Match Review (Part 2) – Barcelona 5-0 Villarreal: The Three Man Defense

Part 1 of the match review provided an overview of play, examined the strengths and weaknesses of the Villarreal system and evaluated Barcelona’s formation.  Barcelona’s system could be described in a variety of ways:  3-1-3-3, 3-4-3 with a midfield diamond, 3-2-2-3, or a 3-3-1-3.  Ultimately the way they play had characteristics of all of these formations and the system was so dynamic that the team moved fluidly and mixed all of those structures.

The Villarreal match builds on the general trajectory Guardiola has implemented since taking over as manager – to intensify the dynamics of the Barcelona system so that more open and flexible formational structures can be implemented while still maintaining the levels of organization needed to obtain a result.

In the second part of the review we’ll look at the highly fluid, hybrid three man defense.


The Back Line:  Pressuring Villarreal’s Two Striker Formation While Keeping an Extra Man at the Back as a Sweeper

Barça’s reconfigured its system in response to the loss of five of its top six defenders.  The defensive back line was the driving force for enacting change now.  How to compensate at the back for the absent defenders while also developing a solution for countering Villarreal’s dangerous two man striker formation?

Since Fabregas joined, there’s been a great deal of speculation about Barça playing three at the back to accommodate an extra midfielder.  However, the way Barcelona implemented their three man back line was highly unconventional.

Three Man Defense with Mascherano and Abidal Playing Forward and Wide of Busquets the Sweeper

The still shot above demonstrates how Barcelona structured its back line.  Mascherano and Abidal are positioned higher up the pitch than Busquets who is playing as a sweeper behind.  Both Mascherano and Abidal are stationed very wide.

Three man defenses traditionally utilizes three center backs who often play relatively narrow.  The general idea is that if you only have three defenders in the back up against skilled strikers you want to make sure that they are defensively solid and working in conjunction with each other to form a coordinated wall.  For example, in this system the three backs move in unison from flank to flank depending on where the ball is located on the pitch.

This traditional approach was not how Barcelona’s three man back line was arranged as can be seen in the still shot above.  And the innovations introduced to the three man defense were both to highlight Barcelona’s strengths and counteract Villarreal’s.

It’s generally true that playing three at the back against two strikers is advantageous because it allows you to mark each striker while having an extra player at the back.  However, Villarreal does not play a traditional two man striker formation.  Rossi and Nilmar do not position themselves centrally nor do they try to link up with each other immediately to initiate an attack.  They do not depend on physical dominance in the middle.  Instead, Rossi and Nilmar base their game on movement, pace and technique.  They split very wide in advance positions and often play down the flank almost as wingers.  Their purpose is to drag back lines out of shape by playing wide and forcing defenders to come out into space to close them down 1 vs. 1.  Out wide they can use their technique to beat more physically imposing central defenders.

So even though a three man back line should work well against a two man striker formation, against a highly unconventional striker duo like Nilmar and Rossi, a traditional three man back line could potentially be a poor match up.  Nilmar and Rossi could drag the center backs from the three man line out wide and beat them in dangerous advance positions.  For example, a three man back line of Pique, Fontas and Puyol sweeping might have difficulty with Rossi and Nilmar as Pique and Fontas would be forced to defend much quicker players out wide in space.

Barcelona’s three man back line in this match was oriented to function in a very different way than three man back lines often are.  Barça played three at the back but the emphasis was on mobility and the capacity to press dynamically rather than emphasizing the defensive solidity of three defenders linking together to maintain shape.

For example, in many ways it would have made more sense to have Mascherano as the sweeper due to his tackling ability and capacity to make strong last second interventions. Those are qualities generally highly prized in a sweeper.  And on the whole, in three man back lines the strongest deep defender often plays in the middle to provide cover.  But Guardiola placed Busquets in the sweeper role, prioritizing dynamism in defense towards the flanks.

This system was structured to aggressively pressure the Villarreal attack by having Mascherano mark Rossi and Abidal mark Nilmar.  Guardiola wanted both of his players who had more pace and experience defending 1 vs. 1 to track the Villarreal duo when the Yellow Submarine were in possession. The goal was to close them down very quickly before they could turn or receive the ball to foot.  Here’s an example:

Abidal Closing Down Nilmar High Up the Pitch Far From the Defensive Line Busquets and Mascherano are Playing

In the still shot above Nilmar has received the ball to feet and is preparing to turn.  Notice how high up the pitch Abidal is pressing.  He’s defending in the space that midfielders usually do.  Keita is in front of Abidal so there isn’t even a holding midfielder behind.  This is a very unusual way for a Barça player to press.  Rather than being able to rely on multiple players closing down in unison, Abidal is alone in space and has to press 1 vs. 1 rather than in a “pack” with his teammates.

That said, in the shot above before Nilmar can even turn Abidal has closed space and then successfully dispossess him of the ball to restart the attack for Barça very high up the pitch.

Why can Abidal press so aggressively?  First and foremost, it’s a testament to how effective a defender he is.  Very few managers would even consider having their left center-half press this high 1 vs. 1 in a three man back line.  But Guardiola trusted that both Mascherano and Abidal could absorb the responsibility.  But also notice the distribution of players in the still shot.  Including Nilmar there are nine Villarreal outfield players defending eight Barcelona players.  Deeper, Barcelona have Mascherano and Busquets up against only one player – Rossi.  Even if Abidal gets beat without a holding player behind him Barça would still have a 2 vs. 2 situation.  This is evident in the still shot below.  The goal keeper has played the ball long out from the back. This image gives a sense for how the Barcelona back line was spaced for much of the match.

"Shape" of Barcelona's Defensive Line With Abidal Closely Marking Nilmar Who Looks to Drop Deep

Above the Barcelona back three is really a back two with Abidal playing much higher up the pitch almost as a holding midfielder.  Notice how Mascherano and Busquets are 2 vs. 1 against Rossi with Abidal not playing remotely close to their line.  This is not the traditional way that a three man defense is structured.

The reason why Abidal is so much higher up the pitch than Mascherano and Busquets is that his role was to mark Nilmar.  During the match Nilmar was often dropping extremely deep to look for space, support midfield and try to collect the ball.  Dropping Nilmar deep appeared to be a tactical adjustment made by Garrido in response to Barcelona playing three at the back.

In theory, if one of the two strikers drops deep enough, Barcelona would have three central defenders marking only Rossi.  In turn, this would give Villarreal an extra man in midfield who would go unmarked and free in space.  Garrido was trying to use Nilmar’s mobility and skills on the ball to use the three man defense against Barcelona by exploiting the trade offs required to play that shape.

And against a traditional three man back line this should have worked.  Nilmar should have represented an extra man free from a marker.  This should have created a significant advantage for Villarreal in midfield.  For example consider the still shot below:

Nilmar Drops Deep to Own Half But Abidal's Marking Away from the Defensive Line Prevents Nilmar from Creating Open Space

Nilmar has dropped deep looking to relieve pressure on the ball by supporting the right back Zapata (Nilmar is being marked by Iniesta).  By dropping deep, Nilmar gives Villarreal nine outfield players in their own half.  Barcelona has eight defenders because Abidal has tracked Nilmar.  This should allow Villarreal to control the ball.  But they can’t retain possession.

Now imagine if Abidal had stayed deeper forming a three man line alongside Busquets and Mascherano.  Nilmar would be able to find space towards the flank forcing Iniesta to either follow him or remain in the middle.  If Nilmar could force Iniesta wide then space would open up for Villarreal to maintain possession.  If Iniesta doesn’t follow then Nilmar is completely open.  The problem however is that Abidal hasn’t stayed in the defensive line.  He’s not “maintaining shape.”  He’s dynamically following Nilmar.  If Nilmar moves wide Iniesta will remain in the middle to pressure the ball as Abidal will track Nilmar’s movement.

Barcelona played a three man defensive system, but they did not play a “back line” per se.  The system emphasized dynamics from both Abidal and Mascherano.  Villarreal implemented tactical adjustments that should have worked against Barcelona’s theoretical shape.  But those tactics didn’t succeed because Abidal and Mascherano are far from typical center backs in a three man line.  They are much more dynamic and mobile.  This mobility allowed them to defend in ways that prevented Barcelona from being stuck with a 3 vs. 1 against Rossi which would have given Villarreal an advantage in midfield with an extra man.  The mobility allowed them to pressure high up the pitch while also tracking runs into the Barcelona defensive half.

Guardiola’s three man defensive system was too dynamic and fluid for the Villarreal to respond to in typical ways that should work.  Rather than giving Villarreal an extra man all Nilmar playing deep did was to deprive them of one of their chief scoring threats putting himself into dangerous positions to score.

Abidal and Mascherano had dominant games.  Their pace, mobility,  and capacity to defend 1 vs. 1 in space neutralized one of the best two man attacks in Europe.  The importance of this is difficult to overemphasize.  The Villarreal attack is highly dependent on creative flair from Nilmar and Rossi, especially now that Cazorla has left.  If those two players can be quickly closed down or prevented from getting forward the Villarreal is going to struggle to attack.

In possession Masherano and Abidal provided significant width to space the pitch often stationing themselves close to the touch line.  Again, this is a very unusual way to structure a three man defense.  It requires both lateral center backs to be very comfortable on the ball.  If they turn it over the defense would be in poor position to defend as there is so much space between the back three.

In the center, Busquets again demonstrated why he is one of the world’s most flexible players.  Playing as a sweeper in a three man defense is different than playing as a holding player who drops back to the defensive line when the full backs attack.  But Busquets deftly handled the new challenges.

For example, playing a sweeper with the kind of high back line Barcelona plays is very odd in many ways.  The base Barcelona high back line is very dependent on running the off side trap to perfection.  Without coordinated action of the back line that offside trap won’t work.  And with one central defender behind the two others it isn’t possible to execute the off side trap in the same way Barcelona usually executes it.   That is a major part of how the team defends radically changed.  Guardiola was depending on Busquets to read the game and adjust to those kinds of challenges from his deep position.  Given the dynamism and movement of Mascherano and Abidal this was not straightforward.

Guardiola implemented a three man back line but interpreted it and implemented it in his own way.  Rather than the three defenders acting as a cohesive line to maintain coordinated shape, Guardiola’s back three was flexible and dynamic.  This dynamism not only neutralized how Villarreal try to play, it also thwarted tactical adjustments Villarreal attempted.



  1. I would like to give my opinion regarding one point which Ramzi mentioned about.Criticism has been made about Villareal’s failure to adapt to the changed tactics that Barca applied.

    Acoording to me, a tactical battle involves gaining the psychological advantage over the other to a large extent. With 3 of 4 regular defenders out for Barca, Garrido must have thought that he already had an advantage. For Villareal, it was all about playing to their strengths with some minor adjustments. Of course, they did not take into account the tactical acumen of the Barca defenders to adapt so quickly.

    Keeping that in mind, I feel that if Barca had planned this formation without having any defensive crisis, Villareal would have made more changes to combat the system and test its weakness. So basically this time, they were trying to exploit the out of position players rather than the system itself.

    In conclusion, i think having a crisis in defense actually helped Barca obtain such a successful result.

  2. Thanks a lot for the excellent review, Euler. I’ve never enjoyed reviews that are heavy on tactics on account of their dryness until I read yours. At least your reviews don’t make me feel like a total idiot. 😀

  3. this is beyond amazing 🙂 props to you, euler, for making me appreciate football sooooo much more!

  4. Wait. We finally sold Hleb and yet we are still paying part of his salary?!?

    We have been Hlebbed in perpetuity! 👿

  5. -Thanks for the hard work Euler!
    I asked you last year already but you never answered my question.

    Are you a coach in USA?

    -Why is the club letting Dalmau go?
    I thought he was the next Alves? And it looks like the club is letting him go without a buy-back clause. What on earth happened to him?

    1. Dalmau didn’t develop. For the RB position, Montoya, Bartra, and even Balliu have been chosen ahead of him. Not to mention JDS and Ilie who play there more often now. Montoya has developed really well, Dalmau knows it.

  6. Roma, Juve and Pool all have had a very busy transfer window. They’ve bought themselves a whole ‘nother team. I wonder how it pans out, especially with Roma becoming my other team with Lucho at the helm..

  7. Fantastic, so well written and explained. Another critical part to the success of that formation is the range and tenacity of Sanchez and Pedro supporting the weak side as well as pressuring the forwards from behind on the strong side. Could it work against Real Madrid? Man U? Maybe with a reverse triangle of mids giving more support to Keita. Incredible

  8. Thanks for the part 2, Euler.

    This match is so amazing, I am still overwhelmed by it. The difficulty of the execution is beyond belief, and I would like to know how much risk did Pep think he was taking. But it all points to one thing:

    Guardiola trusts his players enormously.

    That’s the only reason for him being so bold in making so many difficult decisions. Of course, the situation of having injuries and suspensions made that happen too. But with so many dilemmas and tricky positional issues, Pep resolved each problem one by one. The adjustments based on our usual total football is so delicate, and apparently very routine, is what makes Pep such a genius.

    We are on our own in the development of this brand of football, and we are doing it brilliantly, that’s why we win most of the time.

    1. Parts? As in plural? A little overkill maybe…? There will be other games this season. 😆

    2. Well, I thought there may be one on attack and midfield, but there’s just one more coming up. So, uh, no. It’s not plural. Just a part left.

    1. Yes he did. And it was catastrophic as it was more a 3-3-4. Dont remind me. That was when we lost the league securing it for Real Madrid.

      I am an admirer for him as a person but never rated him as a coach and was glad -with guilty feeling- he left.

    2. I remember the Zaragoza cup game and the Liverpool CL second leg…do you remember in which other games did we played that system? #HistoryLessonsTime

  9. I am amazed by the number of articles stunned that Barcelona had 3 defenders at the back, two of them being midfielders. And here I’m not talking about Euler’s posts but the ones going crazy across the net talking about evolution “Barca uses only one defender”. Some see it as a new chapter in world football. Hit the brake!

    Last time I checked our traditional selection we had Alves playing more as a right midfielder than a fullback and Pique having Busquets quality as a midfielder and not far better as a center back. We played often with a selection of Adriano/Maxwell-Pique-Puyol-Alves and this is not more conservative than what we had against Villarreal.

    Sure there were tactical tunings as it happens for every match. This time it was a bit more original because the selection was different. Yet, lets calm down 😀

    1. is that a complement to Busquets or a criticism of Pique?

      I think Pique is the CB in the world along with Thiago Silva. I wouldn’t say Busquets is one of the top 15 CBs in the world, but that’s just me.

    2. I think that just as important as the formation in forming this “new chapter in world football” is the technical ability and mentality of the players at every position. All with the ability to dribble or pass or change direction or even shoot without telegraphing their intention; it was an overwhelming performance by the best individuals in the sport.

  10. For the sake of better discussion, I’m not directly replying to Ramzi. But 1-2-3-4 I declare a tactics war!

  11. Asked on the last thread, has anyone any idea where you’d find a picture of the average position of each player from that match?
    I’ve seen them many times before but I can’t find any for the Villarreal match

    1. The heat maps are really cool. Check out Thiago’s, he was everywhere. And see how small Pedro’s area of operation was compared to Sanchez on the other side of the pitch.

    1. Pretty good one minute, and then a bit scrappy the next. The flow went out of the game as the subs were made. Dongou looked exhausted when he was subbed – his legs couldn’t take it anymore. I think that the Celtic boys were also running on empty by the end of the game.

  12. Roma signed Miralem Pjanic and Simon Kjaer today. Good business from Luis Enrique in my opinion. Best of luck to them

  13. I wanted to touch on something Ramzi mentioned earlier. What I was trying to say in this post wasn’t so much that it was a major surprise that Barcelona used three in the back. As I said that’s been widely speculated on for a while in the context of bringing Cesc over. Adding another midfielder rather than another CB suggested this would happen.

    I think we’ll only see three man back lines against two man striker formations – but we’ll see them frequently when playing two strikers.

    In fact, even before when Barcelona was playing against two strikers they would often play something like three at the back. Rather than sending both full backs high up the pitch one would often stay deeper with the center backs (this didn’t always happen – but it was common enough).

    Much of the focus on the match was on Barca playing three at the back – the attention has been on the formation itself, it’s structure.

    The point that I trying to make in the post was that what was noteworthy about what Pep did wasn’t the formation per se – it wasn’t using three at the back. It was how he interpreted that formation and implemented.

    What was noteworthy about it was how it was different from what we usually think of a three man back line doing. Part of that had to do with having midfielder back there – but as I wrote about – Abidal, the “true” defender, actually played arguably the most unconventional role of the back three. He’s the one that marked Nilmar closely and had to move high up field to defend over and over.

    In many respects Busquets and Abidal played closer to the “usual” three man back line method than Abidal did.

    And the key thing that made how Pep implemented the three man back line noteworthy was how dynamic it was.

    It’s not about three at the back or even about midfielders in the back. It’s how Pep chose to utilize them and his focus on dynamics.

  14. It would be interesting to see a passes completed percentile ranking for the players. Xavi plus the starting 11 have to be at the top of the list

  15. Graham Hunter on Ronaldo:

    Not even if he sewed a pair of angel’s wings on his back and balanced a halo on his head could the Portuguese prevent further recognition that, exceptional though he is, Ronaldo remains light-years behind the young Argentine, who is shaping up as the best footballer ever.


    1. I’m becoming huge conspiracy theorist here and I say he is gettind old (33 right?) and he just wanted to save his strenght for rm matches. mou being the one talking him into this!lol #conspiracyModeOn

  16. Is it just me or is Fabregas really expressive on the pitch? Like every time he makes a bad pass or something, he jumps up and down. [insert other example here].

    The only other one I can think of that’s similar is Puyol. (Although tbh, I don’t really pay much attention. Those two are just ones that are really obvious).

  17. Wenger (coach Arsenal): “Cesc has Barça dna, and I guess he learned something at Arsenal too. He’s a massive player.”

    LOL! 😀

    1. If I remember correctly, he’s been injured since he was signed by RM- he may have even been injured before they signed him.

      I remember reading a while back that he was going to be back sooner than that, so maybe there’s been a set-back/change. He definitely didn’t play for them i pre-season.

    2. He’ll be back just in time for El Clasico – so that Pep doesn’t have time to formulate a gameplan against him. 🙂

    3. hehehe. I wish I’d watched more (or, um, any) German football last year, so I could have seen him play at Dortmund. Unfortunately, there are only so may hours in the day.

  18. Brilliant analysis as always Euler. Your articles inspire so many thoughts for me that I think it unfair to continue to subject the community to my huge posts. So I have created my own blog page:

    I can only hope that anything I publish there will have the quality of BFB, but I found I had so much to say that I wanted to get out there in response to the great writing here, that it probably needed its own forum.

    Of course everyone is welcome to visit and encouraged to comment. I will continue to check BFB daily for new content to be inspired by and will continue to post comments here, but I will attempt to be more pithy in said regard.

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