Barça and the Sabella system

July 25, 2014

With Luis Suárez signed, Luis Enrique needs a system that can recreate the flair Barça have missed since Pep Guardiola’s departure. The model may be Argentina.


When Pep Guardiola left Barcelona in 2012, the consequent struggle for unpredictability was not completely unpredictable. The ‘philosopher’—as Zlatan Ibrahimović called him—had brought continual innovation by tweaking his tactics in fear of being found out. In his final season, the changes were probably too many. Under his successor, Tito Vilanova, they were probably too few. Vilanova’s preference for tactical stability—a more classic 4-3-3 system—underpinned a consistent and triumphant league campaign, but it also left them outthought in the Champions League where Bayern München won 7-0 on aggregate. Last season Gerardo Martino installed a more direct style to provide an alternative attacking plan. But the lack of flair remained while the side’s renowned fluency faded.

Considering their style, Barça were always vulnerable to running out of ideas against top sides. The heavy reliance on creative players in the final third is a natural consequence for possession-based teams. The slower the tempo the more vital such players become, because the opposition defence gets more time to organise. Similarly, and even at their best, the Spain of Vicente del Bosque missed a talismanic forward who could translate possession into clear-cut chances. Last season Bayern lacked the same ingredient: especially in the Champions League, they would bang their heads against robust defensive walls, with Arjen Robben the only penetrative outlet. The prime exception to the rule was Barça under Guardiola, because they possessed the element of sorcery that helped fully validate the approach. They had Lionel Messi.

But even with Messi, flair is difficult to create. That is clear from recent seasons in Catalonia. Under Vilanova the criticism post-Bayern was slightly harsh: fitness issues hampered the side and the coach himself had been absent for months. But the scepticism towards Martino’s tactics was largely justified. The team stuttered and Messi seemed disinterested. Despite a glittering forward line, the most frequent attacking weapon was often Daniel Alves drilling in crosses. The ingredients were there, but a new recipe was needed.

Finding this is surely Luis Enrique’s most important task in his managerial debut season with the senior team. The former Barcelona B coach—he succeeded Guardiola in 2008—is loyal to 4-3-3 and, with Sergio Busquets irreplaceable and Iniesta comfortable in his centre-left role, a back four protected by an anchor and two dynamic midfielders seems likely. The composition of those areas is up for debate. But the most important question centres on the front three when Luis Suárez returns from suspension in October. With the Uruguayan back, Luis Enrique will surely start him alongside Messi and Neymar. But in which manner will they be used?

Ten for one; eight for three

The dynamic of Barça’s forward trio has changed. Under Guardiola, the role of the wingers was an unconventional one. Both played for Messi. Since the Argentine hardly moved, they had to move more. They worked the channels, sprinted out wide and operated between the lines in small pockets of space next to Messi. They dragged defenders around and opened up spaces centrally. As such, they created an environment in which Messi could thrive. When they had the ball, they did not so much dribble, cross or shoot. They gave it to Messi. The magician was essentially flanked by two attacking equivalents of the classic ‘water carrier’. The result was extraordinary. Messi produced some of the most glittering football we have seen.

Some of this disappeared with Neymar’s introduction. The signing was meant to lighten the burden on Messi’s shoulders. But in doing so, it also destabilised the environment created for Messi to shine as an individualist. Rather than having one static forward (Messi) and two moving constantly (Pedro and Sánchez), Barça now had two preferring the ball to feet. The balance had been disturbed. While many more factors were behind last season’s stagnation—and indeed Messi’s below-par form—some believe Barça functioned better when Sánchez and Pedro flanked Messi. Certainly, the attack was less efficient than under Vilanova.

This season the system devised by Guardiola is all but gone. Sánchez is sold and Pedro is likely to be marginalised when Suárez returns. Messi is still the centrepiece but, with Neymar and Suárez completing the attacking trio, the dynamic has fundamentally changed. In the old system, ten players worked for one. Now, eight players will work for three. The club would not buy Neymar and Suárez as mere support players. It is reasonable to suggest they will be handed more creative freedom than Pedro and Sánchez. In other words, when Messi is free for the square pass Sánchez would always give, Suárez may try his own luck. As such, if Messi retains his ‘false nine’ role as the team’s intended chief goalscorer, his influence may fall because others will share more of the responsibility.

Another option is to tweak Messi’s role to adapt to the circumstances. For that to happen, one also needs to tweak the formation.

The Argentina template

When Alejandro Sabella took charge of Argentina ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, the squad contained Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín. The challenge was to fit all three into one system. Sabella managed it. He introduced a 4-3-1-2 formation in which Messi was the classic playmaker—as opposed to his customary ‘false nine’ role—while Agüero and Higuaín roamed as centre forwards. The formula worked. The attacking trio developed fluency and understanding. En route to Brazil, Argentina were devastating on the counter-attack. They won the qualifying group. Higuaín scored nine in eleven matches; Agüero scored five in eight. For Messi’s part, one might think his ratio declined due to his playmaking duties. Not so. The captain netted ten goals in fourteen games.

L Enrique 1

Sabella, the baby-faced former boss of Estudiantes de La Plata, is not the first coach to favour such a system. But his use of Messi sets a timely precedent for Luis Enrique. The 4-3-1-2 is the only formation in which Messi, Neymar and Suárez can play in their natural positions. Although used in various places last season, Suárez’s best role is centre forward. The World Cup indicated that Neymar is more efficient through the middle. And various signals suggest Messi is evolving towards being a more traditional playmaker.

The system offers good conditions for Suárez and Neymar. They can drift wide and swap positions. They can drag sluggish centre-backs out of their comfort zone. They can drop deeper between the lines and draw on the playmaking dimension they both possess. They are quick enough to sprint in behind and intelligent enough to play each other through. The effect of their mobility would be maximised. The same would not be the case in a 4-3-3. Their movement would be more rigid and they would broadly stick to one side of the pitch. Given the freedom of a centre-forward role, they should cause havoc.

The most interesting part is reserved for Messi. A deeper role would adapt to his evolving profile. There are reasons to believe his speed has declined. Compare highlights from the World Cups of 2010 and 2014 and you see a notable drop in mobility. (Some even believe his best days are behind him.) What is certain is that, as Messi ages, his pace will decline further. This increases the spotlight on his technique and creativity; skills best showcased in a classic playmaker role akin to the one he holds for Argentina. By handing Messi this role now, Barça would be preparing for the future. Neymar and Suárez would do the running and dribbling. Messi would contribute with that too but, above all, his role would centre on his genius as a passer.

Role reversal

Would such a system work? It could surely solve old problems. When Messi played as a ‘false nine’ in the more classic 4-3-3 he was often crowded out. If he dropped deeper, no striker would be moving in front of him. Especially last season, the forward line could be extraordinarily static: Messi stood there while Neymar waited for the ball out wide. In Sabella’s system, Messi could collect possession deep in midfield—probably in front of the opposition’s central midfielders—and search out Neymar and Suárez. Key to the system’s success would be the duo’s movement: they would need to compensate for Messi’s more static nature. Especially Suárez will be crucial, his off-the-ball game being among the sharpest and most varied in Europe.

The tactical choice of Luis Enrique will be revealed on 26 October when, intriguingly, Barça face Real Madrid in El Clásico the day after Suárez’s ban has ended. There will be a deputy for Suárez until then but, when he returns, the dynamic between the front three will be new. For years, Barça’s forwards have played to set up chances for Messi. This season, the roles may be reversed.

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Photo: Jim Basio


The Catania goalkeeper says the Barcelona forward was merely … That system saw Messi struggle and he was forced to drop deep to link up …

by Clubtray Football on October 22, 2014 at 2:33 pm. #

First off I want to say that I very much enjoy reading your articles, so thank you for having this website up.
When Barca bought Suarez I automatically thought about the possibility of having the front three rotate freely (just like Liverpool did with Sturridge, Suarez, and Sterling). I think this could be a pretty effective approach because the opponent’s defensive line would be pretty confused about who to mark and when to do so. Also by using this approach Neymar, Suarez, and Messi could create overloads when they drop deeper to receive the ball on all areas of the field.
Now, the thought of leaving the flanks open for the oppositions fullback doesn’t worry me at all. As long as Iniesta (who is very capable of performing defensive duties), Busquests/Mascherano, and Rakitic shuffle over and block any passes towards the center of the field, then there should be no problems (In fact maybe even Neymar, Messi, or Suarez can drop down and create a sort of asymmetrical diamond in the midfield).
I’ve seen many teams purposely guide the opponents towards the sidelines, block all possible outlets, and successfully take the ball away.
Luis Enrique is also a big fan of pressuring the opponent once the ball is lost. So I do expect higher defensive work rate by Messi, Neymar, and Suarez.
Finally, the thing about Messi’s speed is a curious one indeed. There have been times where even I believe that Messi’s speed has declined noticeably. However, there have been games where he really surprises me and shows that his speed has not declined at all (see the games against the Netherlands and Germany where he dribbles past 2-3 defenders near the sidelines). I think he’s just being lazy now, but I also think that his playing style is also changing due to his role in the team. Unlike Cristiano, where his speed is a very important component for his playing style.

by P. Snape on August 13, 2014 at 5:25 am. #

Thank you for a very good comment. The idea of having a rotating front three is good, but I would hesitate to back it on the grounds that Messi is so much better centrally. Perhaps a compromise could be to have Neymar and Suárez swap sides, while Messi stays in the centre. I’m aware Messi is efficient out on the right too, but I’ve never been a fan of him moving too far wide.

by Thore Haugstad on August 13, 2014 at 8:48 am. #

Very interesting analysis.I read an article somewhere that Luis Enrique sees the liverpool of last year as the barcelona of this year.Front three of both these teams are quite similar.Sterling can be compared to neymar,sturridge’s to messi and third being suarez.Liverpool wreaked havoc on sides as they overwhelmed the opposition with their front three.Busquets can play the role of gerrard with between the lines passing,,what are your thoughts on this?

by Rajat Shrinet on August 10, 2014 at 5:53 pm. #

It certainly sounds interesting, though I’m not sure what to say as I don’t know what Luis Enrique really has in mind for Barça this season (we’ll see soon though). Do you remember where you saw the article?

by Thore Haugstad on August 10, 2014 at 9:06 pm. #

Brilliant article as always.You are head and shoulders above every analyst in world football but you dont write many articles.This article was preceded by an el classico article.We had a world cup in between.

by shahansha on August 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm. #

Thank you. I have been busy writing for other media outlets for the World Cup, but I will be posting more frequently this season.

by Thore Haugstad on August 10, 2014 at 9:04 pm. #

The problem I see with this though, is the space given up on the flanks by Suarez and Neymar moving inside. Who will track the fullbacks/wingbacks of the opposing team if they get foward. Rakitic has the mobility and physicality to shuffle over, but Xavi not anymore at this stage of his career and Iniesta is not that type of player. They might have a lot of flair going forward, but they might also be an unbalanced team.

by Angel on July 30, 2014 at 3:49 pm. #

I agree; that would be a worry. I guess one option could be to move Suárez and Neymar wide to press the full-backs. In that way, they’d revert to something akin to the ‘old’ system when without the ball. Otherwise, I do think Iniesta is hardworking enough to make it work, but Xavi would be a problem. So yeah, it’s not a completely watertight strategy.

by Thore Haugstad on July 31, 2014 at 7:43 am. #

Love reading your articles! Would you at any stage consider doing one on Van Gaal and his 5-3-2/3-5-2 system he has been using?

by sid on July 30, 2014 at 12:36 pm. #

Might do. There is one here in Norwegian, if you fancy using Google Translate

by Thore Haugstad on July 30, 2014 at 1:51 pm. #

Awesome, thanks!

by sid on July 30, 2014 at 3:26 pm. #

This was a nice article with a very interesting analysis. However, there is one point I would like to mention, which is, the usual formation of Argentina is a slightly counter-attacking 4-3-3, where as Barcelona plays a 4-3-3 which looks to dominate possession. Therefore, in my opinion, if the role of Messi for Argentina is to serve as a template for Barca, there is a possibility that Barca will have to towards more of a direct and counter attacking style.

by Uddipta Ghosh on July 30, 2014 at 6:37 am. #

Thank you very much. Yes, this is true. I think the point of Barça using the Argentina template is still valid, but they may have to do make slight tweaks to Messi’s role and the system as a whole in order to retain their philosophy (which is surely not negotiable). So it won’t be 100% the same. You may call it a ‘model’ for Barça, as opposed to a pure copy.

by Thore Haugstad on July 30, 2014 at 7:54 am. #