In the past two games, against Atlético de Madrid and Villarreal, Barcelona coach Quique Setién has been experimenting with a new system: a diamond-shaped 4–4–2. What are the keys behind it?
Barcelona won 1–4 at Villarreal on Sunday night and a new system, not Lionel Messi, was the biggest talking point. Manager Quique Setien seemed to unlock the full potential of his illustrious forward line with 4–1–2–1–2 formation. In this article, the keys, flaws and potential variations in such system will be analysed.
New system sparks MSG into life
For the first time in the 2019/20 campaign, fans got to see a genuine sign of partnership between the front three of FC Barcelona. Like it has been throughout the season, everyone thought World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann would start on his unfavourable position that is the left wing of the field.
But to many’s surprise, against Villarreal and possibly in the previous clash with Atlético de Madrid too, Barça lined up in midfield with a diamond formation for the first time. The team had been struggling with the lack of freedom, especially in the final third of the gameplay, but this experiment hit the bull’s eye. Let’s take a look at such formation below.
This is how the Barcelona lined up against the 4–4–2 formation of Villarreal. Villareal started playing with a high defensively line, which definitely benefited Barça’s system. With Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann in the left forward and right forward positions, respectively, playing so close to each other with the support from Lionel Messi in the mediapunta position, the teams would try to crowd the midfield to intercept passes between the lines.
Now, here comes the role of providing width to the team, which both the full-backs of Barcelona played to their potential. They were constantly asked to do so much of work to stretch the field, primarily in the first half against Villarreal.
Certainly, Griezmann playing on the left wing is of no good use to Barcelona. Because as soon as that happens, Messi tends to find only Suárez in the central field, which again results to the blaugranas being outnumbered in the final third and, thus, losing possession.
On whether he would stick with said system, Quique Setién remarked: “Let’s see. The reality is that everything went very well the other day because we scored and we had a fluidity that perhaps we had not had in other games. But there will be a team that will prevent us from doing what we did the other day because they will be a lot more closed.
“All the games are different, we have several alternatives. Since we arrived we have tried to find solutions to the situations that the opponent puts you in. The important thing is that the footballers understand well what we intend [to do] and then they can do [what they did] the other day: put extraordinary goals in like the one Griezmann scored, [one] that defines matches, and otherwise we will continue to look for alternatives. Hopefully it is the position in which Antoine performs better”
Loophole in the system
The only issue that appeared with such style of play was that it left a lot of gaps for centre-backs Clément Lenglet and Gerard Piqué to cover up on the opposition’s counter-attacks. And that in fact is how Barcelona conceded Gerard Moreno’s goal.
Even though Sergio Busquets dropped back constantly when the full-backs were upfront, there was certainly a lack of pace to cover up against the opposition wingers. The Barcelona coach needs to find a way to recover that space in defensive transitions and basically regain the shape to stop such threats. Going forward, this is the main loophole the rivals could look to exploit against such system.
Can other players thrive in this system?
Simply put, the system that Quique Setién has experimented with can work along with other players as well. The likes of Frenkie de Jong and Riqui Puig both are athletic, technical and have immense awareness about their positions. Therefore, it could be interesting to see how they come up together. Riqui Puig has already proven why he deserves to be a starter in the team, and it’s just a matter of time until De Jong also returns to full fitness. Puig instead of Arturo Vidal on the field would definitely provide more poise and quality to the team in the final third.
But this formation and system is in its very early stages. It may not work out against other teams. With the league close to being lost, what the coach should attempt to do is to perfect this system with a little bit of iteration. For example, one of the formations could be 4–2–3–1.
Here, Ansu Fati could take the load off from Jordi Alba by providing constant width to the team on the left flank. Same goes for the right flank, with Griezmann being given free role being the second forward beside Suárez.
This may or may not work out as a remedy for the gap left at the back while full-backs are providing support in the final third. Barça will need to eradicate these flaw in time for the Champions League, in August. In the end, more than the players on the pitch, it is also about the right positions they are played in.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.