Barcelona 2-2 Milan: Milan’s narrowness frustrates Barca (just about)

September 13, 2011

The first half line-ups

Milan scored in the first minute and the last minute, to bookend a game otherwise dominated by Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola used Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano at the back, with Seydou Keita in the holding role, in the usual 4-3-3.

Max Allegri was without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so Pato started upfront, supported by Antonio Cassano. Antonio Nocerino and Gianluca Zambrotta also started.

This is a strange game to analyse – how well did Milan’s tactics work? Certain aspects – the narrowness, the formation, exploiting Barca’s lack of pace at the back – worked well, but Barcelona probably could have put the game beyond them. With Guardiola using roughly his usual side and tactics (the centre-backs aside, an issue covered a lot recently), let’s look at Milan’s tactics instead.

What went well for Milan

1 The formation and overall structure

Italian clubs’ inherent narrowness cost them dear in the Champions League last season, but here it seemed to help Milan. The last side to win at the Camp Nou was Hercules, who used a flattish diamond midfield on the way to an impressive 2-0 victory, and after Milan generally competed well here, other managers might consider using a diamond. The back four played reasonably narrow, the three-man midfield sat deep and tried to prevent Barca playing between the lines, whilst the trequartista (Kevin Prince Boateng, and later Clarence Seedorf) played in a zone that occupied Keita, which sometimes meant Barca were unable to go back to him to retain the ball.

2 Dealing with Lionel Messi

OK, he was still a threat. But Messi thumping the floor when he was denied a goal by the outstanding Alessandro Nesta summed up a frustrating night for the Argentine. Milan’s strategy was, frankly, not to pay too much attention to him: they kept their shape. Of course, they closed him down when he got the ball, but the three-man midfield meant that Messi couldn’t find much space to come deep and receive the ball in that zone. He’s also seemingly been discouraged from coming too deep, as he tended to do around the time of the Copa del Rey final, which meant Barca simply played in front of the opposition. It might be that you can’t get too tight to Messi – he beats you anyway. (He still created a goal, but that was from a strange situation in the right-back position.)

3 Dealing with Dani Alves

What’s the disadvantage of playing a 4-3-1-2 against Barca – or any side? You’re leaving their full-backs free. But Milan were happy to do that, and left Alves to Zambrotta, Pedro allowed to wander into the middle. For some reason, Alves never went down the outside, with Zambrotta showing him inside – onto Zambrotta’s stronger foot (although both are pretty good) – and Alves’ weaker side. As a result, Barca were too narrow and were unable to stretch the play.

4 Pressing later on

Milan sat relatively deep in the first half – not too deep – but when they went behind on 50 minutes, Allegri altered his tactics and pushed higher up, playing more proactively and forcing the issue. Barca were still the better side in that period, but it demonstrated flexibility and an urgency to win the ball – there’s no point sitting back and soaking up pressure if you’e behind.

5 Playing out from the back

As Pato’s early strike showed, Milan were likely to get joy by using pace up against Barca’s centre-backs. Guardiola’s side generally play a high line, but Busquets and Mascherano were likely to be a little tentative and retreat towards their own goal. Therefore, particularly in the second half, it was notable that Christian Abbiati, Nesta and Thiago Silva played short goal-kicks from the back, trying to prompt Barca’s front three forward – and in turn, the rest of the team -leaving space in behind.

6 Logical goals

Milan had two likely sources of goals – (a) pace through the middle and (b) set-pieces. Both worked.

What went badly for Milan

1 Too many free-kicks conceded

A team with Mark van Bommel in the holding role is always likely to be vulnerable here, but Milan dived in too much and made tackles they didn’t need to. Nesta conceded fouls cleverly, when there was a direct threat on goal – but the midfielders made silly tackles, and van Bommel picking up a booking after 18 minutes for dissent was sheer stupidity when he was up against Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta for the rest of the game. Typically, he managed to evade another card – but he didn’t make a single tackle in the game for fear of a dismissal, and that hampered Milan.

2 Too many long shots conceded

Xavi is not renowned for long-range shooting, but he had three long range efforts because there was space either side of the Milan ‘three’ in midfield. One, towards the end of the first half, was very close.

3 No clear out-ball

Barca were vulnerable at the back, particularly to direct attacks, but Milan weren’t clever enough with the positioning of their forwards. It wasn’t quite clear what Cassano’s role in the side was – a deep-lying forward, yes, but what is that player meant to do when his side has no possession and barely gets into the opposition half? He could have come wider, or deeper, to drag Mascherano further out of position and to instigate an attack. Alternatively, Urby Emmanuelson could have been fielded from the start (which was expected amongst the Italian media before the game) to provide pace down the flank. Barca should have been tested more on the break.

4 Tiredness

Cassano tired, Pato tired and Seedorf tired. Only the right hand side didn’t suffer, and it was notable that both Ignazio Abate and Antonio Nocerino had the legs to pressure Barca in the left-back zone late on. Nocerino’s persistence resulted in the corner for the goal.

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