Sometimes soccer can seem a very simple sport. The great Dutch coach Rinus Michels, the father of the Total Football school of the late sixties and early seventies and the man who took that style of soccer to Barcelona, believed that his side should always play one more defender than the other team had attackers. If the opponent played three up, Michels liked four back; if two up, then three back. To an extent, that has been the theoretical orthodoxy ever since.
The problem most teams have, though, is that they lack flexibility. They know how to play in one way and making wholesale changes according to the opponent causes more problems than it solves. That is particularly true with players who are uncomfortable playing in more than one position. Michels' Ajax side, though, having grown almost organically from a group of players who had played together from a very young age, was able to adapt.
It was Michels who, in the seventies, took the Dutch ethos to Barcelona in 1971. Johan Cruyff, who had been his captain at Ajax, followed two years later. Together, they established the school of soccer whose philosophy lives on in the modern Barcelona. They pressed high, they prioritized possession, they interchanged position. They were also happy to flip between three and four at the back as required, something that was particularly true of the Barca side Cruyff coached in the early nineties.
Until the start of this season, Pep Guardiola had, broadly speaking, stuck to 4-3-3 and its variants. But against Villarreal on the opening weekend of the season, Barcelona lined up in a 3-4-3. Even more strikingly on the back three on the day, only Eric Abidal is an orthodox defender. He played on the left, with Sergio Busquets in the middle and Javier Mascherano to the right. Both Busquets and Mascherano have played at center back on occasion and it became common last season to see Busquets dropping in to become a third center back as the two fullbacks advanced. This, though, was a new tweak.
It was not, it should be said, completely new. In October last year, in the 2-0 win at Real Zaragoza, when Busquest and Seydou Keita were paired in the center of midfield, there is an argument that Dani Alves was so far advanced on the right, and Andres Iniesta played so wide on the left, that the system was a 3-4-3. Similarly in the 2-0 dead-rubber win over Rubin Kazan in the Champions League last December, when, in a much weakened team, Jonathan was the right wingback, Maxwell took the equivalent position on the left and Busquets played as a center back. To play like that in a prestige game at the beginning of the season, though, was something new, and felt almost like a marker, as though Pep Guardiola were making the point that his side has evolved, as great teams must.
What links Zaragoza, Rubin and Villarreal is that all three play with two center forwards. By playing with a back three against them, Guardiola was following the Michels-Cruyff logic. There is an obvious follow-up question: given so many sides play with one forward these days, does that mean Barcelona should play with only two back? To which the answer is that its fullbacks are often so advanced that it effectively does -- albeit with Busquets (or whoever is playing as the holding midfielder) dropping deeper as cover against a potential counterattack.
Then there is the makeup of the back three, with two midfielders alongside Abidal. To an extent, with Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique injured, that was forced on Guardiola. That said, Guardiola's postgame comment that "possession is the best form of defense" sits comfortably in the Dutch tradition. Dutch sides, both at national and club level, have often employed a player such as Ronald Koeman or Frank De Boer, who elsewhere would be regarded as a midfield distributor, as a central defender.
It's no coincidence that both Koeman and De Boer played for Barcelona. With both, the suspicion was that they were susceptible if they had to defend: put them under a high ball against a Niall Quinn or a Jan Koller and they struggled. But the payoff was that their distribution was good enough that opponents rarely had the ball often enough to create the situations that exposed their weaknesses.
Against Villarreal, Guardiola knew that his side was unlikely to be subjected to an aerial barrage: there's no point knocking long balls to Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi. The game was always likely to be played on the ground, and Barcelona had three on two at the back, with four-on-four in midfield. It became a question of which side could pass the ball better and, realistically, there was only going to be one winner. So it proved, as Barca won 5-0.
It's unlikely that 3-4-3 will become Barca's default. In both Super Copa games against Real Madrid it played 4-3-3, as it did in the European Super Cup against Porto. Against a side with aerial power a 3-4-3 with two passers (which probably includes Pique given his aversion to high balls) offers a needless vulnerability. Against a team that plays one up front, an extra spare man at the back runs the risk of being overmanned in midfield. Although Dani Alves played in the game at Zaragoza, he is so tactically indisciplined that he probably needs the security of the 4-3-3 with a center back shuffling behind him to cover. Similarly, other teams are unlikely to copy the shape because possession is only the best form of defense if you're confident of holding it, and no other sides comes close to Barca in that regard.
But it is an additional option for Guardiola, useful both in terms of being able to rotate his squad against lesser sides, and as a surprise option both against particular opponents and if anybody does -- not that anybody has yet -- ever work out a way of combating Barca's 4-3-3. It's not a weapon Barca needed, but the knowledge it has it only makes it more formidable.