As brilliant as it was, Barcelona’s win had an air of routine about it, with the Blaugrana’s excellent play being punctuated by three Leo Messi goals (his 38th Barça hat-trick) with the Argentine playing supremely as man of the match. But the manner in which they achieved victory was anything but routine, at least, not the routine they’ve established in the past four years. It harked back to an even more prosperous time, before M-S-N was ever a thing.
When Ernesto Valverde played a false nine 4-3-3 system for the first two games of the league season, many assumed that the coach was simply compensating for the lack of Luis Suárez by putting his most potent goalscorer front and centre. But with Suárez back (healing from his injury with Wolverine-esque speed), Barcelona persisted with this false nine 4-3-3.
Lionel Messi's game by numbers vs. Espanyol:
4 chances created
His 38th Barça hat-trick. 🎩 pic.twitter.com/naZAGeWckP
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 9, 2017
The Uruguayan took up his position as a floating left-winger who drifted into central zones, much like Thierry Henry and David Villa used to in that role for the Blaugrana. This selection would indicate a genuine commitment to playing the false nine system, so now we have to look at the system with a whole new level of scrutinity. What are the major things we’ve learned about it so far?
Luis Suárez is going to have to work
There’s no better place to start than with Luis Suárez. The no. 9 has been incredible since signing for Barcelona and is probably the best striker in the world, but this false nine system is not set-up to play to his strengths. It’s working against him in almost every way.
The Uruguayan didn’t play wonderfully against Espanyol, although that’s not to say he played poorly. He was constantly on the move, and when he drifted into central zones as Messi dropped into midfield, he unsurprisingly came to life. He even scored at the end when the game was stretched and Ousmane Dembélé put it on a plate for him. But everything he did looked so difficult.
Suárez has always been a hard-working player, but he’s had a skill to him that only made it obvious he was trying hard when he didn’t have the ball and would hurtle after it stretching every sinew in his body. But playing as a hybrid wing-forward in this false nine system, everything he did took everything he had and it was really obvious.
If Valverde continues with this system, while Luis Suárez will no doubt get better and start hammering in goals, it’s gonna be a long slog of a season for the Uruguayan.
It liberates Ivan Rakitic
The Croatian has had a difficult last 12 months, with his previously excellent Barcelona form giving way to a mess of mediocrity. In truth he looked almost done as a Barça player. But Ernesto Valverde appears to have brought him back to life with this false nine system.
The presence of Nelson Semedo, a flying right-back who can handle himself defensively, in the side – as well as a genuinely committed right-winger who tends to stay wide on the right, meant that Rakitic’s days of peeling wide to cover the right-flank are over. The Croat could stay in central lanes.
There, with no no. 9 ahead of him, Rakitic began playing in a more driving and offensive manner – similar to his performances as a no. 10 for Sevilla. He found Messi’s movement much easier to link with, and it was his threaded through-ball that found the Argentine (albeit offside) for Barcelona’s first goal.
Rakitic continued to shine from the middle of the park, pushing forward with and without the ball. In one instance a delightful one-two with Messi saw him almost add a second. Rakitic eventually did bag a second assist late in the second half, when his corner was headed home by Gerard Piqué.
It’s ideal for Ousmane Dembélé
That right-wing spot which liberated Ivan Rakitic was filled for most of this game by Gerard Deulofeu. And the Catalan did a decent job hugging the touchline, providing constant width and driving with the ball at Espanyol’s back-line. But he’s going to be a back-up this season.
Friday: Kylian Mbappé scores on his PSG debut. ⚽️
Saturday: Ousmane Dembélé assists on his Barcelona debut. 🅰️
New clubs, same players. 🇫🇷 pic.twitter.com/68nK09AhzA
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) September 9, 2017
The man who will occupy that spot for the majority of the season is Ousmane Dembélé. The €105 million man started on the bench but showed in his 22 minute cameo just exactly why he is perfect for this system, showing tight control and even roaring down the right and providing a sumptuous first-time assist for Luis Suárez to score the fifth and final goal.
The false nine 4-3-3 as devised by Ernesto Valverde needs a winger who can carry the ball, drive by opponents, create chances and take them. With his ambipedal ability allowing him to score and create in almost equal measure, as well as his breakneck pace and dynamic dribbling, Ousmane Dembélé is the dream winger for his dream club’s new system.
There’s a Coutinho-sized hole in the XI
If there was one major downside for Barcelona against Espanyol it was the performance of Andrés Iniesta. Besides a couple of delicious passes, he didn’t really do much. He didn’t have the energy to drift away from opponents when under extreme pressure and some of his passing was staggeringly wasteful.
Iniesta didn’t have an easy job. With Luis Suárez playing his wide role as something of a false one, drifting centrally into a striker’s positions in a fairly regular occasion, it was left to Iniesta and Jordi Alba to provide the width. Iniesta’s role was thus a dual one, playing out of the half-space and influencing in the middle and out-wide.
It was, in essence, a role made for Philippe Coutinho. Not quite a left-winger, not quite a central midfielder. The Brazilian was a major transfer target for Barcelona and one can see just where he fits perfectly into Ernesto Valverde’s false nine 4-3-3. He would have thrived in that role, but as he hasn’t arrived, a chance is now there for André Gomes or Carles Aleña to have a breakout season.
Either way, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Barça went back in for Coutinho next summer, such is his suitability for this system. The addition of the Brazilian would make Ernesto Valverde’s false nine an even more electric formation than it seems to be.