked then does not mean it would work now.

On paper, this would seem beautiful. This formation actually facilitates the passing game that the culés have enjoyed for long. It allows Sergio Busquets, arguably one of the best defensive midfielders in the game, to work as a focal point. Everything would come and go through him, and with the right people around him, he does that job beautifully. But that is exactly the problem. He does not have the right people around him anymore.

Barça does not have a Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o, David Villa or Pedro Rodríguez anymore. Their best bets at wing play as of now is a teenager named Ansu Fati. As good as he is, he is not ready for that starting role day in day out. The management has to be careful not to burn him out too soon. But even if he were to start all the games, what about the other wing? There is still no definite date for Ousmane Dembélé’s return from injury. Some would suggest Lionel Messi, as he has been playing off that right wing for some time now. But that is part of the problem right now.

Messi does what he always does, produce his magic and save the team. But in that process, he would usually cut into central areas, trying to help the team create more. The right wing then would be left empty causing an imbalance in the structure. To make sure that the opposing wing-back does not advance through this lane, Barça’s right-back would occupy the space left by Messi. This would cause further imbalance at the back.

“We might think about making changes like switching to a 4–3–3 or 4–4–2, but we need to evaluate things and find out what to do, but the philosophy is not going to change”

Quique Setién
during his presentation as a Barça manager in January

At the peak of the 4–3–3 at Barça, one would not see both full-backs pushing forward at the same time. Rather, Dani Alves and Éric Abidal complemented each other. The former marauded up ahead; the latter kept the guard up at the back. In the current scenario, Jordi Alba is the one who helps the attackers by advancing from the left side. Notwithstanding, as explained above, the right-back would also be forced to move ahead and, once again, leave the central defenders stranded. This whole imbalance therefore is bound to hurt the team and it has, over and over again. 

3–5–2

This is something that Quique Setién relates more with. He did try to implement this in his initial weeks at Barça. 3–5–2 is an effective system, especially against counter-attacks – which is something the Catalans have been vulnerable to.

In the offensive end, this looks promising. Messi and Griezmann could be fielded together. The tandem between them is looking better now, especially with the last two games. The second line or the midfield would comprise of, for instance, Jordi Alba, Riqui Puig, Sergio Busquets, Iván Rakitić and Sergi Roberto – as of now, when Frenkie de Jong is out injured, Arthur Melo sold and perhaps unfocused, and Miralem Pjanić pending.

Alba and Sergi Roberto would provide the immediate support to the attackers. Being comparatively free of defensive duties they could be more involved in the offence. Behind them, the other three would keep the ball rotating and thereby dictate the game.

Nélson Semedo Antoine Griezmann Barcelona formations

One of Barça’s greatest problems in recent times has been the wings, with full-backs not offering what should ideally be demanded, and wingers that are not true wingers | Photo by Cordon Press via Imago

The biggest problem here is that Barça does not have enough central defenders available to field three of them together. Their three options as of now are Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet and Ronald Araújo. While Araújo is capable, using the only back-up defender along with the other two available ones, every game, is a huge risk.

Nevertheless, Nélson Semedo could potentially be used in the right side, for the time being. With Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto acting as attacking wing backs, Semedo would be free of advancing duties and could focus more on defence. This system could definitely work, if Alba and Sergi could effectively pin down their opposite numbers.  

4–2–3–1

This formation, once again, could bring back the balance to this Barca side. That said, they would have to stick to the right personnel for this to happen. Griezman can lead the line in the central position, supported by Messi right behind him. Both of them are capable of switching within the area and that makes it all the more better.

On either side of Messi, it could be Riqui Puig and Sergi Roberto. While Riqui would provide the dynamism and creativity thereby helping in breaking the defensive lines, Sergi Roberto, with his tireless runs and brilliant crosses, could complement it on the right side. These two are the most important pieces here. They should be creative but, at the same time, should be the kind of people that do not give the ball away cheaply. Behind those two, Sergio Busquets and Iván Rakitić would work in a double pivot, giving the squad more stability. Rakitić’s presence could also ease the job for Busquets. 

The advantage that this formation has over the 4–3–1–2 is that, unlike the latter, the former is not too central or constricted. It could therefore be very effective against teams that set up defensive banks with a 4–4–2 or a 4–5–1.

Conclusion

Ultimately, what should be remembered is that no formation is tailormade for any team. There has to be tweaks and customisations according to the personnel available. However, it does seem quite obvious that under the present circumstances, playing a 4–3–3 would be quite detrimental to Barça. Traditional style or not, they cannot play that style without the right kind of people.

Amongst the other styles, the 4–3–1–2 can still be used against sides that tend to be adventurous. Whereas a 3–5–2 or a 4–2–3–1 seems to make more sense against sides that sit back and counter-attack. For this to work, though, someone would have to convince either Luis Suárez or Antoine Griezmann to stay on the bench.


See more

Tactical analysis: Barcelona 1–0 Espanyol

• Goal analysis: Barcelona 1–0 Espanyol

• 5 takeaways from the Barcelona 1–0 Espanyol

• Barcelona 1–0 Espanyol: Players ratings

In my thirty years filled with accidental decisions - that got me as far as a PhD in history - one deliberate constant has been football. I have been an avid fan of the beautiful game since the 1998 world cup. Back then, in India, following football meant reading about it rather than watching it. I owe much of my love of the game and passion for writing about it, to those fantastic sports journalists and writers who could recreate the excitement of the whole game in a few succinct words.

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Analysis

Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?

Samuel Gustafson

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Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

Work rate is a crucial element in a successful football side, but which Barcelona players have put in the most effort this season?


While FC Barcelona has always been renowned for their technical ability and tactical intelligence of its players, their work rate on the pitch has also played a key role in the club’s greatest triumphs.

The concept is simple, but that does not detract from its importance. Players who track back to win the ball, make bursting runs to create space and passing angles, and constantly apply pressure out of possession are incredibly valuable.

While it may be impossible to quantify a player’s effort with full accuracy truly, the available data can still reveal some prominent trends. With that in mind, which Barcelona players put in the highest amount of work rate statistically?

Offensive effort

First things first, time to establish a methodology. Using data from FBRef, the dataset will be filtered down to outfield players who have played five or more 90’s in one of the big five European leagues in the 2020/21 season. That means each player has at least a decent sample size under their belt, so there will not be anyone with only a few ten-minute appearances off the bench.

Then, which metrics can be used to quantify effort best? With the data available, it seems like the most viable option is to try and identify box-to-box players. For that, we can use the different areas of the pitch in which players take their touches.

Each player’s percentile rank for touches per 90 minutes in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, middle third, attacking third, and attacking penalty area was found. The average of those five percentiles became each player’s “attacking average.”

These averages were then scaled between 0 and 100 for the final “Offensive Coverage Rating.” This is how the top five came out for all clubs:

  1. Raphaël Guerreiro (Dortmund) – 100
  2. Jordi Alba (Barcelona) – 97.5
  3. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 94.3
  4. Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich) – 92.7
  5. Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid) – 92.4

Elsewhere in the top 20 are names like Andrew Robertson, Reece James, Luke Ayling of the intense Leeds United system, Ander Herrera, and Frenkie de Jong. There seems to a solid set of players who work their way up and down the pitch, either down the flank as full-backs or as energetic centre-midfielders.

How does the Barça squad stack up in particular?

barcelona work rate

As previously mentioned, the full-backs are the main standouts. The never-ending stamina of Jordi Alba is especially on display. Frenkie de Jong sits as the top non-full-back by a solid distance, reflecting his ability to drop deep in the buildup and provide dangerous runs forward.

A bit lower down the list, though, things start to look a bit weirder. It should be noted that this methodology can be a bit biased towards centre-backs. They rack up many touches in the defensive penalty area, defensive third, and middle third in a possession-based system, and the additional touches they get in the attacking penalty area off of corners and free-kicks can drive their scores pretty high.

Looking at Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite all the way at the bottom brings up another limitation. While we can track players who are active in many different areas of the pitch, we can not do the same for players who move and work a lot in the same area.

Watching Braithwaite and Griezmann definitely shows how active they are making runs in behind or across the attacking third, but because they do not drop off very often to pick up the ball, they rank low in the team.

However, those top names prove this offensive coverage metric is able to quantify box-to-box play in possession. Additionally, incorporating defensive metrics will clean things up even more.

Defensive effort

On the other side of the ball, the process is very similar. The same players and methodology will be applied, only this time with pressures instead of touches.

StatsBomb, who collect the data displayed on FBRef, define pressure as, “…applying pressure to an opposing player who is receiving, carrying, or releasing the ball.” These pressures are just broken down based on the thirds of the pitch, not the penalty areas too, so only three metrics go into each player’s “defensive average.”

Once again, those averages are then scaled between 0 and 100, creating the “Defensive Coverage Ratings.” The top five performers in these ratings were:

  1. Jean-Daniel Akpa-Akpro (Lazio) – 100
  2. Mikkel Damsgaard (Sampdoria) – 98.1
  3. Leonardo Bittencourt (Werder Bremen) – 98.1
  4. Morgan Sanson (Marseille) – 98.0
  5. Maxence Caqueret (Lyon) – 97.2

Midfield workhorses like Fred and Adrien Silva, along with high-pressing forwards such as Diogo Jota are common throughout the rest of the top 25.

Given that Barcelona are a possession-heavy side, and one that often presses at a lower intensity, one would expect these defensive work-rate ratings to be a bit lower. Still, though, which players stand out?

barcelona work rate

Pedri comes out as the clear leader. Impressively, the teenager’s score is one that would be respectable in any side. Let it serve as just another testament to his work rate and ability to perform a variety of different tasks on the pitch.

With Sergio Busquets in second, even as he ages, he is still one of Barça’s most active players in terms of closing down the opposition. In third is another newcomer, as Sergiño Dest’s tendency to press aggressively puts him much higher than most of the other defenders in the squad.

The tallies for the other members of the backline are quite low because they defend in a more reserved nature. This can also be attributed to the fact that Barcelona give up fewer opportunities than many teams.

With both of these two ratings in place and some solid results for top-ranking players, it is time to combine them.

Overall

Here in the endgame, we will be combining all eight metrics to create one “Overall Coverage Rating.” That means touches in each third, touches in both penalty areas, and pressures in each third are all included. This way, we can see the players who cover most of the pitch overall.

barcelona work rate

The top five is comprised of:

  1. Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) – 100
  2. Ander Herrera (Paris Saint-Germain) – 99.3
  3. Bruno Guimarães (Lyon) – 97.6
  4. Lucas Vázquez (Real Madrid) – 96.7
  5. Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain) – 96.2

Idrissa Gana Gueye, Dani Carvajal, Joshua Kimmich, Renan Lodi, Arturo Vidal, Maxence Caqueret, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedri, Reece James, Mason Mount, and Mateusz Klich are among the top names as well.

Now, for the final Barcelona squad rankings:

barcelona work rate

The numbers still involve the same intricacies as those discussed for the separate offensive and defensive ratings, but at least the top five names seem to match an eye test evaluation of the squad.

Pedri has joined the team and impressed everyone with his work rate and movement. He will track an opposition runner back to the defensive third, win the ball, combine in midfield, and then get forward to be an outlet for Messi.

While not as youthful and agile, Busquets still serves as a metronome in the possession and an active defender. He will move and reposition to rack up touches in the deeper thirds and engages in defensive duels very often.

The right flank has been slightly ignored at times this season, leaving Dest isolated, but the American always brings energy. He has all the skills and the mentality to be a great modern full-back.

Dest’s counterpart on the left, Jordi Alba, performs a much greater portion of his work offensively. His countless runs down the left wing have made him a key target for through balls and switches of play over the last few seasons.

Lastly, Frenkie de Jong backs up his reputation as an all-round midfielder. This season, the Dutchman is settling in more at the Camp Nou, and his surging runs forward to the penalty area have been awe-inspiring as of late.

Griezmann and Braithwaite are probably the hardest done by these metrics. However, their energy, work rate and volume of runs they can provide off the ball is noticeable when watching them play, and invaluable for Barcelona.

Final thoughts

There is no perfect way to quantify how hard a player works in-game, especially with these limited statistics. What this attempted to do, though, is focus on effort in terms moving to a variety of areas, being as involved in the match as possible, and doing so in different ways.

While not perfect, this methodology was successful in identifying some of the busiest players in the side. It should serve as a reminder of the value these players, like Pedri or de Jong, can offer beyond even their brilliant technical ability.

Given that 32-year-old Sergio Busquets and 31-year-old Jordi Alba were also near the top, it is a reminder of the potential replacements the club will be forced to make eventually. How long can these two continue to exert energy at this level? Could younger players be doing even more in those roles? How will Barça fill those holes when they move on? These are questions that need answering.

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