FC Barcelona will be going into a tough schedule when the players return from their respective national teams and the toughest decision for Guardiola in the upcoming matches will be who to play in midfield together with Yaya and Xavi, and in the attack next to Messi and Eto’o. Who to play in these positions gives the coaching staff great possibilities with which to vary the play. In the tuff games I expect the rest of the lineup to be:
Valdes Alves – Puyol – Marquez – Abidal Yaya Xavi – ? Messi – Eto’o – ?
Option 1: Iniesta in midfield, Henry in attack.
Strengths: The obvious strengths for this constellation are the attacking possibilities that it brings to the team. Iniesta has an incredible vision which allows him to create space with his touch and acceleration that can leave a man standing on his heels. We’ve seen the enormous influence Iniesta has on the teams attacking flow in recent games against Malaga and Lyon. Barca scored a combined 11 goals in those two games – games that were played against number 6 in Spain and number 1 in France.
Henrys role in this system is in a stabilized attack situation to create width on the team allowing the midfielders to keep possession and pass the ball from side to side until an opportunity to break through presents itself. Furthermore, he cuts in from the left when the balls on the right. This produced the first goal against Lyon and the third against Malaga. Henry is amazing at beating the offside trap and that is something that must be utilized with this lineup.
Weaknesses: As good as this lineup is offensively it has its weaknesses in defense. Although Iniesta is good defensively in open play, which was proven as he was often used as the holding midfielder under Rijkaard, he is very limited in the air. Furthermore, if the team has its foundation rocked it takes time to regain the grip of the game due to the team needing possession. In the two above mentioned games we saw Lyon score once from a set piece, and Malaga had several good chances from set pieces.
This will get better when Abidal replaces Sylvinho in the left back, but the set pieces will still be Barcas weak point. In the game against Lyon, they shook Barca with their second goal, where Iniesta lost a physical struggle and it took time to regain the momentum. Adding a strong midfielder would diminish that problem, which leads us to the second option:
Option 2: Keita in midfield, Henry in attack.
Strengths: Keita is a very different player from Iniesta. He has great strength and is very good in the air. Adding Keita in leaving Iniesta on the bench brings a lot more stability on defensive set pieces and increases Barcas options from attacking set pieces. We saw his defensive work against a strong right side in the away game against Seville. Adding Keita would allow us to have 3 big, strong headers on offensive set pieces in Puyol, Marquez and Keita that will keep defenders busy allowing others to stand free.
This was the case in the El Classico where the Real defence completely forgot about Eto’o leaving him unmarked after Puyols header. Furthermore, Keita has a knack of scoring
Weaknesses: Adding Keita instead of Iniesta definitely hinders the attacking flow of the team. In my opinion it is no coincidence that Barcas down period coincided with Iniestas injury. Keita doesn’t have the same flow in his game as Iniesta and leaving him on the bench leaves a big gaping creativity hole on the left side of the team. Henry is better utilized when he gets the ball at speed instead of getting it in his feet and then having to dribble past an opponent. This can lead to all the offensive production to come from the right.
Furthermore, although it is better defensively it might not be enough. This leads us to the third option in midfield:
Option 3: Keita in midfield, Iniesta in attack.
Strengths: This is a very strong defensive formation and Iniesta and his world of creativity is still on the pitch. It was used in the away game against Almeria in which they didn’t create a chance, or as the Spanish statisticians calls it: “Occasiones de gol”. And it wasn’t just because Almeria is a bad team that can’t create chances. The weekend after playing Barca they dominated at Real Madrid and were very unlucky to be behind at half-time.
This formation also keeps Iniesta in the mix allowing him to dribble in from the right. Unlike Henry, Iniesta is a player that is best when he gets the ball in his feet, challenge a man and most of the times dribble past him. Iniesta is also more defense minded than Henry and provides better cover when Keita makes deep runs into the box. We saw these runs against Almeria where only a fantastic save by the keeper, hindered Keita from scoring in that game. Furthermore, Iniesta is better at keeping possession than Henry, and as long as we have the ball the opponent can’t score.