Since the beginning of this season, Pep Guardiola has introduced and sporadically employed a 3-4-3 formation, typically with a midfield "diamond," to add tactical variety and a sense of unpredictability for coaches who may previously have prepared exclusively for Barcelona's familiar 4-3-3. Besides, Barca have an overflow of the sort of versatile midfield talent that can make such a system work effectively. In the second installment of Managing Madrid's tactical preview of tomorrow's Clasico, I'm going to take a look at some of the patterns and tendencies I've noticed that usually signal Guardiola's deployment of the 3-4-3 and why I don't think he'll end up utilizing it against Real Madrid. Finally, I'll offer a few suggestions on what Jose Mourinho could do to counter Guardiola, if he does use the 3-4-3 system.
Jonathan Wilson, journalist and author of Inverting the Pyramid, noticed early on that Pep favored using the 3-4-3 almost exclusively against sides that play with two center forwards, such as Real Zaragoza and Villarreal. Using a back-three essentially creates a 3 v 2 numerical advantage for Barca in front of goal against opposing teams who use two forwards. Obviously, Real Madrid, favoring a 4-2-3-1, are a side that doesn't normally employ two central strikers and this is one of the main reasons that I think Guardiola will ultimately decide not to use this system tomorrow.
Injuries to key defenders have also been a catalyst in prompting Guardiola to use the 3-4-3, as he's had to adapt to extended periods without Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Gerard Pique and (to a lesser degree) Dani Alves over the course of the season. Pep did opt for a version of the 3-4-3 last week against Levante when he rested Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves ahead of the match against Chelsea, going with Puyol, Javier Mascherano and Adriano in the back. But this speaks directly to another key reason why I don't anticipate Barca using the formation tomorrow--Dani Alves. As far as I can tell, almost every occasion Barca used the 3-4-3 this season has happened to coincide with the absence of the dangerous Brazilian right back.
That's because the 3-4-3 is uniquely unsuited to Alves' formidable attacking skills and there is absolutely no way I can see Guardiola not selecting Alves tomorrow due to tactical reasons, particularly since his damaging forward forays were so effective and deadly against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey tie as well as the last league Clasico in December. In a match that Barcelona needs to win, I expect an offensive, attack-oriented mindset and the selection of Alves seems essential to achieving that result.
If Pep does decide on the 3-4-3, I believe one of the main ways to counter it would be to emphasize width and that would certainly mean the selection of Angel Di Maria. Di Maria has the pace and instincts to play wide and cause havoc with this distribution. Having him on the outside right would pull defenders out of position, opening up more space in the interior for Mesut Ozil or Kaka to create. Another player who provides width down the left is Marcelo and I think he would be considered by Mourinho, as a substitute option at least, if Guardiola decides to roll with a 3-4-3. Defensive liabilities non-withstanding, Marcelo's the type of player a more narrow side like AC Milan lacks and were unable to counter with when Barca played variations of the 3-4-3 against them.
Tell us where your tactical thoughts and suspicions are at the moment, Madridistas. The clock is ticking and I can't wait!