Ernesto Valverde’s arrival at Barcelona saw the new coach hailed as the man to bring back the coveted high-press and his promise of playing centrally was one that Culés yearned for after a horrid season with Luis Enrique. An encouraging pre-season was all the enthusiasm fans needed to cheer their new manager.
In the past few weeks, however, things have turned a little sour for Valverde. Despite being undefeated in the league, fans have started to question the tactics deployed by the Basque manager. Quite like an old rusty car that leaks oil, Valverde’s tactics will get you where you need; the way it brings you to the end doesn’t justify the journey. It has been an absolute eyesore to watch Barcelona defend like they are playing in the 1980s.
Before we discuss how Valverde can fix his tactics, it is crucial to understand why 4-4-2 is a tactic not meant for this generation of football. To simplify, the middle of the pitch is incredibly important and 4-3-3 adds an extra man in the centre compared to a 4-4-2. This man-advantage carries a lot of weight as it creates shorter passing triangles which improve control through the middle and by extension, help retain possession of the ball. Also, using a single striker means that there is ample coverage on the wings to assist the full-backs in a 4-3-3. Recognizing these significant advantages, most teams have drifted away from the classic 4-4-2 and choose to play 4-3-3 variants that allow them greater command over the game.
Some contrarian examples for the use of 4-4-2 are Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City (which romped to the Premier League title in 13/14) and Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid (which broke the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid in 13/14). In reality, however, neither of those two played a classic 4-4-2. While City used Samir Nasri and David Silva as wide midfielders, Atletico used Koke and Arda Turan in an identical role. In both systems, one man would cut inside as a CM (David Silva/Koke) while the other would join the attack as a winger (Nasri/Turan). The two systems also used one static and one free-roaming forward to accommodate this fluidity in attack.
It is never possible to describe what formation a team is deploying unless it is rigid and uses clean lines like Atletico Madrid or Juventus. However, Valverde is partly responsible for forcing this tactic on Barcelona despite the obvious lack of ideal personnel. Neither Luis Suarez nor Andres Iniesta can fit the traditional 4-4-2. Even Andre Gomes and Sergi Roberto are central midfielders despite what they tell their coaches to get minutes on the field. Using CMs who are incapable of operating wide puts you at a disadvantage before the game begins and things will only get tougher away from home. Not only is Valverde risking continuity, he is doing so at the expense of neutralising some of our biggest threats like Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez who simply cannot play wide anymore–the Uruguayan is barely able to play through the middle.
With neither the fans nor Valverde ready to accept the other’s point of view, there is a solution that may be revolting but offers a fresh perspective–Arda Turan.
Not only is the Turk capable of playing out wide in midfield or the wings, he is also a 4-4-2 specialist having played in the role for the majority of his best years. One of my biggest gripes with Turan was that he was too static when he played as a CM in the 4-3-3. This very trait, however, will be his biggest asset as it perfectly aligns with the needs of a wide midfielder in the 4-4-2 required to cut inside.
Arda is also capable of playing further up as displayed by his goalscoring exploits. Turan may not have been at his best since arriving from Atletico but he must certainly be burning up from his lack of minutes. Letting him play in a system that’s his speciality might reignite his engine and bring back some of his lost form.
Deploying such a system would certainly require slight modifications from Valverde in attac0k (namely Luis Suarez). With players like Denis Suarez and Arda Turan already under his nose, maybe it’s time Ernie realises his system isn’t working and that some necessary tweaks are due. We may not like his system but there is a middle ground between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 which needs to be explored.
It’s a compromise but we need to start somewhere, right?