A 3-1 win in the Olympic Stadium was merely the cherry on the icing, on top of the cake. Barcelona’s victory over Juventus in the Champions League final confirmed their place in history but the hard work had been done in the preceding months. While Luis Enrique’s side were well adept from top to bottom, the most exciting aspect of Barca’s campaign was, of course, their famous front three.
Despite a ban keeping Luis Suarez out of action until October, the relationship between himself, Neymar and Lionel Messi produced a total of 122 last season. Three world superstars with inevitably large egos on the same team? Barcelona saw it as a risk worth taking.
Although the Catalan giants took time to gather momentum, as the season progressed, particularly in the second half of the campaign, the gamble began to pay off. The understanding developed between ‘MSN’ became more and more impressive as Barcelona headed towards the treble.
Suarez, the star man in his time at Anfield, often had to sacrifice himself for the golden boy at Camp Nou, Lionel Messi. If Barcelona lost the ball, the Uruguay international sprang into action to support the team defensively, while Messi spared his energy. And tracking back wasn’t Suarez’ only sacrifice.
His movement was also a crucial factor of Lionel Messi’s goal-scoring feats last year. With opponents attempting to play narrow against Barca’s front men, the former Liverpool striker was often tasked with creating space in the middle for Messi and co. by drifting wide and dragging an opposition defender with him.
On other occasions, Suarez acted as a reference point of the attack for players like Messi and Neymar to play off. Another prevalent feature of his play was to drop off and act as the creator for his South-American team-mates, something he did with regularity for his former side to supply the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. Suarez managed 25 goals and 21 assists, and his all round play and selflessness were crucial components of Barcelona’s success last season.
Brazilian talisman Neymar’s role was on the left side of the attack. The 23 year old’s inverted movement was another important part of Barcelona’s play. Neymar tended to vary between dribbling inside to shoot or getting in behind the opposition full-back. A major element of Luis Enrique’s approach in his debut campaign involved his use of Barca’s front three in counter-attacks.
When the opposition had established an attack, Neymar would usually mirror Luis Suarez in hugging the touchline on both sides of the pitch, around the half-way line. Messi would drop off to pick up the ball following a turnover in possession. The space created through the middle by Barcelona’s split forwards either allowed Messi to exploit the gap on his own or else play a through ball to Neymar to run through on goal.
The best example of Barca’s new counter-attacking style was the former Santos youngster’s first goal in a 2-3 win against Atletico Madrid in January. Neymar managed to rack up 39 goals and seven assists in his second season in Catalonia.
The final member of Blaugrana’s famous trio is Lionel Messi. Despite missing out to Cristiano Ronaldo for the 2014 Ballon D’or. the 28 year old’s performance in the second half of the campaign means he’s well on course to pick up the award for 2015. Messi was back to his very best in the final months of the season. Memorable displays against Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League knock-out rounds reminded us all to appreciate the mesmerizing talent we are witnessing.
Despite his avowed dislike of playing on the right side of Barca’s attack, Suarez’ aforementioned sacrifices allowed him more freedom to cut inside and pick apart the opposition. The free role allowed him the option to both create opportunities for his team-mates and take advantage of the space provided by their movement.
At times, Messi would supply from the right with support from Dani Alves while Suarez and Neymar waited at the back post for a delivery. Alternatively, Messi would occupy the no.10 role behind the front men. Over the course of the season, he managed to score an incredible 58 goals and recorded 28 assists.
While Barcelona’s star trio made the difference last season, Real Madrid’s Champions League win the previous year further supports the theory that a star-studded attack can be the crucial factor. Carlo Ancelotti’s front three consisted of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale out wide, with Karim Benzema playing through the middle. Combining to clinical effect, ‘BRB’ managed a total of 97 goals in 13/14. Their form was arguably the deciding factor in Real becoming Champions of Europe for the tenth time in their history.
The Mechanics of Los Blancos attacking force differed substantially from Barcelona’s in the sense that it was more about the individuals as apposed to their link-up play, but there were also some similarities. The defensive role of wingers Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo was similar to the Catalans in that their responsibilities were less than traditional wide men
Real’s attempts to win the ball back were largely led by midfielders Di Maria, Modric and Alonso allowing Bale and Ronaldo to stay forward to take advantage of any turnovers. Not dissimilar to Barcelona’s approach, apart from the additional benefit of Suarez’ work rate.
Compare the front three of both Madrid and Barca with those of the Premier League’s Champions League teams and its not hard to see why there hasn’t been a UK winner since Chelsea’s over achievers in 2011. Last season, the trio of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Willian, which scored 41 times in total, led the attacks for Mourinho’s Blues as they won the League.
Despite their league form, their exit from European competition at the hands of PSG in the last 16 showed they are still some way off competing with the very best. Each player has huge ability and they can all be considered world class. However, the defensive restrictions imposed on them by Jose Mourinho means they can’t possibly emulate the feats of their Spanish counterparts.
Arsenal, who were knocked out in the round of 16 by Monaco last term, have different problems. With Alexis Sanchez on the left, they have a genuinely world class player, but with the likes of Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck occupying the other attacking roles for Wenger’s side, they are never likely to compete for European glory.
Arsena’ls most regular front three managed a total of 52 goals between them. Previously likened to the Blaugrana, Arsenal play a different game to the current Barcelona team in that their creative spark comes from the midfield. Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla’s vision is the lifeblood of their approach but the lesser talents of Arsenal’s strikers mean their product often goes unused.
For example, Mesut Ozil created 73 chances in the Premier League last season only to see just five of them converted. If the Gunners are to challenge in next years Champions League, they’ll need to invest in a top-level striker.
The other team from England to reach the knockout stages of last season’s competition were Manchester City, losing out to Barcelona, again in the last 16. Front man Sergio Aguero possesses all the qualities required to be part of a world-beating front three and Spaniard David Silva’s creativity cutting in off the left means he could probably get in any team in world football.
However, aside from Silva and Aguero’s undisputed talents, City lack an additional string to their bow in order to match Europe’s best. Jesus Navas completes their current front three which, in total, managed to score 45 times last season. With the addition of a third world class attacker in place of the underwhelming Navas, Manchester City could be close to producing a team capable of reaching the latter stages of the Champions League.
While many teams have proved that the sum of their talent can be greater than the individual parts, Barcelona have managed to find the perfect balance. If England’s top teams are to oust the Catalans from their perch at the top of European football, it appears that having a fine-tuned, world-beating front three could make all the difference.