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Why Barcelona should continue with the 3-at-the-back system

Udhav Arora



Ronald Koeman arrived at Barcelona intending to shake things up, right down from the personnel to the structure of the team. He had already researched the players he had in the roster and stemming from that decided that the 4-2-3-1 was the best formation he could use. Given the particular players he had at his disposal, he already knew which ones he would use. 

So, while advising Riqui Puig to go out on loan was received by a blasphemous reaction from fans, it was a decision that he had taken beforehand – one he was going to stick by. 

However, over the course of the season, as Barcelona continued to plummet down the La Liga table, Ronald Koeman has been forced to change his ways. In the last five games in the league, Koeman has used three different formations to varying impact. 

He continued with the 4-2-3-1 against Cadiz, albeit with no success as they fell to a 1-0 defeat. But immediately after insisting that that is the only formation possible for the squad, Koeman deployed a 4-3-3 against Levante and Real Sociedad, winning both games. The switch to the 4-1-4-1 against Valencia, though, failed to pay dividends as Philippe Coutinho and Pedri found it challenging to co-exist, especially with Lionel Messi alongside. 

The most interesting and final one of these changes came against Real Valladolid, where to the shock of everyone, the Dutchman went with a previously less-heard of 3-4-2-1. Lionel Messi took up the slot on the right of Martin Braithwaite, while Pedri was placed on the left. And boy did it work wonders. 

The 3-4-2-1 Barcelona saw against Real Valladolid.

Barcelona looked exceptionally fluid on the ball, consistently progressing up the pitch with crystal-clear intention. Off it, the three-man backline did a lot to add stability against a Valladolid team that does not shy away from attacking. 

It may not have worked wonders against Eibar, but that boils down to a rookie tactical decision, where it seems like Koeman and his backroom were not informed about the opponent’s tendency to overload the left-wing, often leaving Dest isolated.

A performance like the one against Real Valladolid begs the question – should Barcelona continue with the 3-4-2-1 — a formation previously seen only once — under Luis Enrique — in the numerous season, and bin the 4-3-3 and more importantly the 4-2-3-1? In short, yes, and Barça Universal takes the onus to explain why. 

1. Accommodation and Fluidity 

The transfer market was a tumultuous time for Barcelona, and especially Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman had Memphis Depay, Georginio Wijnaldum, Eric Garcia and Sergio Dest on his wishlist, but could only attain the 20-year-old American in that window. 

Stemming from the same, he was forced to make do with the players he had, desperately trying to fit them in his 4-2-3-1. Philippe Coutinho received early success, but on the contrary, Messi looked like a liability as the striker, while playing Antoine Griezmann out on the right turned out to be incredibly unsuccessful. Nothing unpredictable. 

While Koeman resorted to a change in personnel in some particular positions, like juggling between Griezmann and Messi centrally for a few games or fielding Martin Braithwaite as the front-man in the formation, he was still left with Pedri and Coutinho as collateral damage, with the latter especially looking less than half the player he can be. 

At the end of the day, whenever Koeman tries to field a 4-2-3-1, or even a 4-3-3, it will leave a few players out of position, or even on the bench. In fact, an attempt to fit in all pieces of the puzzle forcefully leaves a lot of gaping holes on the pitch, like without anyone to fill out wide.

Griezmann’s showing against Eibar leaves a lot to be desired, but it is the only way to get him going.

Moreover, as much as fans hate it, the ‘big-money signings’ will be given priority over the likes of Francisco Trincao and Konrad de la Fuente, so might as well allow them to function in a formation that brings the best out of them. Griezmann’s display against Eibar counters this point to the wire, but as long as he is at the club, there should be little to no reason to at least attempt to get the best out of him.

The 3-4-2-1 holds two attacking midfielders, one of which will almost always be occupied by club-captain Lionel Messi. Martin Braithwaite will get the chance to lead the line, while Pedri, Griezmann and Coutinho can be interchanged. 

This is perfect for Griezmann in more than one way. Playing off the striker means he will be fielded in his fundamental position, which will — hopefully — extract all he can offer going forward. His marvellous work-rate also means that Barcelona will constantly have an extra player in the midfield who will do more than what’s required of him, which was more than visible in midweek.

The 3-4-2-1 is also a way for Griezmann to solidify his spot. (Photo via Imago)

Additionally, the World Cup winner can also work as a central striker in this formation and will be a lot more serviceable than in a 4-3-3 given the narrow front-three. There is a lot more scope for him to stay central and rove as he chooses, while someone like Messi can easily cover for him.

2. Natural width

The status report on Barcelona wingers seems a bit sketchy right now. The two ‘big guns’, Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele, are struggling with injuries at different levels, while Francisco Trincao, for all his potential, looks a long way from his ceiling. This leaves the squad with Konrad de la Fuente, who is not getting a run in the setup anytime soon. 

Naturally, the baton falls to the full-backs – Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest. While both of them are exceptional in their own right, the 4-2-3-1 hardly does their attacking prowess justice. Their defensive duties ring them up a little too often, which means maintaining constant width throughout the game is far from possible. 

Dest has the potential to run riot on the wing if utilised wisely. (Photo via Imago)

In a 3-4-2-1, however, Dest and Alba will be able to start in a much more advanced role, thereby allowing them more room for vertical movement. Given their more attacking positions, the no. 10s in the setup will not have to stray outwards. Their responsibility will reside in the half-spaces, primarily, where cutting in will be a lot easier. Overlapping runs from the wing-backs will also become more unpredictable, creating numerical superiority in the final third.

Griezmann’s industrious nature also means that he can slot in seamlessly to cover for either of the two wing-backs when Barcelona are hit on the counter.

3. Freedom in the centre, stability at the back

Before even being employed as head coach at Barcelona, Ronald Koeman had spoken about Frenkie de Jong’s inadequate utilisation in his first season in the Catalan capital. Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setien hardly had a choice, though. Sergio Busquets seemed to be having a redemption season, and Barcelona lacked creative players who could make a difference in the final third. 

The 4-2-3-1 key was key to Koeman because it was the structure in which de Jong had some of his best games, for both Ajax and the Netherlands national team. Unfortunately for Koeman, his draft backfired pretty incredibly as de Jong became the centre of criticism. 

The man who only thought there was one way to deploy his star midfielder soon changed his tracks as he sent out a 4-3-3 against Levante. De Jong bossed the midfield starting in the right-of-centre slot alongside Sergio Busquets, making five key passes and registering the assist for the solitary goal of the game.

The Dutchman’s impressive string of performances continues against Eibar as well, as he rampaged up and down the pitch, contributing in each department.

Frenkie de jong barcelona
De Jong can do a lot when given space to work with. (Photo via Imago)

Playing de Jong as an interior in the 4-3-3 certainly makes sense, but it also paves the way for a poorer defensive structure as the only other player — Busquets — who can play as the anchor looks like a far cry from his best self. Miralem Pjanic should be the mature ahead alongside de Jong shoulders. 

The double-pivot in the 3-4-2-1 is different from the 4-2-3-1, though, as it boasts three central defenders behind the midfield instead of two, sometimes even one. Additionally, having Pjanic alongside the 23-year-old places a mobile midfielder in the middle, one who is more than capable of covering when de Jong meanders up the pitch. 

While de Jong is more than capable of dropping back to retain his spot, if ever he is caught out up the pitch, it will leave the team in a 5-1-3-1 shape, or at the very least as a 3-3-3-1, with the wing-backs wide and tracking, while Pjanic holds the fort from the centre. 

The five-man backline, with each holding their own. Pjanic as the deepest of the midfielders, while Pedri tucks in to give additional depth.

When out of possession, it gives one of the central defenders the scope to attack the ball-holder more aggressively when he nears the final third, while the rest of the defence, along with the oh-so-mobile de Jong, can cope with runners. 

Playing in this system requires a lot of hard work from the wide defenders. However, given the electric pace of both Alba and Dest, and the work-ethic of Griezmann and Pedri, Barcelona will not be too worried about getting hit on the counter or compromising the midfield.

Finally, if necessary, it can easily fit Riqui Puig and Carles Alena into the team if Koeman comes around either of them; far fetched right now, but given Busquet’s rapid decline, not entirely improbable. 

4. The ability to transition

At this point in the season, it is not difficult to see that Koeman is a man who likes routine. He has shown minimal growth through his tenure, sticking to his ways for as long as humanly possible. The double-pivot, the reluctance to play Puig, fielding multiple 10s together is part of this, but so is the powerlessness he feels when the team is losing. 

Cadiz, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Getafe, among others stand as examples where Koeman has tried to win the game from behind simply by subbing on more attackers for midfielders or defenders. This leaves the field hollow in the centre, with Coutinho, Pedri, or even Sergi Roberto trying to maintain balance as the pivot. 

Having more forwards at once on the pitch does more to damage the game, leaving the defenders more vulnerable at the back. But it seems like the former-Everton manager is not ready to change this part of his tactics anytime soon. This is where the 3-4-2-1 comes in. 

With three central defenders on the field at once, Koeman can always sub one of them off to bring on an attacker without doing too much to damage the structure. The team will be less secure than before, but will still field a functional unit, as seen vs Eibar, where subbing on Dembele for Dest did not particularly turn the structure incomprehensible.

In fact, the switch to the 4-2-3-1 helped Barcelona’s movement on the ball, as they were no longer stuck out wide against intense opposition.

Dembele Barcelona
The game against Eibar showed us the range the 3-4-2-1 has to offer. (Photo via Imago)

On the contrary, having the base of a defensive triumvirate also means that if need-be, the likes of Trincao, Dembele and Fati can seamlessly fit into the setup. The 3-4-2-1 will become a more direct 3-4-3, or an asymmetrical 3-4-1-2 with one of the front-men wider than the other. This improves the range of the attack and provides depth on the flanks. 

Closing Thoughts

While the contemporaneous game does not and cannot function on a single formation throughout the length of the tenure or season, as modern-day great Julian Nagelsmann will tell you, one thing has become clear; that Barcelona are not built for a 4-2-3-1.

It can be exploited by using high-pressing wingers who do not allow the centre-backs any space to build from the back, but that can be countered if the double pivot has mobile players who progress the ball by making triangles on either side of the pitch. Pjanic may not cut the role every time, but Riqui Puig can serve as a more than able deputy to him for some scenarios.

As for the 4-3-3, it can be used more often than the aforementioned structure, but there are certainly better options available. It may leave Martin Braithwaite isolated at times, and on others with the entire burden to score on him, for example for the game against Eibar where Barcelona were without Lionel Messi, but it is a risk worth taking given where the season might be headed.

Editor-in-Chief. | I have devoted my life to two arts — photography and writing. They say a picture says a thousand words, but my idea is to click it and then write a thousand words about it myself.

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Who are FC Barcelona’s hardest workers?

Samuel Gustafson



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.


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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