Can Barcelona Really Play All of These Superstars Together?
It's time to interrogate the theoretical front four of Messi, Suarez, Griezmann, and Neymar
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The 4-2-4 formation reached its apex of popularity some time around the 60’s. Led by the Brazilians and the Hungarians, it dominated the world because it efficiently used the space on both the attacking and defensive ends. The width of the field, quartered. It encouraged unpredictable-yet-stable improvisation from all players since the symmetry of the system made it so everyone, everywhere on the field, always had defensive and attacking cover. It worked so well at the time because there wasn’t quite the emphasis on controlling midfield that there is today. Before the 4-2-4, formations were described with letters (“W-M”), rather than numbers -- a tidy symbol for how the thinking about the game has changed over time.
Jonathan Wilson’s book, Inverting the Pyramid, is a history of soccer tactics, but more specifically it’s about the journey toward the 4-2-4 and the modifications made to it since. Really, any formation with a four-man backline is, at times, a 4-2-4 -- when the wingers push up in a 4-4-2, when all the attackers push on in a 4-2-3-1, when one midfielder gets forward in a 4-3-3. The numbers matter less than the principle. The last chapter of Wilson’s book is called “The Triumph of the Pass.” It’s centered around Pep Guardiola’s 2011 Champions League-winning Barcelona team that dominated possession in a way we’d never seen before and haven’t really seen since.
As Wilson writes, “Barcelona did not simply happen”. No, that team was, as he says, “the result of four decades of evolution.” Since then, the game has evolved to where there’s a larger emphasis on pressing high up the field and managing both territory and the transition phases of the game rather than explicitly possession. By disrupting and marginalizing possession, that trend is, in itself, a reaction to Barcelona’s dominance. And for a team that -- if its ambitions come together -- will not have enough space in the lineup to play enough players for a dominant possession-heavy midfield, that’s exactly how this new version of Barcelona will likely have to play.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it seems like Neymar, who has been accused of rape, heading Barcelona might actually happen. Now, when applied to every transfer, Occam’s Razor scrapes out a message that reads: Not happening. If one thing falls apart, so does the whole deal. And with any player-transfer, there are so many moving pieces and intermediaries and levels of discussions (i.e. contract negotiations with the new team, and transfer-fee negotiations between the new and old team), so there are, simply, more things that can potentially fall apart.
However, there is a lot of smoke surrounding the Neymar move, so much so that perhaps one day it’ll make us all pass out, we’ll wake up, and he’ll be back with the Blaugrarna -- as if he’d never left. It started last month when PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi said, "Nobody forced Neymar to sign for us. Nobody pushed him here. He knowingly signed up for this project." Then Barcelona’s vice president humbly suggested this: "For the moment all that is happening -- and not only with Neymar -- is that a number of players would like to play for a great club like Barcelona. We will see what happens in timely fashion". Barcelona president Josip-Maria Bartomeu followed that up with some classic soccer-director performative naivety: “We know that Neymar wants to leave PSG, but PSG don't want to sell him, so there's no Neymar case... We never speak about players from other teams.” Then, Neymar showed up a week late to PSG’s preseason and has since, reportedly, made his desire to return to Catalonia clear to PSG sporting director Leonardo.
If it happens, it seems like at least one of Neymar’s replacements at Barcelona -- Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele -- will become one, if not both, of Neymar’s replacements at PSG. La Liga finances remain a mystery, so I’m still not sure how Barca can afford this. They’ve spent £117.54 million more on transfers this summer than they’ve brought in, and it seems like they’ll need to fork over a bunch of money in addition to players in order to make this happen. Reminder: Neymar cost PSG €222 million; no other player has fetched more than €135 mil.
I’m also not convinced this is a good idea: The 22-year-old Dembele has been absolute dynamite when he’s been on the field, and Coutinho, who’s 27, is essentially being discarded after one bad season. Barcelona had the fourth-oldest starting XI in La Liga last year; they’ve already spent over £100 million on 28-year-old Antoine Griezmann, and Neymar turns 28 in March. Reminder: soccer players start to decline right around then!
But, today, we’re not concerned with the sustainability of this team-building approach -- they’re clearly just doing whatever they can to maximize Messi’s last few years at the top -- or the viability of the financial decisions that are allowing it to happen. No, instead, we want to know one thing and one thing only: How the hell would Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Neymar, and Luis Suarez all fit on the field together?
I have my own personal theories about how best to manage this collection of talent: mainly, just play Neymar, Messi, and Suarez together. That is, easily, the best trio of attackers I’ve ever seen play together, and although they’re all older, even a diminished version of it is still worth chasing. You probably shouldn’t have signed him anyway, so bring Griezmann off the bench, and hope that limited minutes against tired legs staves off the significant decline in performance we saw last season.
However, we are also not concerned with my Ernesto Valverde cosplay. Nor are we concerned with what seems like the most likely outcome: Neymar, Griezmann, and Messi all play together, while Suarez becomes the fourth-option since he’s the oldest non-Messi choice and Barcelona’s sunk costs for him are neither heaven, nor Earth.
Suarez is still an incredibly effective player. He was tied for fifth in La Liga in non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes, in addition to contributing earlier in possessions, too. And so it’s easier to imagine him starting than sitting on the bench. Same goes for the other three.
There are two questions that need answering, then. The first: Would these four players be effective together? That’s easy:
Griezmann’s attacking numbers declined last season, but my guess is that he would fit right in with the other three. (Finding an Internert-service-provider-ass-sounding acronym would be tough, though.) He’s not one of those players with a lopsided skillset or a tough-to-build-around talent; he does a bit of everything, so he can activate different parts of his game depending on who he plays with. Per data from STATS LLC, there were nine players in Europe last year who averaged, per 90 minutes, at least three shots, three penalty-area entries, two chances created, and two passes received in the box. One-third of those players are Neymar, Messi, and Antoine Griezmann.
Plus, since they split up, Neymar and Messi’s games have started to converge. They’re the only two players across Europe who averaged at least three dribbles, three shots, five final-third entries, and five penalty-area entries per 90 minutes. They’re the only two guys in the world who are capable of aiding build-up play, breaking down defenders 1v1, making the pass-before-the-pass, creating the goal, and scoring the goal -- all in one game. Given how reliant Barcelona had become on Messi to do all of that, their play did seem rather predictable at times. Having two Messis instead of one should fix that right from the jump.
Now, for the second question: Could the rest of the team prop them all up?
Tactics is trade-off management; that was evident at Barca last year, and it would be quadruply so were Barca to finalize all of these rumored transactions. Here’s Statbomb’s MIke Goodman on the core weakness of Ernesto Valverde’s team this past season and how it shaped everything else they did:
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic both have noticeably less range than they used to. This has meant that Barcelona, in order to maintain their defensive presence, has had to carry a third midfielder who is more attentive to doing the work of an actual midfielder. Executing that approach led to more Arthur and Arturo Vidal and sometimes, especially in big matches, Sergi Roberto being repurposed as a nominal wide midfielder pinching inside to further protect the center of the pitch.
And while that approach worked, it had deleterious knock-on effects. With so much emphasis on protecting the center of the pitch, Barcelona’s midfielders were less able to influence the attack. Virtually nobody playing outside of the attacking three generated any shots.
It also meant that Philippe Coutinho who was acquired 18 months ago to fill the great Andres Iniesta’s shoes, suddenly found himself on a team that didn’t have room to carry the kind of midfielder who thrives on attacking possession. Coutinho might have succeeded as a player who got to control the ball with three attackers moving dynamically in front of him, but since he didn’t have the defensive presence to play alongside the slowing Rakitic and Busquets, he never got the chance.
In an ideal world, Coutinho would function as a fourth attacker disguised as a midfielder, where he does just enough defensive work to make it by in the middle of the field and then both takes a ton of shots and constantly sets up the runners in front of him. What the additions of Neymar and Griezmann would do is 1) replace Coutinho with a pure attacker, and 2) replace one of the traditional midfielders who had to play because Coutinho wasn’t defensively capable enough with ... another pure attacker. It would be, in other words, a 4-2-4.
On top of that, despite taking a more defensive slant, Barcelona’s defense last season wasn’t even that good. By expected goals, they were just the sixth-best unit in La Liga. There is virtually no chance that starting Messi, Neymar, Griezmann, and Suarez together would improve their goals-conceded tally. But maybe that won’t matter if you can just blow your opponents off the field every game. You’re probably sick of this by now, but I think it should be one of the -- if not the -- guiding principles for what strategy a manager chooses to employ. So, here it is again, from 21st Club:
The principal reason why variance exists is that football is a low-scoring sport – a goal is more influential on the outcome of a match than, say, a three-pointer in basketball or a penalty in rugby. Teams often lose games that, based on performance, they really deserved to win. In fact, our analysis suggests that, on average, the better team (that is the team that creates notably more dangerous chances) wins only around 64% of the time.
While the factors that cause variance may be outside of our control, the extent to which we are affected by them is not. The premise is simple: variance is the result of football’s low scoring nature, so it can be reduced by making the games higher scoring.
The data bears this out – our analysis suggests that the better team wins around 75% of the time in games with over 2.5 goals vs. 50% in games with fewer than 2.5 goals.
Plus, Barcelona also did add one of the few midfielders on the planet who might be capable of both covering for that lopsided attack and facilitating it. It’s a limited sample, but among all players who completed at least 80 percent of their forward passes and five final-third entries per 90 minutes in the Champions League this past season, Frenkie de Jong was second in balls won and regains (which are essentially different versions of loose-ball recoveries) and tackles won, while he was first in interceptions.
Arthur, Sergio Busquets, and Ivan Rakitic all pass the passing benchmarks but don’t come anywhere near FDJ’s range of defensive activity. But to cover for all of those attackers, Barcelona probably need another defensive dynamo in there beside him. Busquets and Rakitic are both on the decline, at least physically, while Arthur’s plus-skills come from his passing rather than his athleticism or defensive solidity. If Barcelona really want to make this front four work, they should go sign N’Golo Kante from Chelsea, too, and do something like what Brazil did at the 2006 World Cup. Here’s how they lined up in the Round of 16 against Ghana:
I’m pretty confident him and Frenkie are rangy enough to make that work at Barca, but there’s no chance that Barca have the resources to bring in Kante, too.
The MSN Barcelona team was the most devastating team I’ve ever seen, and it worked because the three attackers were good enough on their own to tear any defense apart. The rest of the team really didn’t have to worry that much about ever getting too far forward, which then had the knock-on effect of making the defense stronger. And if they wanted to dominate possession, Messi could drop deep and add an extra body to build-up play.
In 2014-15, the year they won the treble, Barcelona scored an absurd 110 goals in La Liga while only conceding 21, which is tied for the best goal differential in a 38-game La Liga season. But while they’re defined by that trio of letters, the team also had Busquets, Rakitic, Jordi Alba, and Gerard Pique all smack in the middle of their primes and a bunch of other legendary players in their 30s (Xavi, Dani Alves, Andres Iniesta) to fill in the gaps rather than power the machine.
If Neymar comes back, they’ll have seven of the 10 outfield starters from that side -- except they’ll all be five years older. Everyone’s in their 30s now, save for Neymar, who’s got a couple peak years left. They’d be doubling down on the “you three figure it out” bet they made in 14-15, but with more attackers, older players, and less defensive cover. When compared to 2014-15, their goal differential was 35 goals worse this year. Are the additions of de Jong and Griezmann enough to stave off the aging and land them somewhere in between that halcyon year and last? That would still probably make them the best team in the world. Or are there diminishing returns to adding Griezmann to an attack that already reached historic heights and allowed for some defensive balance? Maybe de Jong just covers up for the weaknesses Griezmann introduces into the system and their total effect on the team ends up being a net-zero.
Whatever the answers, it would be fascinating to see them try to fit all these guys on the field together in some cohesive form. First, the club rewrote the history of modern soccer; and now, if this theoretical new version of the team is to have a chance of working out, they’re gonna have to erase it.