Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3, the progeny of Total Football, Johan Cruijff and Guardiola’s own machinations, saw to the absolute thrashing of Manchester United in last season’s Champions League final, maddening Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad with untold fluidity and roles seemingly filled by positional ideals. But, favouring evolution above all else, above even a shape responsible for a historic season and the masterclass of its culmination, Guardiola used the return of Barcelona youth product Cesc Fàbregas not to fortify his midfield but to, as the neologism goes, embiggen it, embracing a new 3-4-3 and various exotics featuring a three-man back-line.
Since the latest El Clásico, though, the 3-4-3 has made but only a few cameo appearances, perhaps the result of wanting to dampen the relative vulnerability in front of Victor Valdés’ goal the 3-4-3 holds in lieu of the heightened motion and numbers superiority in the centre of and across the pitch it also provides. What hasn’t changed, however, is what appears to be not just a tactical conceit but a precept of Guardiola’s vision for the game: keeping one more defender at the back than the opposition has forwards.
Guardiola’s 4-3-3 is, if nothing else, flexible. Against a lone striker, the centre-backs play the role of bread to peanut butter, allowing the rampaging down the right touchline of Dani Alves and the voyaging down the left of Éric Abidal and Adriano. Against two forwards, defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets drops between the centre-backs, freeing the flanks for forward-favouring fullbacks. Against a front line of three, Busquets and a centre-back can even provide cover for a fullback, keeping the overlapping run a part of Barça’s offensive repertoire.
Where the 4-3-3 has a clear solution to keeping one spare man at the back against a lone striker, the 3-4-3 has the cumbersome problem of one too many spare men. To remedy this, Guardiola either uses Alves as the rightmost defender, allowing him to push ahead as the remaining defenders shift to keep the striker between them, or orders his outermost defenders to provide support with Barça in possession down their flank. Against two forwards, there can be no better fit than what the 3-4-3 offers: the three-man defence stays defending. Against three forwards, Busquets again drops into defence, relieving the building pressure.
In Barça’s first Champions League contest against AC Milan at the San Siro this season, Guardiola selected the 3-4-3, a sensationally easy choice given Milan’s standard 4-3-1-2 shape and the lesser leverage of the group stage. But for the first leg of their quarter-final tie, after Guardiola’s extended return to the 4-3-3, the choice wasn’t obvious, and the words of Guardiola pre-match offered little in the way of clarity:
How to stop Ibrahimovic and Milan? The best way is by having a lot of ball possession. [suggests 3-4-3]
I expect the best Milan, aggressive, pressuring a lot. [suggests 4-3-3]
Accordingly, Guardiola selected both.
The hybrid selected by Guardiola was simple enough: 4-3-3 out of possession, 3-4-3 in possession. To satisfy the ask of the latter, Alves and Alexis Sánchez reprised their roles from the opening leg of the Leverkusen tie:
[...]Alves had a monster game for Barça, essentially playing right-back and right-winger, given how Sánchez, the nominal right-winger, was used mostly as a right-of-centre-forward.
In possession, Sánchez shifted over the top, looking to either hold up play or run onto through balls, leaving acreage out right for Alves to run onto. Acreage because, by design, Milan’s defence was exceptionally narrow, and Sánchez’s movement only dragged Milan left-back Luca Antonini even farther inside. This was illustrative of the structural weakness Milan’s 4-3-1-2 has against advancing fullbacks: who is supposed to mark said fullback? Are one of their own fullbacks supposed to hand-off a winger, staying wide, waiting for a run which might not even come? Are one of the two strikers supposed to follow the tireless Alves up and down the pitch?
From the left, Andrés Iniesta played as an inverted winger, looking more to attack and aid the centre than stretch the pitch out wide. Against Madrid in the first league Clásico, Iniesta thrived in this role, a role he’s assumed for Barça and Spain numerous times over the years. But against Milan’s narrow, three-tiered defence, the avenues for his mazy dribbling were unavailable. This was problematic for Barça for two reasons: one of the best players in the world was without a path for influence, and the left touchline might as well have been the edge of the penalty box, a drastic narrowing of the field of play.
With Iniesta on a wing, Seydou Keita received the call to start in midfield over both Fàbregas and Thiago, a selection by Guardiola undoubtedly caused by a want to stand tall against the brawn of Milan’s diamond. Had the game gone more to the script of the earlier San Siro meeting, the selection would’ve paid dividends to the Catalan giants, but as Barça enjoyed a 2:1 possession advantage due to Milan’s willingness to sit deep, a sharper attacking blade was needed.
The knock-on effect of Keita starting was Xavi’s role as the most advanced of Barça’s midfielders, a role normally reserved for Iniesta, a role which calls for more dribbling than the deep-lying Xavi normally delivers. It’s something Xavi can do and something he can do credibly, but like Iniesta out wide, it isn’t Xavi’s best role. Nevertheless, Xavi’s chameleon eyes and assured control created a number of chances, chances gone unrequited, chances denied by both poor finishing and Christian Abbiati’s gloves.
In defence, things were much simpler: while Alves sprinted back, Barça operated as if their back-line had only three, with Busquets dropping to join Javier Mascherano, Gerard Piqué and captain Carles Puyol if Kevin-Prince Boateng pushed forward, and when Alves rejoined the back-line, it was a 4-3-3, with the ball-side fullback finding a mark and the remaining three defenders covering Robinho and The Zlatan.
In a game quit of goals and with AC Milan missing key players at each position, the most notable absence was perhaps that of David Villa: with Milan often content to give Barcelona players time on the ball even twenty yards out with little pressure, the master-key that Villa’s curling shot often is and the danger his runs create from the left wing in behind the defense would’ve had significant value. Even if Villa was out of form, look no further than what Cristian Tello’s addition to the game did to Milan’s defence, spreading them thinner, making both flanks viable routes of attack, to see the impact of even token width.
Editor’s note: This tactical review has been written by twelve point courier. Beyond being a football tactics enthusiast, he is a sports/politics blogger with a slight emphasis on snark and illustrating the asinine and illogical. Follow him on twitter @tpcourier.
Image: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images