Predictably, after Barcelona’s 7-0 2013 Champions League semifinal defeat to Bayern Munich, when they were physically overpowered by a compact and organized 4-4-2 press, many of their future opponents adopted Bayern’s tactics in an attempt to nullify the attacking strengths and exploit the defensive frailties of the Catalan giants. It is then no surprise that Barcelona would transition to a back-3 to counteract the advantages their opposition obtained from mimicking the formation that dominated them.
Playing a back-3 provides Barcelona an extra defender and free player to bring the ball out of the back, allows their wingbacks to play aggressively knowing they have extra defensive cover to pin back opposition wingers, affords a three versus two advantage and defensive cover against counterattacks, and gives Barcelona the extra size to help defend against set pieces where their opposition have always planned to attack.
Rumors circulated during the 2014 summer transfer window that new manager, Luis Enrique, was planning to push the club in this direction by introducing a unique 3-2-3-2 formation that would be reliant on the acquisition of Barcelona’s secondary summer transfer target, Juan Cuadrado. Cuadrado, an energetic and technically skilled player, could play any position on the right flank and it was believed that his unique blend of physical and technical ability was needed to stabilize Barcelona’s right wingback position. However, they were unable to acquire Cuadrado and Enrique scrapped his new tactical plans and returned to the 4-3-3 formation that had brought Barcelona so much success. Enrique has since struggled to cultivate a consistent style of play. He has benched multiple starters, started 24 different starting lineups in 24 matches, and been forced to rely on individual talent rather than a cohesive system. Unexpectedly, in a must win Champions League match home to Paris St. Germain, Enrique called on the 3-2-3-2 formation for the first time of the season.
During the PSG match, the back-3 of left centerback Jeremy Matheiu, sweeper Gerard Pique, and rightback Marc Bartra were comfortable retaining possession with holding midfielders Javier Masherano and Sergio Busquets never venturing far from their positions. However they struggled linking play centrally, usually against ten deep defenders, forcing central attacking midfielder Andres Iniesta and forward Leo Messi to drop deep into non threatening positions in an attempt find space with the ball. Barcelona were much more threatening when they played the ball directly to their front two and when they played direct diagonal passes to their wingbacks Neymar and Pedro, who when given the space against PSG’s narrow defending, positioned themselves aggressively down both touchlines.
Luis Suarez, Barcelona’s starting center forward, played a more functional role, and with PSG packing the central midfield, most of his time came on the ball in the attacking channels between PSG’s centerbacks and fullbacks. This movement led to Barcelona’s match leveling goal in the 19th minute where he made a run in the left central channel between PSG’s rightback Gregory Van der Wiel and right centerback Thiago Silva behind their defensive line and played in Messi who finished the scoring opportunity. He also drifted wide to the touchlines to provide width to allow attacking runs from Barcelona’s wingbacks into attacking areas.
Barcelona’s most interesting player on the night was their left wingback Neymar who morphed from a wingback to a wide forward as Barcelona advanced the ball towards PSG’s goal. While this movement did put him in threatening goal scoring places it was partially responsible for the match-leading goal in the 42nd minute. However, many times he made attacking runs without any other player drifting wide to stretch PSG’s defense, leaving Barcelona’s attack narrow and easy to defend. Other times, he forced Iniesta wide left to cover for him leaving an extremely creative player out his team’s buildup.
Defending was also a problem for Neymar. While wingbacks must attack to provide width for attacks, they must also be responsible for dropping deep and providing protection for their wide centerbacks. Outside of Italy, the back three disappeared when most teams began moving to three men front lines with dangerous, athletic and tricky wingers. They were able to exploit the space behind high defensive lines and advanced wingbacks by creating three (attackers) versus three (central defenders). If a winger can beat a wide centerback, he creates an opportunity to play the ball to his attacking partners with the opposition having no defensive cover. Neymar struggled to accept his defensive responsibilities, never providing adequate cover for Mathieu. PSG was most dangerous when their winger, Lucas Moura was able to receive the ball in space and attack Mathieu who had no defensive cover. These events led to PSG’s only goal in the match. It was initiated by Moura having the time and space to attack Mathieu with no defensive cover from Neymar. Lucas was able to cross the ball to PSG’s left winger, Blaise Matuidi, who drifted in centrally and knocked the ball down to Zlatan Ibrahimovic who opened the scoring in the match. If Barcelona are going to regularly attempt to regularly play the 3-2-3-2 formation, they will have to use another left wingback, most likely, attacking fullback Jordi Alba, with Neymar moving centrally into their front attacking two.
Barcelona, in defense, preferred to defend from the front pressing the ball quickly after losing possession with their front two, Messi and Luis Suarez, pressing their corresponding centerback and their wingbacks pushing forward to press their opposing fullbacks. Busquets pushed forward and pressed with Iniesta in an attempt to deny passing opportunities to PSG’s outlets. When Barcelona were forced deep they maintained a high line to avoid sitting deep in their own half. Right wingback Pedro dropped deep providing cover for Bartra, while Neymar played higher up the field looking to track PSG’s rightback Gregory Van Der Wiel and not provide cover for Mathieu.
The 3-2-3-2 formation offers an interesting option for Barcelona. It provides the size, physicality, and defensive cover that Barcelona has lacked over the years and that, since the decline of Xavi, they can no longer play without. However, for it to be a reliable tactic, a more disciplined left wingback must be used and Barcelona would have to sacrifice one of their famed attacking players for increased stability and structure. Also, with the extra defensive support that is provided by playing three central defenders and a holding midfielder, Barcelona can play the positionally aggressive Ivan Rakitic who would be given the freedom to advance into his more natural central attacking positions linking play between Barcelona’s defensive four and attacking three.