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The Barcelona 4-3-3: Creative, Suffocating Attack and Desperate Defense.

Rarely seen in 2011-2012: A common look for the Barcelona 4-3-3 in 2011-2012, though a series of injuries meant that this particular group was rarely on the field together.


The Barcelona 4-3-3 features a goalkeeper who is very good at controlling the space behind the defense and also at distributing with his feet; two stay-at-home center backs and two flank defenders who frequently venture forward into vacant flank space. The midfield is best described as an upside-down triangle with a single holding midfielder (pivot or fulcrum) and two very creative attacking midfielders who push hard to get into the attack.
 The flank strikers typically sit high and wide and try to get isolated and penetrate. The right side striker often tucks in, allowing space for the right back to overlap and serve. This happens less frequently on the left. Finally, the center striker is very non-traditional for a 4-3-3 in that for Barcelona, this player typically is not a big, hammering player, but rather a finesse-oriented player who likes to check back into the midfield.

Style of Play

Barcelona, by their own admission, are obsessed with possessing the ball. Both in La Liga and
in the Champions’ League, it’s typical for Barcelona to carry 80% of the possession in a game.
When coach Pep Guardiola is asked about his and his team’s tactical flexibility, he is adamant
that, “This is what we do (knock the ball around).” The answer is both prideful and a bit
defensive in nature, as for Guardiola and Barcelona the quality of their play is nearly as
important as the result, and both the staff and team believe that their relentless possession will
lead to wins, and their results over the past several years support this assertion. The nature of the
possession is sometimes a bit dull, as two or three players will knock the ball back and forth in a
small space, compelling their opponents to chase, and then suddenly brilliant as a third man
running blazes into space and is found with a timely pass. Of course the knocking of the ball in
small space creates the space and time for the dangerous run, but one gets the feeling that
Barcelona simply revel in the small area passing anyway. One commentator observed this
season that for many watching Barcelona, it’s the science of their game that we try to dissect,
whereas for the team and coaching staff, the art of the game is their focus.
Speed of Play
The style of play is admirably and stubbornly focused on possession and the speed of play within
that framework is a critical component to the success of the Barcelona style. The team are very
conscious of the speed at which they play and they occasionally slow play, but generally
speaking they seem to revel in a speed of play that is right at the edge of their collective ability to
hang onto the ball and Guardiola understands that this is critical to the team’s ability to wear
down and stretch opponents. Often it appears that their possession will be broken because they
are willing to play in such tight space and their opponents squeeze them into confined space, but
the general rule is that the Barca players respond with more quick passing to wear down
defenders and break pressure. The vision is clearly that the game is a series of small-sided (i.e. 2
vs. 2 or 3 vs. 3) encounters and that superior technical speed, tactical speed, superior physical
speed and early running off of the ball will allow the team to dictate play.

Central Possession, Attack Exposed Flanks

The engine, so to speak, of a 4-3-3, is the midfield triangle and the Barcelona trio of Busquets,
Xavi and Iniesta. Busquets is an intelligent, mobile and tough player who acts as the pivot at the
base of the triangle. He does a nice job of sitting underneath the other players to relieve pressure
and/or change fields. Iniesta and Xavi are energetic, sharp, creative and intelligent players who
seem to live to pass and receive the ball. They confound marking with their ability to dart in and
out of space and they are able to find one-another seemingly without looking. Add to this
dynamic mix the fact that Messi often ghosts back into the area to help organize and run the
opposing midfielders (and the Barcelona outside backs sometimes join in as well), and it’s easier
to understand how Barcelona dominate the center of the field.
Often, teams thrust a center back into the midfield space (usually in pursuit of a checking
forward) or condense centrally their four-man midfield to try to disrupt Barcelona’s possession.
The result is that the wing forwards (Villa, Pedro, etc.), can become isolated against a single
defender and the midfield group for Barcelona are very adept at playing these players into
dangerous space. Barcelona also like to pull a wing forward inside and/or into midfield space to
join the possession game and then overlap the outside back (Alves or Abidal) into this same
space. Alves often looks more like an outside midfielder or wing forward than he does an
outside back. If teams are able to maintain enough defensive support on the flank to avoid these
dangers, then the central group typically finds interior seams in which to penetrate the defense.

A Team of Midfielders

Interestingly, Guardiola has filled his roster with players who are midfielders or who possess
many of the qualities of midfielders. Xavi Hernandez (6), Andres Iniesta (8), Cesc Fabregas (4),
and Sergio Busquets (16), all mainstays in the midfield triangle, crave possession of the ball and,
like Guardiola in his playing days, can act as quarterbacks, organizing the team to dominate the
pitch. Many of the other regulars who play on the front and back line in Barca’s lineup are
extraordinarily comfortable on the ball and often cyle through the midfield while the team is in
possession. Lionel Messi (10) confounds opponents by ghosting back into the midfield, creating
an overload in that area and also freeing flank space for Danny Alves (2) to fly up the flank.
Alves and Abidal (22) frequently look like outside midfielders when the team is in possession,
pushed up high and sometimes even central in the midfield as the team swarm around, paralyzing
teams’ efforts to press the ball. Both are very comfortable on the ball and see the field very well.
Even Victor Valdes in goal seems bent on building possession through short passes in front of
his goal. Such stubbornness led to Valdes conceding an early goal against Real Madrid in the
first edition of the Classico in 2011-2012, but Valdes went right back to playing short out of his
area under pressure and contributed to wearing down Real Madrid to the point that the game
seemed well out of hand (3-1) with nearly twenty minutes remaining. Thus, Barcelona’s 4-3-3 is
a midfield possession dominated system made great by a group of players (at every position)
who think and play the game like midfielders.


Another remarkable characteristic of Guardiola’s Barcelona is the depth that the team exhibits.
This is a compliment both to the management and also to the coach, who clearly understand the
need to be able to rest and replace players in the lineup and maintain the rhythm and
performance of the team. Barcelona plays an extremely ambitious club schedule, ranging from
La Liga to the FIFA Club World Cup (requiring travel to Japan in the midst of the league
schedule), and this year’s squad has endured lengthy absences to injury and illness, particularly
Pique and Villa, but also Pedro, Abidal, Busquets and others. To the immense credit of both the
players and management, players like Alves, Mascherano, and Thiago have filled in admirably,
often while playing out of position, and the team plays and performs at the same level. This is
particularly noteworthy and important given the rhythmic passing style and high-pressure
defending the team features. Guardiola has also intelligently rested his top players on occasion
to help them endure the lengthy season, and the confidence he has shown in his reserves has paid
dividends on the field and, surely, helps team morale as well.

Set Up and Find the Third Man

Barcelona is perhaps the best current example of a team that possesses to set up and find the so-
called ‘third man’. Tactically speaking, a third man is a player making a run off of the ball.
Often this player is the beneficiary of several short passes between other players that condense
the defense so that his/her run off of the ball puts the player in space when the ball is played to
the third man. What separates Barcelona from other clubs is that the runners and passers seem to
have uncanny timing (particularly given the club’s speed of play) and the fact that in such a free-
flowing style of play there is still considerable discipline in the sense that runners are finding the
critical space and the right moment.

Utilizing the ‘False 9’

Perhaps the compelling tactical variation utilized by Guardiola’s Barcelona is the deployment of
a ‘false 9’ at the striker position. In the 2011-2012 season, Lionel Messi (#10, above)played the
lion’s share of minutes at the center striker position in the 4-3-3, but Cesc Fabregas also saw time
at the point as well. The term ‘false 9’ refers to the use of player at the point who does not fit the
traditional center striker role either in characteristics or particularly in the role the player assumes
within the formation. Traditional center strikers, particularly in the 4-3-3, tend to be big,
hammering, holding players who can win balls and distribute in transition and then wreak havoc
in the opposing box, getting on the end of crosses and muscling defenders to finish rebounds.
The USA’s Abby Wambach and Uruguay’s Umberto Suazo are current examples of attackers
who fit this description. Messi and Fabregas, on the contrary, are players who would likely be
more comfortable attacking in space on a flank and/or receiving facing the goal. They are more
midfielder than forward.
For Barcelona, both Messi and Fabregas are text book examples of a ‘false 9’, as Messi in
particular frequently drops deep into the midfield before making slicing runs into the opposing
backline. This withdrawn, unpredictable positioning offers several advantages to Barcelona’s
• The center forward is difficult to mark. Does the opposition release a center back to
chase the false 9? Do they pull their holding midfielder deeper to screen passes into the
false 9? Either way, the collective defending block of the opposing team is altered and
• As the center forward withdraws, he or she creates an overload in the midfield. Messi’s
ability to check sharply back and organize with Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta, often makes
it look like they are playing 4 vs. 2 in the middle of the field. Opposing central midfield
tandems are run ragged by the speed and rhythm of this possession.
• Often the center forward’s deep check into the midfield facilitates breaking pressure on
one side in the midfield through a pass to his feet to change fields. Messi in particular
has a very good sense of when his help is needed to defeat opponents’ pressing in the
middle third.
• A smaller center forward such as Messi, on withdrawing, can find room in which to turn
and face the defense, which is often difficult for smaller forwards to do when receiving in
the heart of the defense.
• Relatedly, once faced up in possession, the false 9 has excellent angles for playing in his
or her wing forwards. This is particularly true if an opposing center back tracks the false
9 into the midfield but is unable to prevent him or her from turning, as the opposing back
line is weakened and seams become more pronounced.
• When Messi checks down into the midfield, one of the attacking midfielders (or a wing
forward) often make deep runs in behind the defense in the space he vacated, particularly
if his run has pulled apart the defending block.

Barcelona Defending: Mentality

Guardiola is often quoted as saying, “We are a terrible team without the ball. We have to have
the ball.” This is quite a statement from the coach of what is arguably the best club team in the
world over the past three years. The best way to characterize Barcelona’s team defending is a
desperate hunt for the ball. Because the team is so spread out (particularly on the back line) in
possession, Barcelona are vulnerable to counterattack and the team look disorganized sometimes
without the ball. It is evident that they are aware of and sensitive to the danger, and it is
remarkable to watch them swarm the ball in the first few seconds after possession is lost. Word
is that Guardiola uses a stopwatch in training and allows six seconds for the team losing the ball
to win it back, and this sense of urgency is very apparent on game day as well. One of the
advantages of the 4-3-3 system is that when possession is lost, there is typically a player or
several in the area to apply immediate pressure.

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