One defender, nine midfielders: Barça's thrilling formation

Guardiola's side on Monday had no strikers but they still put five past Villarreal. Are they better than last year?
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The Independent Football

It's football, but not as we know it. Barcelona's dismantling of Villarreal on Monday night was more than just another Nou Camp annihilation. It was proof that as a new season starts in Spain Pep Guardiola's side will not be content rewriting football's record books, they want to rewrite the game's textbooks too.

It is easy to scoff at the theory that we have never seen anything like this before. But when was the last time you saw a team win 5-0 playing without a centre-forward and fielding only one out-and-out defender?

You can also write off their weekly pummelling of all opponents as a consequence of their unfair economic advantage, but they finished Monday night's rout with nine homegrown players on the pitch. And as for the idea they are dominating weak opposition – they beat Manchester United, Real Madrid and Porto in their three previous victories.

That win over Sir Alex Ferguson's team at Wembley last May might have seemed like a summit. Johan Cruyff even mischievously suggested it could be Guardiola's last game. But for the Barça coach, the climb continues.

He told his players they could forget about parading the recently won European Super Cup before the game on Monday and rejected Villarreal's offer of a guard of honour for winning the league last season. The focus was on the first game of this campaign and he marked it by picking his most attack-oriented team to date.

"Football is played, first and foremost, by midfielders. We have lots of them and they are very good," he said, picking a team composed almost entirely of midfield players.

The philosophy is: why pick a player just because he can defend when the best form of defence is possession? The opposition can't score if they don't have the ball, so fill the team with players who never give it away.

Barcelona's ability not to lose the ball has only increased with the acquisition of Cesc Fabregas – during the first 15 minutes against Villarreal they had 85 per cent of possession.

With Seydou Keita playing just in front of a back three composed of midfielders Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets alongside defender Eric Abidal, Barcelona restricted Villarreal to one shot on goal – in the 85th minute.

Wingers Pedro and Alexis Sanchez stretched the opposition and moving in and out of the spaces created were Andres Iniesta, Thiago Alcantara, Fabregas and Lionel Messi – with the latter two alternating as the furthest player forward.

Misty-eyed Barcelona supporters said it was a return to the 3-4-3 dream-team formation that Guardiola played in under Cruyff, but it often seemed more anarchic than that. And at its heart – a symbol of how it's an upgrade on last season – was that Fabregas-Messi combination that has now produced three goals in three games.

"I played alongside many of these players for five years," said Fabregas. "I have been away for eight years but of 2,000 Barcelona games, I have seen 1,998. I know exactly how they play."