Barcelona vs AC Milan – Answers, answers, answers

Barcelona create history by overturning a 2-0 deficit from the first leg and, in doing so, handed Milan one of their heaviest ever defeats in European competition.

The first leg at the San Siro had witnessed a superb Milan performance epitomised by defensive discipline and control complemented by a willingness to alter their defensive line during the course of the game to support the attack when possible. A review of the first game can be found here

It seemed certain that Milan would seek to replicate that performance as far as possible. The question revolved around Barcelona and their inability in recent games to move beyond sterile domination of the midfield area with a lack of movement and options in the final third.

Last night saw a return to the kind of game which Barcelona produced during the Guardiola era and which they have done so sporadically this season. It’s not a style of play they have ever abandoned but they have become lackadaisical with specific facets of it most notably the aggressive pressing and off the ball movement. By doing so they also demonstrated the fallacy of the overly discussed Plan B approach particularly when the implementation of Plan A is this good.

 

Barcelona Set Up

On paper what appeared to be the customary 4-3-3 was in fact considerably different in application:-

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Barcelona Starting Line Up

Firstly, the defence composed Pique, Mascherano and Alba with the left back playing a much more conservative role but not quite the left sided centre back in a trio. Pique was the furthest to the right leaving Alves to start high on the right and operate that entire side alone.

Pedro stayed high on the left providing the width and enabling Alba to remain deep. With Cesc on the bench, Iniesta was able to perform his favoured central midfield role but he offered so much more. This was arguably one of his best defensive performances despite being so advanced.

The positioning of Messi and Villa was central to the game. This diagram from whoscored.com shows their positions being virtually the same. Villa was operating as a no9 with Messi occupying the space directly behind him as a no10. With Villa positioned between Mexes and Zapata, neither defender could step out to close Messi down for fear of leaving Villa in space.  Milan’s ability to crowd out Messi with defenders and midfielders form the first leg was subsequently reduced. El Guaje justified his selection with the pivotal third goal combined with a performance of chasing opponents and opening up space with darting runs for team mates.

 

Milan – Right then Wrong?

From the Milan perspective, the area to be addressed is the starting positions as detailed in the graphic below:-

AC Milan Starting Line Up

AC Milan Starting Line Up

Did Allegri set the side out to defend as deep as they did or were they simply pushed back by the ferocity of Barcelona in the opening period? Allegri and Milan had decided an effective strategy for defeating Barcelona in the first leg. Did Allegri really choose to abandon this with a conservative approach, inviting trouble from the beginning? Or were Barcelona more adventurous and more like the side of a few season ago?

I doubt he wanted to be so deep but for the first twenty minutes of the game, his side were encamped around their penalty area, pushed back by Barcelona attacks built upon fast passing, movement and an eagerness to retrieve possession.  Milan were left to hang onto the game especially after the concession of the opening goal after four minutes.

The graphic below details where Milan were making interceptions last night:-

Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

Compare the position of the interceptions last night with how Milan defended in the first game as shown here

Barcelona were getting further upfield before Milan were intercepting. They were also able to hit a number of long range efforts as there was space between the lines. Ambrosini, so instrumental in the first leg, was ineffective in a constructive sense completing just 14 from 25 passes attempted whilst defensively he made only one successful tackle from four attempted. The midfield general was robbed of the ball for Iniesta midway inside his own half which led to the second goal by Messi. This is not an attack on Ambrosini just one of the clearest examples of how a player who was pivotal in the first leg was now slept away with his side.

The defence was deeper aware of Villa positioning, Barcelona were moving quicker and circulating the ball faster leaving Milan to chase shadows.

For all of their problems, Milan settled after around 20 minutes and began to offer something better in attack as Barcelona eased off form their initial press. Overall, Milan also proved that Barcelona still have issues to address. Despite having just two shots on target from their ten attempts at goal, eight of these were from inside the penalty area. Milan had opportunities not least the effort from Niang which struck the post.

This Barcelona side still provide you with hope.

Jordi Roura was clear in his understanding of the game:-

“but I would not talk about things that Milan did wrong; I would talk about the attitude of Barcelona, about how they pressured and worked. They made it look like Milan did things wrong but it was more that we did things right”

What Barcelona did right were the basic elements that’s made them so successful. They press you high quickly up the park to win back position and offer off the ball movement for team mates combined with recycling the ball at high speed.

 

Barcelona Positioning – Busquets

The revised formation from Barcelona was central to creating space with the play of Sergio Busquets instrumental. This was possibly the most advanced positional performance from a defensive midfielder you will see.

The heat map below shows Busquets positioning during the game:-

Busquets Heat Map

Busquets Heat Map

Nominally the deepest midfielder, Busquets was aggressive in his play last night stepping forward to defend high up the pitch. In doing so, he prevented Milan from even constructing attacks as he swept up behind Xavi and Iniesta whilst also launching a number of attacks.

Busquets completed 103 passes from 112 attempted, the bulk of which were in the Milan half of the pitch. His ability to play first time vertical passes presented a constant problem even if they did not always hit their target. That Pedro and Villa were such willing runners offered an additional threat to Milan, stretching the defence behind the midfield and creating the opportunities for Busquets to pass. The off the ball movement was another ingredient that has been missing in recent months.

Busquets also completed his defensive responsibilities well. He completed three tackles from three attempted including two on the right hand side covering for Dani Alves and made two interceptions both in the Milan half of the pitch.

 

Barcelona Press High

The second element in Barcelona’s play was the intensity shown in pressing and tackling their opponents. The location of their interceptions is shown below:-

FCB Interceptions

FCB Interceptions

Niang commented afterwards:-

“Barça were impressive. It was as if they were playing with 22 players. In first half, we were running around like madmen”

The Blaugrana began to exert significant pressure on their opponents high up the pitch. Pedro, so often the player who sets the tempo, chased and harried and was joined by team mates. The weakness of the defence was under less scrutiny as Milan were unable to build any attacks without being pressed.

The interceptions were aided by tackling:-

FCB Tackles

FCB Tackles

Barcelona were tackling higher too.  Ten of their successful tackles were in the Milan half of the pitch. The Rossonieri were being suffocated in the opening stages of the game.

Sometimes it’s easy to forgot just how much of the less glamourous side of the game certain footballers perform. Such as Andres Iniesta. The little creative midfielder made five successful tackles, the joint highest along with Mascherano of anyone on the pitch. His tackle on Ambrosini led to the second goal and his controlled pas to Xavi helped set up the third for Villa. People will recall his deft flicks or little passes but his team mates will remember his graft and determination allied to his undoubted intelligence to draw the Milan defence forward before attacking them.

 

Lower Tempo & Milan Higher

When the tempo inevitably dropped with pressing less intensive and movement off the ball falling, Milan were able to begin passing and move higher upfield. The problems reappeared for Barcelona offering optimism for Milan. Only a superb block by Jordi Alba prevented Robinho for scoring the elusive away goal for Milan which would surely have sent the Rossonieri through.

The side became static again, understandable to a degree given their huge effort early in the game. It’s a part of their game that should improve as they reach their peak physical condition as April approaches.

Jordi Roura

The game was also important in the development of Jordi Roura. Thrown into a job that he neither wanted or is seemingly enjoying, he has often displayed the look of a frustrated man, unable to make the necessary changes from the sidelines. Last night saw a change. The withdrawal of Pedro for Adriano recognised the increased threat of Abate on the Barcelona left. The introduction of the Brazilian strengthened that area and enabled Alba to push forward in the knowledge that Adriano could defend behind him.

Likewise, the withdrawal of a tiring Villa to be replaced by Sanchez offered vitality to the attack but also covering pace for the defensive phase too, aiding Alves on the right.

Conclusions

Reports of the demise of Barcelona have been greatly exaggerated. Or have they?

There can be no doubt that many of the qualities which made Barcelona such a dominant force over the past five seasons were in evidence last night. Equally, some of the negative traits that have weakened the side particularly during the last month or so were also visible.

The challenge facing Roura and Vilanova upon his return is to maintain the level of intensity shown by the side last night whilst also ensuring the players return to peak physical condition. This also means rotation in league games. Xavi must be rested and Puyol needs to be nursed to full fitness.

This is just one hurdle overcome. To successfully reclaim the Champions League there are other opponents who can ask similar demanding questions of Barcelona including a Madrid side focused entirely upon their main objective.

Last night the standard was set once more. Maintaining it again is the hard part.

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AC Milan vs Barcelona – Questions, questions, questions

The game was a foregone conclusion. It was simply a matter of turning up and taking the victory. Even some Milan fans held out little hope of achieving a result. It was Barcelona who were presenting all the questions to be answered. With Balotelli cup tied, how could the Milan frontline score? How would Milan stop Messi? How would the central defensive pairing of Zapater and Mexes cope? These were only a few of the issues for Milan to contend with. The outcome would be inevitable.

Milan’s recent form was conveniently overlooked. The early season struggles have been overcome with 12 wins in their last 17 games in all competitions. Milan have clambered back into contention for a top three finish in Serie A again. Still, they would roll over.

Yet nobody bothered to inform Max Allegri and his players what their perceived role was to be. They had questions of their own which they sought answers to from Barcelona. The questions from the Rossoneri would be more revealing.

Milan Defence – Park the Bus?

As inevitable and misguided as the notion of Barcelona requiring a Plan B, it did not take long for the assertion, incorrectly, that this was a result due to Milan “parking the bus”.

It’s a notion that is as wrong as it is misguided.

True, Milan only had 27% possession as they made just 210 successful passes from 285 attempted passes but this was not a performance that relies upon a deep defensive line and an element of luck against a team that is peppering your goal with attempts.

Firstly, Milan was content to alter their defensive line in different periods of the game. They initially set up with a fairly high defensive line and they tried to squeeze Barcelona. Valdes forced into kicking out from goal kicks twice in the opening minutes. In the 3rd minute, Prince-Boateng could be seen waving his team forward to squeeze their opponents at a throw in deep inside Barcelona territory. In the second half they again sought to push higher.

Yet they were equally content to drop deeper and hold a defensive line on the edge of their penalty area during periods of prolonged Barcelona possession.

Milan were highly disciplined, winning 17 tackles from 22 attempted and conceding just 10 fouls throughout compared to the 16 fouls given away by Barcelona.

With defence and midfield lines moving tightly together when needed, Milan were able to continually intercept Barcelona passes as shown below:-

 

Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

Finally, there was nothing lucky about Milan and their approach. Last season, Barcelona had 47 attempts in two games against Chelsea yet lost. They would lament their bad luck with their finishing and Chelsea’s luck in not conceding. They could have no such gripes this morning.

This was the product of a fine tactical plan from Allegri allied to a collective performance from the entire Milan team. A tactical plan that adapted to the circumstances as the game progressed displaying intelligence and understanding. It’s difficult to pinpoint individuals but the diligence of El-Shaarawy and Prince-Boateng in performing defensive duties and effectively sacrificing their attacking qualities for the team must be mentioned.

And so must the midfield warhorse, Massimo Ambrosini.

Massimo Ambrosini – Still Going.

As the veteran midfielder enters the twilight of his career, he delivered the type of performance that captures why Milan were so intent on securing his services for a further season whilst so many other Milan players departed in the summer of 2012.

Ambrosini was instrumental in stopping Barcelona from progressing through the midfield area. From the 28 interceptions made by Milan, Ambrosini was responsible for nine of them:-

Ambrosini Interceptions vs Barcelona

Ambrosini Interceptions         http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

He was also able to help Milan retain possession and construct their attacks when they had the opportunity completing 25 of his 27 attempted passes.

In a career with twelve major honours at club level, this could well be one of Ambrosini’s most satisfying performances on both a personal level and also, for his club.

The Achilles Heel – Left, left, left

Over the past two months, Barcelona have produced some dazzling moments of interplay on their left hand side. Jordi Alba marauds forward from left back and links with the interchanging pairing of Cesc and Iniesta. Opponents must ponder who is the left sided attacker and who is the midfielder as they swap places at will as the left side of Barcelona begins to possess the same level of attacking intent and penetration that has existed over the past few seasons with Dani Alves, Messi and Pedro on the right.

Now, the weakness of the left has been highlighted in successive games.  It has existed for some time but events have brought it sharply into focus. Granada attacked down the left and their goal arrived following a deep cross from this flank.

And last night, Milan repeatedly attacked the left with Prince-Boateng performing the dual role of defence and attack admirably. The graphic below shows the total crosses Milan made. From 11 in total, nine came in from the Barcelona left.

Milan Crosses

Milan Crosses                   http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

The question is why has the left become a weak point for Barcelona?

The loss of Abidal has been significant. His versatility as a left back able to slot into a back three when required but also able to attack. The acquisition of Jordi Alba brings many positives but with both Alves and Alba so attack minded, Barcelona need to consider the defensive imbalance this brings. Previously, if Alves attacked, Abidal would hold his position and be more conservative. This is not happening with Alba.

Does Alba recover quickly enough or is he too lax, not recovering with the same intensity as others?

Alba often had space to attack with Prince-Boateng tucking in to provide support to his midfield colleagues yet he failed to take advantage. Barcelona’s passing was too slow, their game lacked intensity. A higher tempo was needed. They appeared content to retain possession despite lacking the cutting edge.

Sterile Domination

Max Allegri spoke prior to the game of the likelihood of Barcelona having 65% possession as per normal with Milan’s occupation being to limit the effectiveness of that possession. To make it sterile. It was a plan which came to fruition perfectly. Barcelona dominated possession, more than Allegri suggested,with 73% possession as they made 714 passes from an attempted 791 passes.

Despite monopolising the ball, Barcelona managed only seven attempts at goal of which just two were from inside the Milan  penalty area. Their sole attempt on target was a 25 yard effort from Xavi. This is shown in the graphic below:-

Barcelona Shots

Barcelona Shots              http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

Barcelona were too static in attack. There was not sufficient movement from the midfield area forward. There needed to be greater vertically from the likes of Cesc and Pedro. Instead, when Milan fell deeper and Barcelona moved higher, there was no burst from the Blaugrana. No moment of explosiveness. The players were static, unable to break forward as there was no space.

Now there are just questions.

Should Barcelona play deeper and tempt the opponent out?

When Barcelona do more forward, why will they not shoot from distance more frequently?

Does the inclusion of so many midfielders at the expense of strikers remove the tendency to be selfish and go for goal?

Previous Barcelona teams have contained a more varied goalscoring threat with the likes of Eto’o, Henry, Villa and Pedro.  More midfielders brings greater control but should there still be room for Villa or even the out of form Sanchez on the left in the majority of games?

And if Barcelona do seek control with midfielders, then why not simply play the game out last night as a 0-0. Why place pressure upon themselves to attack when opponents are waiting for the moment when Barcelona over commit and are vulnerable on transitions. Why not accept the 0-0 or even the 1-0 loss.

There was no need to commit men forward and needlessly concede possession at a throw in and allow themselves to be placed under immediate pressure.

And finally, there is the thorny issue of whether the side are now reliant upon Messi, to the detriment of both the individual and the team. Has the balance tilted to far in one direction? Is corrective action needed?

This is an issue which may need to be confronted however ridiculous and unpalatable as it may seem.

Conclusions

Milan posed a series of questions tonight which Barcelona were unable to answer. Milan will need to present further questions in three weeks time if they are to navigate this tie successfully. The tie is balanced in Milan’s favour but they must prepare for a thorough examination at the Camp Nou. They have one foot in the next round when most observers would had them written off before a ball was kicked. Allegri and his players need one more great performance to proceed.

For Barcelona, can they score two or even three goals in the return leg at the Camp Nou?

Of course, absolutely.

Can Barcelona keep a clean sheet in the process?

That is the question.