Ronald Koeman’s greatest tactical revelation upon coming to Barcelona has without a shadow of a doubt been the 3-5-2 formation. Fully conscious of the frailties of the team in every department, the Dutch manager crafted out a setup with which the strengths of his players could be amplified, and their weaknesses quickly swept under the rug.
The full capacity of the setup was illustrated in the ties against Sevilla both in the league and the cup, against Paris in the UEFA Champions League, and in its full glory against Real Sociedad in Barcelona’s 1-6 annihilation of them. More than the results, the performances won back the hearts of fans. Barça were, as it seemed, back to their best, and not a single soul could deny this. Not a single soul, except perhaps Zinedine Zidane.
In the recently concluded Clasico, the Catalans endured one of their worst first halves of the season to date. Overrun defensively on every turnover, Barcelona’s seemingly airtight defence was reduced to rubble while their attack could neither get to nor could they make use of the ball. With that, their titles hopes, too, were damaged seriously.
In the second period, however, with the introduction of the 4-3-3, things changed for the better, and if not for some misfortune in the final seconds of the match, the comeback would have been completed. In this article, Barça Universal explores the identity crisis within the club, the setup’s unsustainability and the inevitable complacency that awaits the team should the formation overstay its welcome.
The lack of cohesion with club institutions
Formations are, after all, nothing more than telephone numbers; or at least that is how Pep Guardiola sees it. While this is true in principle, it is a train of logic that only applies to a certain extent.
It certainly makes a difference when one has four midfielders in comparison to when one has three, and the number of centre-backs, while a seemingly irrelevant figure, has a panoply of consequences on the shape of the team long term. The way the first team sets itself up is a reflection of what will trickle down to the academy level, but with a club that seeks a distinguishable identity from the ground up, should it not be the other way around?
Barcelona, as a football club, have the luxury of boasting one of the best academies in world football, La Masia. From the Pre-Benjamín to the Juvenil and all the way to Barça B, the academy players are inculcated with a strict set of values, intricately detailed roles with pertinent information for each position one can take up once they get to the end game, which is, for every academy player, to play for the first team.
The maintenance and furtherance of this school of thought and football ensure ease of integration into the first team, almost indifferent of age. Why so? This is due to the fact that a winger, for instance, at the tender age of 16 — while certainly inexperienced in the highest level — has all the necessary principles of what is expected of them in the big stage deeply rooted in his veins.
With coherence in the running of the club, from the academy level all the way to the first team, players have absolutely no need to be integrated into the first team. Everything that they need to do, they a priori already know, and will lead to them sailing ever so smoothly into a first-team spot. This is why players such as Ansu Fati and Oscar Mingueza have succeeded, where Nelson Semedo and Arda Turan have not.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that every single academy graduate will succeed, but merely that their presence will infinitely be of utmost utility to the club — as long as the happenings in the first team foster an environment for them to succeed in.
Most teams, as part of the La Masia, use the 4-3-3 to integrate players. This simply means that if ever a formation such as the 3-5-2 or the 3-4-3 is to be used at the club, it should not be for extensive periods of time. It renders an entire academy structure useless, and this then translates to club presidents having to spend ludicrous amounts of money to acquire players that will simply not be needed once the team eventually reverts to the core values it upholds.
Unsustainability in the face of change
If at all anyone desires to know to what extent the 3-5-2 — or any of its variants — is sustainable over the long term, one need only ask one question: Should Ronald Koeman be sacked right this instant, what formation is his successor — perhaps García Pimienta, or Xavi — going to implement once he arrives at the club?
A staunch believer in Barcelona’s core values both in style and in ethics, the Spaniard is most certainly going to revert to the 4-3-3. It is what he has known all his life, and also what the youth he trains have been instilled with over the course of their journey into first-team football. Why change what never once needed fixing?
The use of a 3-5-2 needs particular transfers to be made in order for it to be used to its highest level: a pair of strikers, a set of wingbacks, an attacking midfielder, perhaps a libero, an attacking midfielder and a double pivot. While not a complete representation of the needs of the setup — one whose use varies from manager to manager —, this is a general overview of what the 3-5-2 demands and the 4-3-3 does not.
Much like it would have a negative knock-on off on the academy for the fact it does not major in these specific positions, the sheer lack of durability of the setup will be put to show once the reverse is done and the team reverts to a back four. Suddenly the team will be in need of one positional pivot, a single central striker and interiors where the attacking midfielder would be of most use.
Knowing that Barcelona as an entity simply can not keep up with this particular setup for a year, let alone three, then it stands to reason that such a setup be used only for particular circumstances rather than be a regular occurrence at the club.
Ronald Koeman’s adoption of the back three was born out of one desire; to mask the flaws of previous systems. As Barcelona came to learn following Ernesto Valverde’s tenure, putting stop-gap solutions to long-standing problems is anything but desirable, as rather than put an end to a present-day problem, all it does is stall the defence’s eventual downfall by a couple of weeks or months.
The back three masks a panoply of positional issues within the players. As has been the case with both Oscar Mingueza and Frenkie de Jong, the back three system allows one centre-back to make runs into the attacking half of the pitch. This liberty stems from the fact that regardless of what one does upfront, they are going to be covered by the remaining two centre-halves.
Additionally, most modern teams prefer to set up with a single striker. It becomes almost too easy for a backline of three to deal with a single striker pressing them or making runs between the lines. And unless you have a midfield such as Marco Verratti, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Leandro Paredes, the forwards cannot afford to stay up and pin the CBs.
In La Liga, the go-to formation is the 4-4-2. More often than not, the two furthermost players tend to stay at a certain distance from one another, with one fixated on the centre-backs while the other rests deeper in the pitch. Given the relatively low need to stay in one’s own defensive half, one of the players in the defensive trio could easily abandon his post and embark on his own missions in the opposition half. This has happened on more than enough occasions with Mingueza, even with Sergino Dest acting as the wingback.
Thanks to heroics from Marc Andre Ter Stegen, problems pertaining to his centre-backs’ positional negligence has been mitigated, but not for much longer. Relying on the goalkeeper to cover up for their inadequacies is nothing more than a means to an end. It is their job to make saves, however, this should not now become an excuse for future complacency.
For young centre-backs like Ronald Araujo and Mingueza, this is far from ideal. Eventually, they will have to move away from a three-man system which is bound to cause trouble in paradise.
The sages once coined that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and there are several concrete examples to further this theory. One need only look at David Luiz’ career to get a glimpse at the long term negatives of the pursuit of a back three. Throughout his career, the Brazilian has been marred by defensive issues. His overall decision making, positional awareness and his ability to mark attackers have often been permeated with his dreadful inconsistency and woeful uncertainty.
Offensively, Luiz is a sight for sore eyes. His prowess in attack, owing to his pristine ball control, reliability under pressure and impressive passing range are rather impressive for a centre-back. Despite this, the fact that one would constantly need to have two near him for him in order for him to excel speaks volumes about his defensive ability. If anything, it was Arsenal’s 3-0 mauling of Chelsea in the Emirates back in the 2016/17 season that pushed Antonio Conte into making the switch to a back-three.
This example, and many others, illustrate the detrimental effects of a back three to the unit itself. It is a method in which a team can shoot itself in the foot. It fosters complacency in defence, and what for?
Koeman has spoken highly of Jordi Alba in the past, and this season, the Spaniard has been revitalised. This has been one of his individual best offensive seasons in a Barcelona shirt — he has five goals and 13 assists from 40 appearances this season to his name, averaging more or less a goal contribution every two or so games.
The same, however, cannot be said about his defensive abilities. It is his failings in this sector that have meant that rather than be considered the best left-back in all of Europe, he lags behind, and for obvious reasons.
Tasked with defending as well as attacking the left flank in conjunction with his wingers, the Spaniard has shown aptitude in only one of these things. He has, on far too many occasions in this and preceding campaigns, been caught out of position to the detriment of the team. The Blaugranas’ defeat to Athletic Club in the Supercopa final best illustrates his sheer defensive ineptitude. He recorded two assists, which on its own was phenomenal, but on the flip side, he gave away two goals as a result of his complete lack of positional and spatial awareness. He was just about as much a blessing in attack as he was a curse in defence. That is, up until the introduction of the 3-5-2.
Koeman sees Alba as indispensable for the team, and as such, he shaped up the team in such a way that it would accommodate him regardless of how he would perform. Thus far, this ambitious project has borne fruit. The 32-year-old has since scored two goals as well as provided two assists in La Liga, as his newfound offensive privileges have relieved him of all his backbreaking defensive duties.
Much as was the goal with the centre-backs, this new system has been put in place not to remedy previous issues but rather to paper over the cracks. For all the virtues the system has, it has done absolutely nothing to improve Alba’s — or Dest’s — defensive capabilities but rather conceal them by use of the back three.
It should stand to reason that if a manager has to change a system because he is incapable of placing any trust in his full-backs to defend, which is after all the bare minimum they have to offer, then there is a dire need to stir up things. The American has shown on several occasions that he is dextrous enough to alternate between his offensive and defensive responsibilities with relative ease. The Euro winner, however, has not.
More often than not, teams that take up a three/five-man backline use two strikers upfront. There are issues that have a detrimental impact on the 3-5-2 as a general formation and others that affect Barcelona in particular.
Much like the centre-backs and fullbacks have a toxic and symbiotic relationship with one another, the strikers do too. They tend to be excellent when partnered up with one another, but not so much so as sole strikers. Sebastian Haller and Luka Jovic formed a formidable partnership when deployed together in such a system at Eintracht Frankfurt, but once put asunder, they immediately regressed.
The opposition defence has to leak outwards to cope with the wingbacks, and in the process, stretches the centre beyond help. Consequently, with as many as three central midfielders, one of them can afford to rove into the final third, after which it essentially becomes a 3v2 scenario in the centre. The strikers can then exploit this space. Atalanta did this by using Alejandro Gomez as the focal point, while Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan does it by pushing one of Nicolo Barella or Stefan Sensei up.
Moving to a single striker system, then, becomes a lot more complicated because you are not given this kind of space in the attack.
At Barça, there is an entirely different set of issues at hand. To start, the team has no true striker but rather a false 9 and a winger in the form of Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele, respectively. The Frenchman has suffered greatly in the novel setup. While he has been on the receiving end of innumerable crosses from his teammates, his sheer inability to make hay while the golden sun shone brightly upon him has come back to haunt not only him but also his team.
Bar his inability to bury chances presented to him, he is simply incapable of forming partnerships with his teammates. As a result, he oftentimes finds himself isolated, much like an outsider looking in. his decision making is just as woeful as it was before, but this time, as the last man, they perhaps carry more weight.
This setup reduces wingers to ashes. The likes of Alex Collado, Francisco Trincao, could each lose a place in the team if at all this setup is to be used in the long term. No winger has a place in it, which is quite ironic given how much of Barcelona’s history has been shaped by players of that position exactly.
In and of itself, the 3-5-2 is not a horrible formation but simply one that will fail to stand the test of time. It is an excellent formation should one require a dangerous attack and a defence capable of covering up its flaws, but in the long term, it will collapse in on itself. Teams such as Inter Milan, good as they are, are ticking timebombs. A managerial change is always around the corner in this fast-paced footballing world, and should Antonio Conte depart from the Nerazzurri, then the current Italian leaders could see a majority of their squad turn to deadwood in the blink of an eye.
The onus is on Ronald Koeman and the current board to discuss the way forward. The 4-3-3 is, has been, and will continue to be the way that Barcelona will best play their football. The team needs reinforcements and pruning of unwanted players in equal measure wherever necessary.