Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola is famous for not using the same lineup in two consecutive matches. He is also known for his willingness to experiment with new tactics, and using formations that are extremely difficult to decipher.
Since his appointment in 2008, we have seen Barcelona's formations and tactics change very fluidly. With his superb tactical understanding of the game, Guardiola has also managed to tactically outsmart some of the best managers of the age, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho.
Predicting what Guardiola will do next is so difficult totalbarca.com has made a contest out of it. However, here we have taken a shot at the impossible.
Here are some tactical trends that we can expect to see from Barcelona in 2012, due to their success in 2011 and due to the way in which they utilize Barcelona's current strengths.
This is a tactic that Pep Guardiola has attempted to use in a few key matches this season, most notably against Valencia and Real Madrid. It essentially involves having Dani Alves as the only right-sided player on the team, free to attack and defend as he sees fit, without support from an attacking right-winger up front.
The advantages of this move are:
1. Lionel Messi gets space to drift deep.
2. Alves himself manages to get behind the opposition defense easily and beat them with his pace.
3. More range for Barcelona's diagonal passes due to the movement of the players.
Against Valencia, this move almost led to a Barcelona defeat because Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu, Valencia's two left-sided players managed to double up on Alves and thwart his runs behind the defense. In addition, Mathieu also used the space left behind by Alves to run into Barcelona territory, notching up two assists.
However, against Real Madrid, Alves was able to play this role with a greater degree of success, possibly because Carles Puyol covered for him from right center-back. He offered a great deal of width to Barcelona's attack, and provided the cross for their third goal.
Used correctly, this will give Barcelona more men in midfield as well as a dynamic weapon in attack. Though this tactic will be used sparingly, it has the potential to yield excellent results.
An unusual and extremely exciting feature of Barcelona's game in many matches in 2011 was the perceptible lack of a target man—a center forward that is the focus of most of the team's passing.
The image to the left is an aggregation of average positions on the pitch in the Champions League match between AC Milan and Barcelona. We can see Cesc Fabregas, an attacking midfielder, in the spot of a traditional center forward.
Throughout the match, both he and Lionel Messi periodically dropped deep to get the ball, or went forward and attempted pops at Milan's goals. This tactic came to fruition in Barcelona's third goal. Messi, from a comparatively deep position, passed the ball diagonally to Xavi, who was running into more of an attacking position from his usual midfield role.
The strikerless formation displayed here requires an immense amount of technical skill from every player in the forward line. The lack of a center forward means that any of the attacking players may drop deep and be replaced by another, leaving the opposition at a quandary as to which player to mark.
Barcelona have already used this playing style against many teams in 2011, and obtained some truly fantastic results. The most notable one is certainly the 3-1 Champions League final victory over Manchester United.
The success of this style of play so far means that Pep Guardiola will certainly reuse it throughout the coming year.
Though not a term as popular in football parlance as the false nine, the false 10 is certainly a feature that we will see in Pep Guardiola's tactical arsenal.
The false 10 complements the false nine perfectly. While the false nine refers to a central striker who drops deep with the ball, the false 10 refers to a player who runs into attacking positions from the midfield. This is exhibited beautifully in the video shown above.
Here, Lionel Messi plays the false nine role, while Alexis Sanchez plays the role of the false 10. One can see how Messi's run from deep draws the Real Madrid defenders towards him, freeing up Alexis' run from the left. The pass and goal follow almost inevitably.
Both Barcelona's signings, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, have exhibited this sort of play in their time at the club. This can be expected to become an important tactic for Guardiola in 2012.
An intriguing feature of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona is the way in which the team often plays without fully established central defenders.
Defensive midfielders Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets have often found themselves manning the center of Barcelona's defense through the majority of the second half of 2011. This is a trend that can be expected to continue, and for the following reasons:
1. Very few natural center-backs on the team. Other than Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, Barcelona has no natural central defenders who can be considered good enough to start week in and week out.
2. Fluidity. This is exhibited most often by the tactically adept Sergio Busquets in the way in which he often drops into central defense from is defensive midfielder position. This allows Daniel Alves to make more forward runs because the defense does not lose a man, and also allows Barcelona to dominate position and start their passing game from their own half.
3. Injuries to Carles Puyol. The regular absences of club captain Carles Puyol has led to the deployment of Javier Mascherano in his role. Fortunately, Mascherano can for the most part replicate Puyol's role as a no-nonsense, hard-tackling defender who can also organize the defensive lines.
Both of Barcelona's defensive midfielders are also suited to roles as central defenders. Busquets will rarely be found playing as an outright central defender, only dropping deep to accommodate Alves' forward runs. However, we can expect to see Mascherano start the majority of his matches in central defense.
One of the most apparent tactical changes this season has been Pep Guardiola's use of the 3-4-3 formation.
Barcelona's results with this formation have been overwhelmingly good, which leaves one to question the need for four defenders. What is most surprising is how even the normally attack-minded Dani Alves plays the role of a third center back with ease.
This formation also enables Barcelona to get the maximum output from Cesc Fabregas' role as a false 10 or false nine, both of which he plays alternately with Lionel Messi. It also allows them to play Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Fabregas together in midfield without skimping on defense.
Using this formation, Barcelona have beaten Villarreal 5-0 at home and AC Milan 3-2 in an away match. These are excellent results. Combine this with Barcelona's lack of natural center backs, and we can be sure of seeing the 3-4-3 being used very frequently indeed by Guardiola.