Football Features

“Monsieur Griezmann, we’ve been expecting you!” – Barcelona’s diamond formation devastates Villarreal in vibrant 1-4 victory

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 23:21, 5 July 2020 | Updated: 9:53, 30 March 2021

In a breathtaking night of football, Barcelona battered Villarreal 1-4 at Estadio de la Ceramica.

The visitors took the lead just three minutes in and proceeded to dominate the entire game, whilst Villarreal also managed to thrill with some lightning counter-attacks. After weeks of struggle, Barcelona put on a genuinely vintage display against Villarreal.

Barcelona came into this game off the back of two straight draws and three draws in their last four. Their form was worrying. They had ceded the advantage (and the title, perhaps) to Real Madrid and looked very much like an old team. The thing is the team couldn’t just give up because they are still involved in the Champions League which will take place in August.

So Quique Setién needed to turn things around somehow. And to do that he made change of formation to a diamond. He used the shape against Atlético Madrid but it’s hard to measure any system’s effectiveness against the defensive bulwark that is Diego Simeone’s Atleti, but nevertheless the system showed promise in terms of energising Barcelona’s interplay but it still wasn’t quite fast enough.

Against Villarreal, Setién made two crucial changes: he brought Antoine Griezmann and Sergi Roberto into the starting line-up. What these changes did was supercharge the system, because Roberto is kind of like Arturo Vidal only better in his ability to make driving forward runs and add verticality to the Barcelona midfield.

Putting Roberto into that left channel to combine with Jordi Alba allowed him to collapse defences like a left-winger before kicking it out to the full-back. This is exactly what led to the first goal when Alba’s cross was turned in by Pau Torres just before Antoine Griezmann could backheel the ball into the net. The Catalan is so important because he adds thrust with more responsibility than Arturo Vidal. He played right-back later in the game and could have even played Arturo Vidal’s role (better than the Chilean, to be honest).

Speaking of Griezmann, he looked in his element playing a central striking role alongside Luis Suárez. The Frenchman was suddenly so much closer to everyone that he was able to link-up with them in a way he was unable to. He looked happier, definitely when provoking the opening own goal and especially when scoring Barcelona’s third goal after linking wonderfully with Messi. Griezmann found Messi who pulled the defence away and then backheeled the ball into Griezmann’s path and the Frenchman just beautifully lofted the ball up and over Sergio Asenjo. It was great, his performance was great… Monsieur Griezmann, we’ve been expecting you!

Even Luis Suárez was much sharper than usual because the diamond formation asks him to move much less than a 4-3-3 does, and movement is his major weakness these days. The Uruguayan went full-out for the 60 minutes he was on the field and played a key flick for the first goal before scoring the second with a spectacular strike after being set-up by Messi.

Of course Messi was the star turn, dazzling Estadio de la Ceramica with some superb dribbles and passes. He scored a goal which was ruled out for a precision offside against Arturo Vidal in the build-up and later had a free-kick crash onto the bar. A goal wasn’t to be but his two assists were of the most absurd quality imaginable and gave him 19 for the season to go with his 22 goals.

His first assist was unreal, pulling hoof out of the sky and dribbling away from one, two, three Villarreal players before finding Luis Suárez. And his second was the sublime backheel to Griezmann. One more assist and he could be the first player ever to record more than 20 goals and 20 assists in La Liga – and given he should have picked up that assist later in the game where Martin Braithwaite missed a great chance after a superb pass from Messi, you couldn’t rule out him getting it.

Barcelona just flew at Villarreal for the whole first-half. It was beautiful to see and comfortably their best half of football under Setién. Obviously there were defensive flaws to be seen as Villarreal could pick passes and cut through the Blaugrana with absurd ease. The lack of speed from Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué and Clement Lenglet means such risks are always present when playing a diamond that requires your full-backs to play high.

In principle Arturo Vidal playing on the weak side should have been helping out, but you can’t trust the Chilean to do anything except run and tackle and occasionally score. When Frenkie de Jong comes back from injury, he would be a much better fit for that role to add some defensive solidity as a counter-balance to Sergi Roberto or Riqui Puig on Barcelona’s “strong side.”

What was particularly impressive for Barcelona was that even in the second-half once Villarreal had adjusted their formation and personnel to counter Barcelona’s diamond, the Blaugrana continued to dominate the game. Quique Setién was also, for once, proactive with his changes. He removed a flagging Luis Suárez on the hour and introduced Riqui Puig.

Puig added a whole new dynamism to Barcelona’s midfield, just as he did in the previous two goals against Atleti and Celta. The Catalan linked supremely with Messi and was arguably the star of the second-half with his cool and composed display. Then Ansu Fati came on late and tried to steal the show with some bright dribbles and his supreme goal, wrongfooting Sergio Asenjo with a no-look shot to notch Barcelona’s fourth and cap the night off in true style.

The diamond formation, which can become a 4-3-3 false nine when more pacy wide-forwards like Ansu and Braithwaite are on (as was the case in the second-half) is clearly the answer to Barcelona’s problems this season. Their squad is nowhere near the level it should be, but the diamond puts their most talented players in the best possible position for them to play well; and when Barcelona’s best players can play well, there’s not many teams on planet earth who can live with them.

Barcelona’s diamond devastated an excellent Villarreal side tonight, and if they can continue to build momentum and chemistry in this new formation, with Quique Setién taking the kind of brave tactical risks that won him the job in the first place, then the Blaugrana will have to be considered one of the favourites for August’s Champions League.