Maybe it’s too drastical to claim that one tactical change was that decided the fate of the trophy over a 38-match campaign, but surely, an inspired idea of Xavi Hernández suddenly put Barcelona into a surprisingly favorable position, which, eventually, led to such momentum at the end of which the Catalans could lift the league title.
The traditional 4-3-3 formation was the basic formula at the beginning of the season, but with painful losses at both the domestic and European stages in a crucial period of the season somehow suggested that a change was bound to happen. After losing to Internazionale in the Champions League which basically sealed our elimination and a humiliating 3-1 defeat in the Clásico, the change indeed came.
First, in a game against Athletic Bilbao on the 10th matchday of the season, Xavi pulled a tweak that Ernesto Valverde was unable to respond to, leaving Los Leones in a miserable position which made them lose the game 4-0. It was the first time when Xavi used 4 midfielders to ensure control in the central areas, while it leaves more space for the likes of Dembélé/Raphinha and Baldé on the wings. And, it’s safe to say it paid off.
The box midfield was a great tweak, but it would be unfair to assign the innovation to Xavi’s name. He started to utilize quite a retro WM system that later became permanent, brought back into fashion by Guardiola’s Manchester City this season, where a 4-man box midfield dominates the center of the pitch, while two lines of 3 are created in the defense, respectively in the frontline.
Concretely, this idea was realized at Barcelona in the following way: the fullbacks picked up asymmetrical positions as Koundé stayed deeper on the right while Baldé pushed high. With Baldé holding the width, the ‘false winger’ on the left (usually Gavi) had the freedom to tuck inside and create a numerical advantage against an opposition trio, creating the box of the Busquets, de Jong, Pedri, and Gavi quartet.
This formula was perfectly suited for Barcelona as this enabled the Blaugranas to use all of their valuable assets in a favorable position, bringing the best out of each individual. It’s symbolized best with the flourishing Frenkie–Busquets double pivot, which allowed the duo to have much more touches and greater impact on the game. Busquets had less defensive duty and could concentrate more on distribution, while the Dutchman has become an influential creator from deep.
Also, the increased involvement of Pedri and Gavi also increased their impact, with more fluidity and movements, they eventually found themselves finishing off actions and creating chances. Also, the midfield overload freed up the wide channels more, where Baldé could enhance his great attacking skills on the left, while Dembélé and later Raphinha could flourish on the right side of the attack.
The only concern that could be brought up was the inconsistent final touch, which Lewandowski’s form perfectly reflected. Another thing was the lack of ‘pausa’ and extreme directness, which was the result of having several key players injured at the same time. It could be improved with a good transfer window, and there is still room left for improvement to catch up to the teams on the biggest shelf, but the talent is there for sure.