Is Barcelona’s alternative shape really a 4-2-4?

March 19, 2010

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side have generally played with a 4-3-3 since he took over nearly two years ago. His natural ‘plan B’ last season was to switch his striker, Samuel Eto’o, with his outside-right, Lionel Messi. Barcelona aren’t able to do that this season, because Eto’o has left the club, and been replaced by Zlatan Ibrahimovic – a magnificent player, but one who would be uncomfortable being deployed in a role away from the centre of the pitch.

This has meant that Guardiola’s alternative formation has had to change, and he has been experimenting with a system with one traditional striker dropping deep, with a supporting cast of three – composed of Messi, Pedro Rodriguez and Andres Iniesta.

As with a lot of unusual formations featuring versatile, technically-gifted players, it’s sometimes difficult to describe the formation in the traditional fashion. Against Valencia, this site described it as ‘a loose 4-4-2 / 4-2-4 / 4-2-3-1 shape’, before going onto slightly more confidently define it as a ‘4-2-4ish formation’ in the defeat of Stuttgart, which some commenters objected to, saying it was more of a 4-2-3-1.

The reason it has been decided here to label it a 4-2-4 is simply because the striker, Thierry Henry, plays so close to the three midfield runners. Indeed, the way he drops deep in something approaching a ‘false nine’ role means Pedro, Messi and even Iniesta were often ahead of him when Henry got the ball. The fact that Henry’s role was different to the other three – more of a hold-up role than as a dribbler – means he could have been interpreted as playing as a traditional lone striker, but in positional terms there was not much separating Henry with Iniesta, Messi and Pedro, as shown below.

This diagram from UEFA shows the ‘average position’ of each starting player during that win over Stuttgart:

As you can see, Henry’s position was very close to that of Messi, and of Pedro Rodriguez. Andres Iniesta plays deeper, since he is a more natural midfielder than a striker, but otherwise the front four are on a relatively similar ‘band’. It would be silly to argue that this shape resembles a 4-2-3-1 because it would be implying that Messi is playing on a ‘line’ closer to Iniesta than to Henry, which is plainly not the case.

Compare this to a side that plays a ‘classic’ 4-2-3-1, and you’ll see the difference. Liverpool are a good example, and to take one of their Champions League games at random (the away defeat to Fiorentina), you see a much clearer 4-2-3-1 shape:

Here the line of ‘three’ behind Fernando Torres is much more pronounced, and the wider players play much more narrowly than in Barcelona’s shape. The central one of the three, Steven Gerrard, is directly behind Torres – whereas in the Barcelona example above, Henry is clearly playing left-of-centre and Messi is playing right-of-centre, suggesting that those players are effectively a ‘front two’ rather than Messi playing directly behind Henry, in a separate band. And with the wide players playing extremely high up the pitch, it is certainly more of a 4-2-4 than it is a 4-4-2.

That is not to say that it is identical to a classic 4-2-4 from 40 years ago, although Roberticus makes a great point in comparing it to the shape of Brazil from the 1970 World Cup.

To some who saw that side in action, describing this formation as a 4-2-4 might seem ludicrous, but the players fulfil very similar roles, even if they play slightly deeper. And different formations change over time. The 4-3-3 that England effectively played to win the World Cup in 1966 is nothing like the 4-3-3 played by Jose Mourinho in his time at Chelsea, for example.

But this formation is incredibly different to the 4-2-3-1 shape – it is more offensive, more free-flowing and the front four have very different functions. To describe it as yet another 4-2-3-1 doesn’t do justice to it, and so this site will continue to describe it as a (modern) 4-2-4.

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