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Opinion: Three probable formations Xavi can use with Barcelona



Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Under the gentle Catalan sun, the fans cheered, deliriously happy and – to an outsider looking at the state of FC Barcelona –  somewhat inexplicably. The tapestry of garnet and blue was rumbling in anticipation; the excitement and expectation might as well have been as real as the thunder preceding a storm. The cause of their feverish joy stepped onto the Camp Nou field.

The same stadium where he debuted in La Liga against Valencia, went on to beat them an additional 15 times, led one of the best teams ever seen by the footballing world under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage, sang along with the fans countless times as the team lifted trophy after trophy, seemingly unstoppable. This was Xavi Hernandez’s homecoming.

One of the best footballers to play the game, Xavi Hernandez was and is, to the fans, Barcelona personified. The winning spirit, technical excellence, elegance, and intelligence that the Catalan club prides itself on demonstrating is embodied in Xavi. Spain’s conductor and Barcelona’s leader, his career as a player is nothing short of legendary.

Icon. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Arriving at what has been for a long time now, a dark period for Barcelona, his presence in itself seems to have risen the morale significantly.

There are many factors of his appointment, past managerial role, an expected setup that can be discussed in depth. This article deals with a particular sector of the chaos that he faces at Catalonia — the endless probabilities of lineups.

Ahead of Xavi’s managerial debut against Espanyol in a highly-anticipated derby, one of the very defining choices he must make is that of the starting XI.

There are several players set to gain, and several who set to lose with this appointment but balancing the players with their respective roles and weighing the importance of experience accurately is a complicated task for Xavi.

From his managerial tenure at Al Sadd, though, we can safely assume that the three formations he is most likely to use are the 3-4-3, the 3-4-1-2, and the traditional 4-3-3.

1. 3-4-3; an initial argument for undisputed starters

In all three formations, some players can be considered to be undisputable starters. Despite his lacklustre performance over the previous season, Marc-Andre ter Stegen remains the starting goalkeeper. Xavi’s teams look to play out from the back, something he picked up from the very early stages of his career at La Masia.

Ter Stegen doesn’t need to do anything special in terms of this. Playing simple passes to the back three should suffice the vast majority of times.

His long-range distribution has been underwhelming, though. Last season, he completed 100% and 98.7% of his short and mid-range passes, whereas his success rate for passes longer than 30 yards drops down to 73.1%. Despite this, he will start despite the lineup except in exceptional circumstances.

The defence is inarguably Barcelona’s weakest component. In terms of choices, Samuel Umtiti can’t realistically be considered to contest for the starting spot as a result of his injury-prone past and lack of game-time. This factor, however, might change as reports say Xavi has been surprisingly impressed by the Frenchman in training and trusts him greatly.

A fresh start for Umtiti? (Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

Ronald Araujo, Barcelona’s most reliable centre-back, is more than capable of playing on the right in the back-three.

Gerard Pique would do best through the middle for two reasons. His experience and reading of the game are invaluable and, if appropriately utilised, could enable him to lead the defence and improve their overall level.

The left side of the trident is competitive, though. Clement Lenglet, Eric Garcia, and maybe even Samuel Umtiti could start here. However, Lenglet remains the safest and most probable choice.

Garcia is already at a disadvantage considering left-footed players will be preferred as left centre-halves. While his overall form has improved, it’s likely that he shifts to second fiddle in this formation.

In midfield, Xavi has an abundance of choices. Veteran and ex-teammate Sergio Busquets is highly unlikely to be dropped from the starting XI. The very uniqueness of his role, his experience, ability, and awareness make him a deserved captain and, to this point, one of Barcelona’s best players.

Granted, there have been times when he has suffered and has underperformed. But when it comes to doing a particular job exceptionally well, there are few, if any, who can match Busi’s level. In a suitable system, Barcelona’s number five is untouchable.

Alongside Busquets, there remains a place for a central midfielder and two wing-backs. In Xavi’s 3-4-3, the wide-midfielders or wing-backs have to cover a massive amount of ground.

For these roles, the choice is straightforward. Jordi Alba is uncontested on the left, whereas Dani Alves is likely to edge out Sergino Dest to start.

It would be unrealistic for Alves to play every match for the entire 90 minutes. Instead, a role similar to that of Iniesta in his last season is likely — starting but regularly going off early into the second half or coming in in the middle of the second half.

The remaining spot has four realistic competitors — Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Gavi, and Nico. These four are excellent on the ball, each offering something unique.

Here, things start getting complicated. Among the four, De Jong and Pedri are arguably on a higher level than that of the two La Masia midfielders. It is unlikely that either of them would be dropped, but as a function of his versatility, Pedri can be put aside to be slotted into the front three.

Initially, one might think this would only limit his abilities, but this argument is not convincing for two primary reasons. Firstly, Pedri has played as a winger for a significant portion of his career so far.

Regularly at Las Palmas, and a few times at Barcelona as well. He is not an electric winger who will take the opposition on in a 1v1 regularly. This, counterintuitively, isn’t necessarily a drawback.

This leads us to the second reason. A player’s instructions and role can be altered suitably to get the most out of him and even provide something a different type of player won’t be able to provide.

In this case, Pedri’s role, even as an interior, influenced the final third far more than the middle third unless Barcelona struggled in the build-up. If he were to play as the left forward in the front three of Xavi’s 3-4-3, we could expect him to operate in the channel and at times on the left-wing.

This would only increase his influence and allow him to link up with the central forward and midfield both. Given a certain degree of freedom, his movement could create an excellent link between the midfield, wide-midfielders, and the remaining two attackers.

Now, as two spots remain, we again have to result to considering the positional experience of the best players available. Ousmane Dembele could be a wildcard player here, but his inconsistency and injury prone past means it would make little sense to include him in a probable lineup. Sergio Aguero’s health issues have sidelined him for a while as well.

Ansu Fati and Memphis Depay have the remaining two spots between themselves. Coming back to the positional experience, Ansu has played as a striker and even a false-nine often in his career.

The leading lads. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Memphis Depay can operate as a right-winger, though it isn’t his best position. Often, there was fluidity between the front-three in Xavi’s Al Sadd. They would regularly play a very narrow attack, focus on penetrating through the middle and emphasise on tireless runs.

The front three of Pedri, Ansu, and Depay, though not perfect on paper, could excel in doing precisely this. The passing and ball control showed by Pedri, Ansu’s electric, unpredictable dribble, and probability-defying finishing, combined with Memphis’ ability to take players on, make the runs when needed, and create efficiently, just might be what Xavi needs in his front-three.

Pedri · Fati · Memphis
Alba · Busquets · de Jong · Alves
Lenglet · Pique · Araujo
ter Stegen

2. 4-3-3; the roots

The 4-3-3 is a formation that is as likely to be played as the 3-4-3. Though the 3-4-3 was used much more often by Xavi, the 4-3-3 is more suitable to the personnel that he has at his disposal.

For example, in the 3-4-3, the two central midfielders do best when they can cover a lot of ground and maintain control of the ball effectively. While the latter is by no means a problem, the profile of Busquets isn’t ideal for the former.

In a 4-3-3, however, de Jong would be able to make the late runs he excels in and Busquets would be the sole pivot and key to the team’s tempo and possession.

Time for de Jong to take more, and consistent responsibility. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The midfield of Busquets and de Jong would then be joined by Pedri, as it is safe to assume he would be chosen over either Gavi, Nico, and or Riqui Puig.

Coming to the defence, this time it is a back-four. Despite not being in his prime, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pique start regularly. Of course, in times of a hectic schedule, he might not make the starting XI regularly.

But speaking of the best XI that Xavi can field in a 4-3-3, Pique and Araujo would occupy the two centre-half spots. Though Lenglet and Umtiti could play at the left centre-half spot, neither of them should start over either of Pique or Araujo at the moment.

Though it remains to be seen whether Xavi can get Eric Garcia to start performing consistently, at the moment, he should not be starting.

Granted, he is very comfortable on the ball, and his passing can be highly incisive and accurate at times. He is a proactive player which is one of Araujo’s weaknesses at times. Even considering all this, his defensive fragility is too crucial to be made up for by the skill on the ball.

Similar to the lineup explored in the 3-4-3, Sergino Dest missed out in the 4-3-3 as well. A case can be made for Alves to start in a back-four and for the American to start as a wide-midfielder when playing three at the back. However, as we are dealing with the strongest XI that can be started in each formation, Alves trumps over Dest again. Jordi Alba is a staple on the left yet again.

The 4-3-3 is better suited to the team than the 3-4-3 for yet another reason. Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele perform best when they are deployed on the left and right-wing, respectively.

Though Dembele will not be back from injury in time for Xavi’s debut, he is undoubtedly the best option at right-wing. Memphis Depay, in this lineup, will play through the middle. Yet again, this front-three promises fluidity. Ansu can play through the middle or down the left, Memphis has been deployed across all three positions, while the Frenchman can play on either wing.

Fati · Memphis · Dembele
Pedri · Busquets · de Jong
Alba · Pique · Araujo · Alves
ter Stegen

3. 3-4-1-2; the left-wing option

The 3-4-1-2 could be a kind of wildcard formation for Xavi’s Barcelona side. Though it hasn’t been used often by the current squad, it shows a lot of promise.

This formation is one in which fan-favourite Riqui Puig would perform best. As an attacking midfielder, his vision, passing, and close control combined with his agility mean he is a constant threat to the opposition and the focal point of Barcelona’s attacks.

Riqui could turn out to be a pleasant surprise in this formation. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

Ahead of him, Ansu Fati and Memphis Depay as the left and right centre-forwards respectively would yet again form a narrow attack like the 3-4-3.

The small triangle formed between these three is handy for the team for a couple of reasons. One, three players with a great first touch and the ability to combine well in close proximity are very likely to lead to incision.

Second, it means that late runs from the midfield or the wing-backs progressing up the field will either get a lot of space or end up creating space for the attackers by stretching the defence.

The defence here would be the same as the 3-4-3. Araujo, Pique, and Lenglet would form the back-three, and Dani Alves and Jordi Alba will act as the wide midfielders.

In midfield, de Jong and Busquets remain the core. The immediate drawback of this formation is that a key player like Pedri doesn’t exactly fit in. The spots he could play in, alongside Busquets or as the attacking midfielders, would be better if filled with de Jong and Puig, respectively.

Fati · Memphis
Pedri · Busquets · de Jong
Alba · Pique · Araujo · Alves
ter Stegen

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