Inverting The Pyramid-Barcelona’s 1-2-3-4 formation


Modern football, has it’s foundations laid upon the ‘false’ tactics – so to say the ‘False 10′ and the more popular and widely accepted ‘False 9.’ The present era is a period of sustained innovation, where new formations, different chalkboards and novel setups come up to the fore every day.

But the setup which I am going to talk about is the 1-2-3-4. Yes, you don’t need to rub your eyes and read again. It’s called ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ – Why?

Because it is the complete upside down of the much more realistic 4-2-3-1.  At the individual level, football is limited to the player’s capabilities to dazzle. At the team level, innovation is the key to success. Innovation – by drawing upon a rich bedlam of past glory, not  scientifically inventing things.

THE 1-2-3-4 :
Origins – The 1-2-3-4, as mentioned before, has it’s origins in the more conventional 4-2-3-1. And surprisingly, this formation has been implemented before, by none other than the genius named Pep Guardiola. Historians won’t have to look back to the distant past, because it was used for the first time last season. Guardiola set his team up in the 1-2-3-4 or the 2-3-5 – the defensive variant of the formation, against Getafe at the Nou Camp.
The formation


The set-up. 
The Set-up.

This formation would arguably be the most difficult and the most complicated to put into practice week-in, week-out. The dotted arrows on the board indicate player movements required to make the formation work, and clearly – it is not for the faint-hearted! The set-up requires a continuous, restless pressing of the opposition to the extent that even Antonio Cassano would have to drop back if he were to be played in this setup! (Of-course, the Blaugrana are an exception to this. One needs to firstly lose possession to press the opposition!
The Goalkeeper(GK) –

Just like every other formation, the goalkeeper has pretty much the same task at hand – to stop goals barging into the net.
The Defence –
The Centre-Back (CB) – In this set-up, the centre-back’s role is somewhat similar to that of the ‘libero’(sweeper), but they are NOT the same. The major point of difference being the position occupied by a centre-back and the position of a sweeper. With regard to this formation, the centre-back’s main role is to be a reader of the game – to intercept play and initiate attacks.
The ‘Flank’ Centre-Backs(RCB, LCB) – This position is somewhat of a novelty to modern football. Hardly anywhere has the position been put to use in a system, though Barcelona have used this in the past. Flank centre-backs are of prime importance to the defensive unit of this setup  because they have a dual responsibility. Firstly, to nip opposition attacks in the bud, by keeping a high line of defence between them (also called the 2nd line, with the centre-back being the last line of defence.) Secondly, flank centre-backs are also handed the responsibility of becoming auxiliary full-backs when required (tracking down the runs made by opposition wingers).
Image from the Barca – Getafe game.
Take a keen look at the above image, and notice the direction from Barcelona’s play (from right to left.) The positioning of the centre-backs in the setup above can be explained by this image. The centre-back stays deep (Mascherano in this image), whereas the Flank centre-backs push up, maintaining a high line of defence between them (Puyol the RCB and Adriano the LCB).
The Midfield –
The Defensive Midfielder(CDM) – In one of my previous articles, I have already mentioned the under-lying importance of the ‘anchor’ to such a setup.
The ‘anchor’ is not only in charge of the midfield, but also given the additional responsibility of dropping back when required. A surgery of Barcelona’s Number 14 – Sergio Busquets will clearly explain the role of the ‘anchor.’
On Left – The starting position of the Barcelona team. On right – Formation after player interchange.
Sergio Busquets started as the anchor alongside the box-to- box midfielder, Seydou Keita. As and when required, Busquets dropped back to form a back-four(as can be seen in the figure), and Iniesta drifted inside, with Keita assuming the role of Busquets.
Up – the Defensive Midfielder when the team attacks
Bottom – The defensive Midfielder when the team defends.

The defensive midfielder stays back when the team attacks, ready to take position when the team loses possession. When defending, the DM drops back and forms a four man backline, with the Flank centre-backs becoming auxiliary full backs.
In certain cases(for instance, when the opposition has an extra man in attack) the CDM holds position, with the Flank centre-backs also holding their position at the center of defence.
Notice the three man back-line formed. The DM in Busquets stays in front of the backline – his conventional position.
The Central Midfielders (RCM, LCM) – The central midfield pairing in this setup is essentially a passer-runner combination which renders the perfect mix of craft and steel to the midfield. The runner supports the CDM, whereas the passer dictates the tempo of play. The central midfielders drift wide to track opposition full-backs when the team does not have possession of the ball.
The Wingers (RWM , LWM) –
The width in this setup comes from Wingers, and not Wing-Backs (as is the case with almost every formation with a three-man defence). Besides providing width in attack, the wingers in this formation must drop back to form a ‘Flat Four’ in midfield, with the anchor holding his position BEHIND them, when the team loses possession of the ball.

Notice the flat ’4′ with the DM behind.
In the image above, when Barcelona did lose possession of the ball, Pedro and Cuenca, the wingers, dropped back to form a ‘flat four’ in midfield – alongside Xavi and Iniesta, with Busquets holding fort behind them.

The Forwards (CF, ST) –

The forward line has the same job across all formations  – to create chances and finish them. In this setup, the Centre-Forward or the ‘Trequartista’ sits in the hole and connects midfield to attack. He is the ‘No. 10′ of the team, and is the mastermind in attack. The striker is obviously, given the task of scoring, scoring and just scoring.
As and when required, the Trequartista may be called to drop back and make an additional man in midfield.

The striker putting the GK under pressure; The CF is already covering the opposition CB.


Messi the trequartista, feeds Sanchez, the number 9 (the most advanced player).



The Best XI :

High performance systems integrate structure and teamwork into one cohesive and co-ordinated unit. The functioning of the entire team is central to the cause, rather than the glitter and glamour to just sum of their parts. And as football progresses with each day, team-work becomes the need of the hour.
Will this formation become successful and retain it’s novelty in the long run? Only time will tell.

-Dhruv Saraf

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