“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
That axiom, from English cleric Charles Caleb Colton, is as true today as it was when he first uttered it 200 years ago. And there are no greater imitators, no greater flatterers, than soccer managers: Where one succeeds, hundreds follow the first’s tactics and techniques.
After all, a manager’s continued employment is predicated on finding any possible edge, any advantage that could mean the difference between victory and defeat – a difference that, on a long enough timeline, costs 99 percent of managers their job.
All of the above makes Barcelona’s 5-0 hammering of Real Madrid in Monday’s clásico even more remarkable because nobody has been able to duplicate what Barça do. Nobody has even really tried, despite the fact that Barça’s tactics aren’t mysterious, aren’t hidden and are devastatingly effective.
Fact is, Barcelona’s 4-3-3 is beyond imitation. If you find yourself asking, “Why don’t we play like that?” the answer is simple: You can’t. And if your team tried, they’d probably get slaughtered (see: Costa Rica's 3-1 victory over the US at home during 2010 World Cup qualifying).
[inline_node:324393]There are two keys to Barça’s tactical plan. The first comes in midfield duo Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, both products of Barcelona’s famed La Masía academy. In a world where players are getting bigger, stronger and faster, Xavi and Iniesta both stand out for being remarkably unremarkable athletes.
But they are the two best in the world at holding the ball and distributing while under pressure, and because of that, the Barcelona midfield never runs out of ideas and avenues to create. That’s why the high-pressure of the type Real Madrid attempted to apply in the second half is suicide: Over-commit, and Barça’s duo will tear you apart.
In addition to their native gifts with the ball, their long careers in the Barcelona set-up have given them a sixth sense – Xavi might have seven or eight, actually – when it comes to spacing and pacing. Balls are never played directly to feet; they’re played into a movement, away from the defense and into an obvious passing lane. Defenders are still reacting to pass A while Barcelona have already made pass B.
This is the Blaugrana way, something on which these players have been drilled since before they were teenagers.
[inline_node:324197]The second key is Barcelona’s wingers. The best Barça team of this decade – the 2008-09 squad that won every trophy they turned out for – featured a front three of (from left-to-right) Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. The three combined for 100 goals in all competitions that year.
What made them special – and nearly unstoppable – was that all three had the ability to go by you with the ball on their feet or outrun you without it. That level of individual skill combined with raw athleticism – not to mention finishing prowess – pinned defenders back deep in their zone and allowed the midfield time and space to create.
While this year’s version of Barça may not be nearly as potent offensively, the same principles are in place and were on display Monday evening. Their midfield held the ball for prolonged periods, drawing “Olés!” as early as the 38th minute, while the forward line put Real Madrid on the back foot for the entire match, isolating and winning one-on-one matchups like clockwork.
The degree of difficulty for this tactical approach is off the charts – and impossible unless all the pieces fit. The forwards have to be good finishers, good athletes, good passers. The midfielders must be impeccable on the ball and clever off of it. Everyone on the field must uniformly have a great first touch. And they all have to commit to attacking as a group rather than playing through a single channel.
[inline_node:324394]A dynamic creative midfielder like Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder, for example, wouldn’t thrive in the Barcelona system because his game is predicated on volume and risk. He needs to see the ball a lot. Once he has it, he takes chances that, to his great credit, often end in goals.
Taken in a vacuum, Sneijder is more dangerous in the final third than Xavi or Iniesta, but his style of play also makes him more prone to giveaways. Put two workers behind him who minimize the impact of his turnovers (as has been done at Inter and with the Dutch national team), and Sneijder is in his element. Ask him to be part of the methodical Barça midfield, and he’d be a liability because of his individual daring.
This doesn’t mean Sneijder’s a lesser player. In fact, for most teams, a player like him would be a better fit than either of the Barça maestros. Finding that one guy who can make the turnovers you force into goal-scoring chances is the tactical approach du jour from Los Angeles to London.
The same holds true across MLS, where in 2010, only one team – Kansas City – trotted out the 4-3-3 with any regularity. And to be fair, that was much more of a 4-5-1 than a 4-3-3. Even so, the results were mixed: The Wizards had trouble with midfield giveaways and weren’t able to consistently maintain possession against top MLS clubs.
It would have been no different for any other team in MLS, though. The 4-3-3 demands too many tools from too many players to be a viable long-term option. It’s a death-sentence if you can’t possess the ball like Xavi and Iniesta or attack like Messi and David Villa. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a team like that to show up anywhere outside the Camp Nou. Even Real Madrid, with all their hundreds of millions spent, couldn’t imitate Barcelona.
So for now, render unto Barcelona as much flattery as you see fit. They deserve it. But hope your favorite club’s manager saves the highest form for someone else.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed at twitter.com/mls_analyst.