For so long, FC Barcelona have referred to the 4-3-3 as the formation that allows them to play their possession game, built around players with immense technical ability.
In Barca’s golden years under Pep Guardiola, we saw the consistent use of the 4-3-3. The perfect formation for a group of players who had been fine tuned to play in this specific style.
Barcelona’s golden era
In Barca’s 4-3-3 formation there must be a goalkeeper who is as good with his feet as he is with his hands (Victor Valdes), two ball-playing centre backs to start every attack (Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique) and two fullbacks who are tasked with creating width and adding a constant attacking threat (Dani Alves and Eric Abidal).
In the midfield heart of the team, three incredibly technical midfielders who must keep possession and dictate play (Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets).
Up top, there is a central striker (David Villa) and two wide men that must start on the flanks to ensure maximum width, but be prepared to make darting runs toward the penalty box (Pedro and Lionel Messi). All three of these attackers are also the players who start the press when Barcelona lose the ball. Essentially they are the first defenders.
Neymar’s role in Enrique’s Barcelona
Last season we saw Luis Enrique take a brave tactical step by opting for a 3-4-3 lineup and stepping away from the 4-3-3 formation that has the foundation for Barcelona’s style of play over the years.
The 3-4-3 formation worked so well for Enrique on that glorious night at the Camp Nou when Barcelona scored six goals to send them through to the Champions League quarter-final 6-5 on aggregate against Paris Saint-Germain, ironically the club Neymar is leaving Barcelona for.
That night, Enrique started with what was a 3-1-4-2, with Neymar a slightly deeper position on the left of the midfield, with Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić forming a three in midfield.
Even though he started in a midfield role, Neymar was hugging the byline, making the pitch as wide as possible to create space for the maestros to work their magic in midfield. A vital job that he has mastered at Barcelona, keep the width and make the pitch as big as possible.
However, as Barcelona soon found their rhythm and started to dominate possession, Neymar was able to push forward into a 3-4-3 formation, joining up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
Neymar was unstoppable in that match, flirting with defenders, drawing them in, then floating past them, always driving forwards to create a goal-scoring opportunity for his side. It was Neymar, not Messi or Suarez, who carried the Blaugrana to victory with his two goals and the sublime assist for Sergio Roberto’s winner.
Promoting from within
Now without their skilful Brazilian winger, it will be interesting to how Ernesto Valverde adapts his tactics and if he will use a 3-4-3, 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, which was his preferred formation at Athletic Bilbao .
The Catalan side have Neymar’s fellow Brazilian, Rafinha, as an attacking option to play alongside Messi and Suarez. Under Enrique, Rafinha made 18 La Liga appearances last season, scoring six and assisting two in what was his best stint at the club so far. The club also bought back former La Masia graduate, Gerard Deulofeu, from Everton who does offer an option as a skilful wide player.
However, replacing Neymar, who in his 113 games as part of MSN contributed to 95 goals (59 strikes for himself and 36 assists) is a huge task and neither Deulofeu nor Rafinha have shown they are ready to step up and replace the former Santos player.
Is Coutinho the best replacement?
A player who has shown the potential to grow into one of the world’s best is Philippe Coutinho. Since joining Liverpool from Inter Milan for just £8.5 million in 2013, the Brazilian has stolen the show at Anfield.
His neat footwork, unbelievable close control and creative flare have made him one of the best players in the Premier League. He has also added more goals to his game, netting 13 and assisting a further seven for his team last season.
He is the inventive midfielder who would slot in perfectly to the Barcelona side. Like so many of Barca’s best he is not big, strong or powerful, but he is highly skilled and has the ability to maintain possession in high-pressure situations and construct goals his for his side.
Whether Liverpool are willing to sell their talismanic Brazilian is one thing, but with Barcelona filling their pockets with the cash from Neymar’s move, they will have the financial backing to spend £100m on bringing the 25-year-old to the club.
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