How Barcelona's front three finally clicked – and why they're only going to improve
4-3-3 has been a key part of Barcelona's philosophy over the past couple of decades, and one of its many benefits is allowing the manager to field three top-class attackers across the frontline. Barca have possessed a series of world-class frontmen during that period, but rarely a trio as individually sensational as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
The three are similar players – good dribblers, potentially prolific goalscorers and talented passers – which made deploying them together exciting, but problematic too.
All three are accustomed to being the main man in their side, either at their previous club or at international level, and it's difficult to play to the strengths of three players simultaneously.
It took a while for the triumvirate to truly click. First Suarez was serving his long suspension, and then he took time to settle into the side, impressing with his work-rate rather than his goals.
In recent weeks, however, the Uruguayan seems up to full speed, and Barca are on a roll. They've won their last five La Liga games, scoring no fewer than 21 goals.
In truth, Luis Enrique hasn't been able to play to the strengths of all three entirely, and in his first season, Suarez has become accustomed to something of a functional role.
At Liverpool he was a one-man attack, usually given license to roam where he pleased, with Brendan Rodgers sometimes changing formation specifically so Suarez and Daniel Sturridge could play up front together.
At Barca the order of priorities is different: it's essentially Messi first, 4-3-3 second, Neymar third, and Suarez fourth. He's had to find his place.
His place is up front, as something of a battering ram. While that's theoretically the position that enables goalscoring, Suarez has actually acted as a targetman, a decoy, and concentrated on creating space for Messi and Neymar to dribble into.
In particular, Suarez has spent a considerable amount of time making lateral runs, dragging defenders out of position, but often resulting in Suarez finding himself a long way from goal. He's adapted impressively, however, and should be commended for his selflessness.
Last weekend's thrashing of Athletic was an interesting case study, because it again featured Suarez getting through lots of unglamorous work – the two most frequent recipients of his passes were Messi and Neymar.
This, most crucially, has allowed Messi to shine in his old right-sided position. Although he became renowned as a centre-forward, it's arguable Messi doesn't quite have the acceleration to get away from markers as he did during his peak years. That has also impacted his ability to simultaneously play as a false nine and a proper nine, getting into goalscoring positions to score poacher's efforts.
On the right he's afforded more space, is easier to locate and, unlike a couple of years ago, Barca are depending solely upon him for goalscoring, with Neymar and Suarez also in the side.
The previous game, against Villarreal, was also a good demonstration of how Suarez allows the other two freedom. The passes received by Suarez show that he's always in a channel – despite starting centrally, he's never dead centre when the ball is played into him. He often receives the ball under pressure, though, and his attempted take-ons against the Yellow Submarine were always unsuccessful.
Messi and Neymar, therefore, had license to cut inside from their wide positions, and while their take-ons were often unsuccessful too, their determination to beat opponents demonstrates their freedom.
This is a side based more around individual talent than in previous incarnations of Barcelona, and that ability to beat a man is particularly valued.
Things might get even better, too. At both Ajax and Liverpool, Suarez performed well from the outset but his goalscoring took time – he increased his return every year, peaking in the third season. If the same happens again, and Messi and Neymar continue to excel, this could become one of the all-time great forward trios.