Against Villarreal, Barça travelled back in time, led by Josep Guardiola, who opted for a 3-4-3 system that sent us back to the best years of the Dream Team
The concept of 'total football' is stronger than ever
"We played with 3-4-3 in honor of Zubizarreta, who was the first to suffer with a 3 man defense". Josep Guardiola joked during the press conference after the match against Villarreal when he was asked for the reasons that he went for 3-4-3, which hadn't been seen for some time at the Camp Nou.
Andoni Zubizarreta would surely have smiled in the Directors Box when he saw that Guardiola started the match against Villarreal with only three defenders, in pure dream team style. The legendary captain of that famous team knows better than anyone what it's like to balance on a tight rope for a goalkeeper educated in the Lezama footballing school. "You just see lots of space in front of you, but it also forces you to be very concentrated throughout the match, and to play as the sweeper" Zubizarreta recalled during his press conference on Monday.
Johan Cruyff's Dream Team recuperated, and improved, on the 3-4-3 formation, to make it one of the identifying characteristics of that historic team. But there's no need to go so far back in time to watch Barça playing with a 3 man defence.
Rijkaard played with a 3 man defence at La Romareda
It was February 28, 2007 in Zaragoza. It was the second leg of the quarterfinals of the Spanish Cup. Barça had to overcome a 1-0 defeat from the first leg. Frank Rijkaard had to take risks and didn't hesitate to line up with a 3-4-3 formation that surprised the home side. Oleguer, Puyol and Thuram made up the 3 man defence. The defensive work of the rest of the team helped a lot, and Barça ended up winning 2-1 and qualifying for the semifinal.
A few days later, an article appeared in the newspaper 'El Pais', written by a former Barça player who was preparing to make the move into management. Entitled "Feel it" the future manager praised Rijkaard's gamble, and the commitment of his players to the system. The article was signed by Josep Guardiola, and in it he expresssed the footballing style that has characterised Barça since he took over the team in 2008.
Guardiola wrote: "It seems, or so they say, that the Dream Team went back to Zaragoza. I think the dream team has never gone. Tomorrow, Barça will lose, or the day after. It happens to us all, but no one can argue that for a long time Barça has been a team easily recognisable. Unique".
A brief history of the concept of 'total football'
The style that was reborn in the 3-4-3 against Villarreal dates back to Ajax in the 70s. Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovaks introduced the total football model at one of the best teams in history, led by Johan Cruyff. Everybody attacked, everybody defended. The concept went beyond the number of defenders or strikers who took to the pitch. The key to the success of that team was the solidarity and generosity of every player in the different facets of the game.
Barça takes over from Ajax
This revolutionary philosophy was exported by Michels and Cruyff to Barcelona. The first success was the 1974 League Title, but the formula didn't have any continuity until the "Goal Prophet" began to manage Barça in 1988. Total Football returned with a 3-4-3 that the players took time to get used to, as Guillermo Amor recognised on the Barça TV program 'Recorda Mister': "It was a real novelty, because we had never played with three defenders. I remember playing with three strikers in the youth team, in a 4-3-3 format, but playing with a line of three defenders generated a lot of doubt".
But the doubts disappeared as success and titles came along. The Dream Team showed that it's worth the risk if the end result is happy, offensive, and very competitive football.
The first team stopped playing with the 3-4-3 format when Cruyff left, but the Barça youth set-up continued to grow in the shadow of this system for quite some time. Cesc, Messi, Iniesta, and Pique were raised on this philosophy, and on Monday demonstrated what Guardiola wrote in 'El Pais' on that 3rd of March, 2007: "They feel it because they know that, as they have done, they're able to do it again".