There have been rumors that Xavi would like a 3-4-3 formation next season, although nothing has been confirmed. FC Barcelona have played all of their pre-season games in a 4-3-3 formation, so it seems like the most likely thing is that this is how they will play at least to start La Liga.
Still, it’s hard not to think that Barcelona don’t consider 3-4-3 as an alternative formation, perhaps for specific matches. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea went from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 last term, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Xavi and Tuchel have competed for similar players this summer transfer window.
Raphinha, Ousmane Dembélé, Robert Lewandowski and Jules Koundé were all linked with Chelsea on one level or another before joining Barcelona.
Moreover, Andreas Christensen has already moved from London to Catalonia, and César Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso are said to be heading in that direction.
Typically, a team will keep four senior centre-backs to cover two positions in a four-man line. Last season, for various reasons, Xavi kept six: Gerard Piqué, Ronald Araújo, Eric García, Clément Lenglet, Óscar Mingueza and Samuel Umtiti. However, Umtiti was barely used (making just one appearance) and Mingueza was frequently deployed as a right-back. In fact, looking at the squad after Xavi’s arrival midway through the season, it was clear that he relied on three main centre-backs: Pique, Araújo and García. Lenglet was the fourth option and Mingueza was essentially a third-choice right-back. For all intents and purposes, Xavi really had four centre-backs.
Today, Lenglet and Mingueza have been let go because the manager no longer counts on them. Umtiti probably won’t play much, if at all, if he doesn’t leave at some point.
The main three from last season are still there (Piqué, Araújo and García), but there are two more: Christensen and Koundé. Sure, Pique is getting older, but he would probably be counted on to be the 4th-choice centre-back, if nothing else. Araújo and García are young and talented. Christensen and Koundé are surely there to play. Signing two centre-backs and having five (well, and Umtiti) seems overkill.
Enter the line of three men. A team that plays three in defense necessarily needs more depth at centre-back, since they deploy one more in each game. Last season, Chelsea used five centre-backs with some regularity: Antonio Rüdiger. Christensen, Thiago Silva, Trevoh Chalobah and Azpilicueta, the latter also as a right-back. They also asked Malang Sarr to make a few appearances. Basically, they had more senior centre-backs since they were playing with a back three.
If Barcelona played with a full-back three, then having five centre-backs seems pretty reasonable. Azpilicueta could also provide additional depth in the position.
Xavi used the 3-4-3 formation at Al-Sadd with some regularity. At Barcelona, he could field Jordi Alba as a more defensive winger on one side, and someone like Raphinha as a more attacking winger on the other. Pedri could play as the more advanced midfielder, with Gavi and Franck Kessié as box-to-box midfielders, all supported by Sergio Busquets in the starting role.
Alonso, a more attacking left-back by nature, could be Alba’s assistant.
There have also been links with the arrival of Iñigo Martínez from Athletic Club. He’s been linked with Barcelona several times throughout his career but it never happened. Surely it would be overkill to sign him this window, but if Pique is retiring soon, you can see why Xavi would like to bring in a left-footed centre-back – again with a three-man line up front.
The other possibility is that Xavi just wants one of his defenders in a four-line to stay a bit further back. With Koundé or Araújo or Azpilicueta at right-back, and Alba or Alonso on the other, he would definitely get that. Meanwhile, rumors have it that Sergiño Dest – a more attacking right-back – could be on his way out.
The problem is that it would be quite unusual to sign someone like Koundé to moonlight as a right-back. And if the idea is for a full-back to stay back and de facto create a three-man line… we haven’t seen that in pre-season, really.
But, it’s still early. The pre-season might not fully reveal everything Xavi cooks up. It would be unusual for him to plan to use a 3-4-3 as his go-to pattern and never try it in pre-season, but maybe he’s only thinking of it as an alternative at the moment. .