Due to a tactical change, Ronald Koeman's men look revitalized under the new 3-5-2/3-4-3 system, which looks to have mitigated some players' weaknesses and improves key players' performances. The tactical switch has had many positive effects off the ball. They are now a better pressing side, and on the ball, the side looked to have found their rhythm and played some excellent fluid football. Along with the tactical switch, Barcelona have been producing some excellent results. Most noticeably in their La Liga and Copa Del Rey 2nd leg matches against Sevilla, their 4-1 victory at home to Huesca and their biggest win yet, 6-1 away to Real Sociedad were we saw Barcelona completely dominate the game and put on a fantastic controlling display. Barca had 69% ball possession to boast with the victory. Though it's still early doors with this system, we've seen the advantages of playing with 3 at the back has given Barcelona, especially with their press, as they can now man-mark their opponents out of the game, limiting the time their opponents have on the ball.
In their 6-1 mulling over Real Sociedad, the team shaped up with ter Stegen in goal serving as a sweeper keeper. Mingueza and Lenglet were the two wide central defenders who were aggressive in winning possession for the side and progressed up the pitch with the ball in the half-space. Mingueza has been the sides top tackler since the tactical switch, and against Real Sociedad, he completed 4 tackles (the most on the pitch) and made 4 interceptions. In between the two wide central defenders has seen a new role for Frenkie de Jong. He's was deployed as the sides Libero and is another defender who will progress with the ball but even more so when making forward runs. The two wide players, Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, have been in fantastic form, and though they are positioned as wing-backs, they serve more as a supporting role for the midfielders occupying the flanks. Dest scored two excellent goals, which demonstrates the high positions he takes up, and Jordi Alba ended the game with an assist. This new system has benefited both attacking full-backs as now they have less defensive responsibilities with the freedom to attack more. Sergio Busquests and Pedri were the central midfielders. Busquests dictated play and has taken up a higher position since the tactical change. His importance is telling with the number of passes he makes to the final 1/3 (11), with only Messi completed more whilst Pedri has been leading the press in midfield. Pedri applied the most pressure to an opposing player receiving the ball in their last match (29). Dembele was the sides number 9, often on the last defender's shoulder stretching their defensive line and on the blindside. Still, his energetic movements have been welcomed and compliment the two players operating slightly behind him—Griezmann and the captain Leo Messi. Two players who love to drop deep to collect the ball, Messi more so. Both are great passers off the ball but are difficult for defenders or midfielders to pick up because they operated between the lines. Messi has more creative responsibilities whilst Griezmann works extremely hard off the ball, applying pressure and forcing opposition sideways or back. But what exactly has changed tactically?
The Better Press
Barcelona's press has changed and is now more aggressive and rewarding if the risks pay off. Messi and Dembele position themselves as the front two, which prevents the opposition's goalkeeper from distributing the ball to either central defender, and this force's the goalkeeper to look wide.
Forcing the opponents out wide or forcing the distribution to the full-backs immediately reduces the number of passing options that the wide man will have on the ball and creates uncertainty. The errors are forced because of the pressure applied by Barcelona's wing-backs, who look to engage and close down the angles the player on the flank has on the ball.
Another welcomed benefit of this new pressing shape is that it forces their opponent's full-backs deeper than preferred. Sevilla and Real Sociedad have full-backs who typically like to advance and are offensive-minded, but this system didn't allow them to be. They took up average positions deeper than usual during the recent matches against Barcelona.
Barcelona's new system also has seen them man-marking their opponents when they're trying to build, limiting the time each player has on the ball and effectively isolating those players. But the risks lie if the aggressive press is bypassed. Because of the man-marking system, this encourages defenders to leave their defensive area, which leads to gaps and possibly expose de Jong if he's to play in central defence in the long run (assuming this system is kept).
The wing-backs generally play an integral role in this system, both in and out of possession. This is also due to Barcelona using the flanks to progress up the field, freeing up space for the central players. When Barca builds from the back, the two wing-backs stay wider, but on different lines disrupting any press and offering themselves outlets so Barcelona can progress up the field and out of possession, they are vital in pinning the opponent's full-backs.
Given Barcelona's incredible average possession since the switch doesn't just indicate how well they can keep the ball but also how well they are counter-pressing once the ball is lost. Though Barca lost heavily in the 1st CL leg tie against PSG (not using this system), they still went to Paris believing they could put in a performance, which they did. The game ended 1-1, but Barcelona played PSG off the park, and their pressing proved too difficult for PSG, with them only having 27% off the ball. As each game passes with this new system, the players are becoming more familiar with it and certain player improvements are becoming more evident. But who are these improved players?
The Improved Players
Sergio Busquests has been one of those key players this new system has suited as it has mitigated a weakness. Less milage. Now with 3 at the back, he looks to be back at as best as he holds far less responsibility in dropping deep to cover and be the 3rd man in defence; instead, he has more license to be effective further up the pitch where he now has more options ahead of him, and this highlights his strengths.
With the extra players around him, his ability to find the 3rd man via a wall pass or 1-touch pass effectively eliminates multiple opposing players during their press. And since the tactical switch, we've seen the best version of him this season and the telepathy relationship between Sergio and Messi.
Dembele is another player who seems to be thriving but is a player who's been given a new role and a big responsibility. Knowing of Griezmann's striking talents, Koeman has opted to use Dembele as the number 9 and his off the ball movement has been a handful for the opposing defenders. Often operating on the shoulder using his pace to stretch the opponents has given the space and time for Messi and Griezmann to receive the ball between the opponent's defence and midfield and immediately put Barca on the front-foot.
Mingueza is another player who has excelled in this new system, and it has benefited his playing style. Mingueza is an aggressive defender; he likes to mark attackers very closely and engage in either a tackle or an interception. The wide defenders need to be stoppers, but Mingueza is also excellent at bringing the ball out from the defence. By doing so, not only does it add another body in midfield but also can force an opposing player to engage in a press, so Barca are not outnumbered in mid and attacking 3rd.
Though we've touched on a possible weakness for de Jong, his new role as the sides Libero has helped Barcelona's progressive play. In their 6-1 away victory to Real Sociedad, no player carried the ball over a longer distance than de Jong (523 yards). His new role also offers the side flexibility as he can either swap positions with Sergio Busquests or overlap him in midfield to effect play in the attacking 3rd.
The atmosphere around the club appears to have been given a boost from the recent good performances, and it's not just the fans or spectators that can see the improvements on the pitch. Dest also agrees; he told BarcaTV after the 6-1 win how much he enjoys the new formation.
"This system is really good for me and is going well for the team. I have more space and I am more involved. I am really comfortable, playing almost as a winger, and it's really easy for me to play in this team."
Whether Koeman chooses to stick with this system is yet to be known, but one thing is for sure, and that is that it brought a feel-good factor to those connected with the club. With Barca now chasing the La Liga title, which seemed a long reach just weeks ago, this system could be what they need to close the 4 points between them and the league leaders. It is also important to note that they have players missing, and with de Jong playing as the sides Libero, it will be interesting to see how Pique will fit in if he can. This system offers Barcelona a lot of tactical fluidity, and they can rotate without changing the system too much. Jordi Alba and Dest are currently the sides wing-backs, but it's a job Junior Firpo and Sergio Roberto can do. The young talent Ilaix Moriba often features as a sub, frequently for Pedri, which indicates they could do a man for man swap in central midfield. Coutinho, Fati and Ricard Puig are even more talented players who can come in if the likes of Griezmann or Dembele need a rest. Barcelona have been a great possession side with this system but Koeman doesn't shy away from being more direct and has players capable of breaking lines. The central players are enjoying more freedom and this is partly down to the wide men freeing space for them to operate. Barcelona have pressed high and aggressively immediately putting them on the front foot and with now just the La Liga to focus on, will Koeman win the title in his first year in charge?
Thank you for reading my tactical analysis of Barcelona's brand new formation.