Barcelona 5-0 Villarreal: Guardiola switches to a 3-4-3 (diamond) and Barca run riot

August 29, 2011

Barca's system in detail

Barcelona demolished a lacklustre Villarreal side in their first La Liga game of the season.

Pep Guardiola was without Dani Alves, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, so played just one nominal defender, Eric Abidal, and used Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano alongside him. Xavi Hernandez and David Villa were benched with Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez all starting.

Juan Carlos Garrido went for the side that was largely expected – Bruno Soriano returned to midfield after his midweek spell in defence, and Gonzalo Rodriguez returned to centre-back.

This was much less competitive than the excellent game last year – Villarreal offered little attacking thrust and rolled over for Barcelona.

Barca’s system in isolation

First, this was such an unusual system from Barca, that it’s worth outlining exactly how it worked on the pitch. Lining up as roughly a 3-4-3 with the ‘4′ a diamond, the two players who remained in their positions at all times were Busquets, the sweeper, and holding midfielder Seydou Keita.

Abidal and Mascherano pushed slightly higher up the pitch, trying to force Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar back. The outside midfielders, Andres Iniesta and Thiago Alcantara, tried to come inside and moved forward to switch with Cesc Fabregas. With those three fluid and Keita the only holder, it was more like a 3-1-3-3 for much of the game.

With Barcelona having nothing like full-backs or wingers, the front three spread even wider than usual, with Sanchez and Pedro keeping more width rather than coming inside immediately to make diagonal runs towards goal (although this still happened, simply less frequently). In all, it was very similar to Marcelo Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 system, albeit with ball-playing midfielders on the outside of the diamond, rather than wing-backs making diagonal runs, as in Bielsa’s system. Sanchez, of course, knew how to play this formation perfectly.

Perfect for playing Villarreal

This was Barca’s first match of the 2011/12 season, and there is some speculation that this will be their first choice system this campaign. Some caution is required, however, because Guardiola has a history of playing different systems in one-off games to counter an opponent’s particular strength, or exploit a certain weakness. He moved to a 3-4-3 (with wing-backs) against Atletico last season to push their wingers back into their own half, for example. He also played Dani Alves even higher up the pitch than usual against Sevilla. In fact, he generally tries something different against teams that play two strikers against Barca.

This system, then, was perfect for Villarreal. They usually play a 4-2-2-2 with two wide midfielders coming into the centre of the pitch, though sometimes they play more of a 4-3-1-2. Either way, it’s very narrow – the system here was probably a cross between the two, as Borja Valero shuttled between a role on the right, and a position closing down Keita.

Starting from the back, Barca had a spare man. Mascherano tracked Rossi and Abidal moved on Nilmar as those two typically moved wide, whilst Busquets could sweep up. One danger of playing against Villarreal’s 4-2-2-2 is that they sometimes have four central midfielders, but by playing a diamond, Guardiola was able to counteract that threat by keeping it 4 v 4 in the midfield zone. Further forward, Villarreal’s full-backs – who must overlap to allow the narrowness further forward – were pinned back by Pedro and Sanchez. It was the best theoretical formation to use against Villarreal.

The starting line-ups

This was such an unusual battle of formations, but there is a parallel with Kenny Dalglish’s tactics earlier in the year against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti, having just acquired Fernando Torres, played a 4-3-1-2 system, and to keep a spare man at the back whilst not being overpowered in the midfield, Dalglish went for a back three with a diamond midfield.

The difference was that Dalglish’s formation was much more reactive than Barca’s, and so on the flanks he used wing-backs in deep positions, rather than wide forwards. But they did the same job – in tracking the Chelsea full-backs, and so the idea was pretty much the same.

How Barcelona won

So, the actual details of the game. The first goal of the match made perfect tactical sense, because it came from the Barca player with the most freedom. Villarreal’s system involved playing two holding midfielders, using Valero in that shuttling position, and Cani much wider on the left to provide an easy out-ball when Villarreal won possession.

That worked well a couple of times early on as Cani dribbled forward, but the downside was that he often let Alcantara go. That was the reason why the youngster was allowed to come inside, dribble, and dribble, and dribble, and shoot into the net – without any pressure from Villarreal’s midfield.

The second goal demonstrated what Cesc Fabregas brings to the side. Barcelona did slightly lack a player like him last year – someone who runs from central positions to exploit Messi’s movement deeper. Iniesta occasionally did this, but he prefers to play deeper. Fabregas is perfect if Barca want that additional movement from central positions – he’s not so much a classic number ten (which often doesn’t work well with a false nine) but instead a player who likes bursting forward past the defence. Indeed, his relationship with Messi worked so well immediately because he’s done roughly the same thing with Robin van Persie at Arsenal for the last two seasons. It fits with Tom Williams’ astute observation last year that to go with a false nine, we may have a false ten.

The three second half goals came largely because Villarreal pushed their defence higher up, and Barca played balls over the top easily. At 3-0 it was over.


A brilliant performance from Barca technically, and a great selection from Guardiola tactically. He could have maintained a back four, perhaps by dropping Keita into the back or bringing in Andreu Fontas, but his decision to go 3-4-3 was logical and fully justified. 5-0 is a huge scoreline against a team who gave them such problems last year.

Will it be Barca’s permanent formation? Maybe. It’s important to remember that they were playing against opponents who play a very particular way (probably different from any other La Liga side), and also that 3-4-3 is not necessarily any more attack-minded than a 4-3-3. Dani Alves would also need to be accommodated.

The future – hopefully, for reasons of tactical interest – is a hybrid between this system and the usual 4-3-3. If Pique and Puyol returned to the defence and allowed Mascherano or Busquets to step forward, Barca could switch between the two systems, with a forward-playing centre-back able to drop in when he likes. Ironically, that might be the best way to stop systems with a false nine thriving, if that becomes the tactical norm.

Edit: Mike notes in the comments below that a comparison to Ajax is probably in order. He’s right – check out Mohamed Moallim’s excellent post on Louis van Gaal’s Ajax.

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