Barcelona: Breaking Down Their Formation and the Role of Each Player
We continue our series of in-depth breakdowns of UEFA Champions League quarterfinalists by bringing you the low-down on Barcelona.
Selected is an estimated XI to face Paris Saint-Germain at the Camp Nou, but with Tito Vilanova's options it could, as we know, differ slightly on the night.
Read on for all the details you need to know about your favourite players.
Victor Valdes is a polarising man—some love him, some can't stand him.
The goalkeeping role at Barcelona is different to every other club, though, and no man in the world could perform it better without a full summer of training.
In some ways, Valdes is more a last defender than a keeper. He doesn't see a lot of action due to the immense possession statistics his side totals, so concentration levels are key.
In Barca's tiki-taka system, the urge to "lump it" has been cleansed. That means, if a centre-back has no options ahead of him, he needs to go back to Valdes.
As a sweeper keeper, he's constantly on the edge of his box waiting for the ball, recycling possession well and even pulling off a few fancy lobbed passes.
His naturally advanced position puts him in a good position for counterattacks, and he saves a large percentage of one-on-ones with strikers—a trait that goes largely unnoticed, unfortunately.
It might be a stretch to call Dani Alves a right-back, but in principle that's what he is.
In practice, the Brazilian is the most attacking full-back in world football, although the man opposite him in a Barcelona shirt might have something to say about that.
Over the past several seasons, Alves has formed a wonderful link with his midfield playmakers, marauding down the right-hand touchline like it's his own personal playground.
He overlaps at will, and while his crossing remains a little hit and miss, his very presence in the wide areas allows his side to stretch the pitch and, subsequently, the opposition's defensive structure.
Alves has a reputation for being a little wasteful in the final third, but he remains a key cog in the Blaugrana attack.
CBs—Gerard Pique and Marc Bartra
As stated previously, Barcelona centre-backs don't do a tonne of defending due to the vast majority of possession they enjoy.
But they are integral in the buildup play and need to be just as able as the midfielders in the short passing game.
Both Gerard Pique and Marc Bartra are prominent passers who like to surge into midfield with the ball at their feet—some balance will be needed, as Pique's usual partner (the suspended Javier Mascherano) is far more reserved.
Most passes will be played into Sergio Busquets, but service to the full-backs is just as important.
Such is the exhaustion that many teams feel when they play Barca, Pique and Bartra will deal with a lot of balls straight over the top, pitting their pure athleticism against an opponents'.
Jordi Alba has received a truckload of praise in recent months and justifiably so—he's quickly turning into an irreplaceable performer for both club and country.
If Dani Alves' marauding runs forward are impressive, Alba's are downright astounding. It's his first season as a Cule, and he's adapted very quickly to the demanding style of play.
He's formed an excellent relationship with Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas—no doubt helped by the Spanish national team and their performances at Euro 2012—and chips in with key goals.
It's arguable that Alba picks his moments better than Alves, but regardless of their differences, they combine to create one of the most potent full-back duos in world football.
Look for the former Valencia man's rare blend of attacking potency and defensive awareness as markers of how far he's come since the summer.
Sergio Busquets isn't the most appreciated soul across the world of football, but Barcelona fans know just how important he is.
Despite the star-studded look on paper, Barca's defence would be porous if it weren't for Busquets snuffing half the attacks out before they even begin.
His passing range is good—not outstanding—but wide enough to thread key balls in between the lines of an opponent's formation and find playmakers in space.
His recycling job looks simple, but really he's the foil for every other player on the pitch. He excels when challenged and usually wriggles free under pressure.
The Spaniard has a strong case for being the team's MVP as he approaches Lionel Messi levels of consistency.
Xavi remains the key link between Barca's midfield and attack and has stood the test of time.
His outrageous ability on the ball and excellent passing range have benefited Lionel Messi for years now, and there's nothing to suggest that link won't continue for two or three seasons more.
His technical strength and pure footballing mind foregoes his aging legs, and Xavi thrives in the same role he has done since Pep Guardiola arrived as manager.
He dinks short passes to the full-backs—particularly Dani Alves—after receiving it short from Sergio Busquets or looks for a cutting diagonal for a wide forward to run onto.
If Messi has just received the ball in or around the area, it's usually Xavi who's found him.
Most teams have only one genius playmaker, Barcelona have two.
Andres Iniesta is a different animal to Xavi, and it's arguable he has a wider set of skills. His short and long passing game is inch-perfect, but he has the added burst and explosive first step Xavi does not.
The Spaniard can take on multiple players in mazy runs, and it's rare you'll see him lose the ball. His ability with the ball at his feet in tight areas is largely unrivaled in the current game, leaving defenders flummoxed on a weekly basis.
Iniesta has fulfilled several roles for Barca over the past three seasons, but looks most comfortable in central midfield toward the left-hand side.
His understanding with Jordi Alba is borderline telekinetic, despite only playing together for 10 or so months.
Barcelona have a fair few options on the wings, and it's difficult to predict how Tito Vilanova will go.
Cesc Fabregas' hat-trick against Mallorca could see him play alongside Xavi with Andres Iniesta moving into this position, or Alexis Sanchez's improved showings could earn him a spot.
Of all the "ifs" and maybes," one thing we do know is that Pedro comes up in the big games—he's a clutch performer who scores when it really, really matters.
At 2-2 in the second leg against Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Paris Saint-Germain, it's fair to say this will be a tense affair. Enter Pedro (hopefully).
His speed off the edge of the offensive line is game-breaking, and his habit of popping up in the right place at the far post most welcome for Cules.
Expect Pedro to provide natural width in advanced areas and link up selflessly with his corresponding full-back.
Lionel Messi played more than two entire seasons as a false-nine, but came undone at the San Siro when AC Milan beat Barcelona 2-0.
The club responded by freeing Messi in a deep-lying role and playing an orthodox striker up front, and we could well see that happen again against Paris Saint-Germain.
Can you call it a false-10? Possibly, but what we do know is that the Argentine will float in and out of the forward line to find space, turn and run.
He can be utilised in slow buildup play or in a lightning fast counterattack, and he remains one of the world's biggest dangers with time on the edge of the box.
He could revert to the false-nine after Tito Vilanova played Cesc Fabregas in a similar role against Mallorca, while he could miss the game altogether.
What we know for sure is that, should Messi be fit, he'll play.
David Villa has found his way back into the Barcelona team, thanks in part to Jordi Roura's belief in his abilities.
The Spaniard put on a show to remember in his side's 4-0 win over Milan, and now looks equally likely to start coming in off the flank or as a central striker.
Off the edge, Villa has been able to use his finishing ability and devastating pace to turn full-backs inside out. His natural striking ability helps, as he times his runs to perfection to pick up the accurate through-balls from midfield.
As a central striker he occupies the centre-backs, giving them someone to mark and pinning them back. He can turn on a sixpence and fire home, while also run the channels and leads the charge.
There's a chance Lionel Messi won't make this game, and it'll be the first time in a while Barcelona face a huge game without their Argentinian goal machine.
Cesc Fabregas' hat-trick against Mallorca was a great audition to move into the false-nine role while flanked by David Villa and Pedro.
Alternatively, Villa could take the striker's role with Pedro and Alexis Sanchez either side of him, leaving Cesc a little frustrated, but that's football.
Even if Messi doesn't make it, Barca have the strength to win this game 2- or 3-0. Should he be categorically ruled out early, much fervour will surround the team selection announcement.