Milan 2-3 Barcelona: Xavi gets the winner
An interesting battle between formations and an excellent match ended with a narrow Barcelona win.
Max Allegri went for his usual system, Kevin-Prince Boateng shuttling from midfield to link up with the front two, with Robinho starting rather than Pato. Alberto Aquilani started on the right of midfield.
Pep Guardiola was without a host of players including both Dani Alves and Adriano, and went for his system featuring a back three, and a diamond in midfield.
Barcelona had more of the ball (of course) and created more goalscoring opportunities, but were never completely in control of the game.
The Barcelona formation was a variation of the 3-4-3 diamond / 3-3-1-3 system that Guardiola has been using at times this season. It was interesting that he went with Javier Mascherano in the centre of the back three, rather than Carles Puyol, even up against the aerial threat of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Further forward, there was a lot of fluidity from Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Thiago Alcantara – at the start of the game it looked like Fabregas was a false nine, Messi was on the right and Alcantara was at the head of the diamond, but Messi ended up more central and Alcantara played more on the right.
We effectively had two diamonds in the centre of the pitch with an obvious 4 v 4 battle. Barca were more fluid within this shape, though, and this contributed to them using the ball better in the centre of the pitch, and winning the possession battle. Milan should be commended for the way they pressed Barca early on – with Boateng setting the tempo for the rest of the side with his work rate.
Boateng’s battle against Busquets was particularly interesting. Vertical movement is important to both players’ game – Boateng’s job is to connect the midfield and defence rather than to act as a traditional ‘trequartista’, whilst Busquets is probably the best player in the world at dropping from midfield into defence to turn a back four into a back three.
Therefore, with Busquets trying to stay goalside of Boateng, the latter tried to play very high up in order to force Busquets back. Milan looked more like a front three than a front two for much of the game, with the two forwards coming deep and wide to bring a centre-back out and create space for Boateng. By the end, Busquets was practically playing as another centre-back in a four, in order to maintain Barca’s spare man at the back – see the diagrams on the right, courtesy of UEFA.com.
The concept of a ’spare man’ was important, and maintained at both ends. With the diamonds matching each other, Barcelona usually had one of the outside centre-backs free (The Milan front two would drift across the pitch) whilst Milan had at least one centre-back spare. “At least” is a key term, because Barcelona played no permanent central striker. The first goal was an obvious example of this – Thiago, Fabregas and Messi, the three taking it turns to be in a centre-forward position, worked the ball across, Aquilani didn’t track Seydou Keita properly, and this resulted in a goal.
Tracking midfield runners caused problems for Milan throughout – Fabregas had a good chance when he burst past the defence, Aquilani fouled Xavi for the penalty for Barca’s second – and Xavi also got the winner.
At the other end, Milan always looked likely to prosper down their left. With Busquets focusing upon getting goalside of Boateng, Xavi became the central ball player; tucked in and very narrow, often failing to cover the right flank. With the confusion / fluidity ahead of him, Barca were bare on that flank. Whereas on the other side, you had David Villa remaining high up against Ignazio Abate, the energy of Keita, plus the mobility and pace of Eric Abidal, but Puyol was left to cover too much ground. He had to come out to Clarence Seedorf and let Ibrahimovic in behind for the goal. It was also notable that on 34 minutes it was notable that he moved right into Mascherano’s zone to beat Ibrahimovic to a header, another reason the right-back area was looking undermanned.
At half time Pato replaced Robinho, but a more significant change was when van Bommel was removed with the more attack-minded Antonio Nocerino coming on, and Seedorf going to the holding role. Milan’s approach changed little although they became a little more direct, with Ibrahimovic an aerial route.
After going 3-2 ahead through Xavi, Barcelona didn’t pass their way to victory like usual. Maybe they didn’t have the system or the players to do so – the back three had to remain quite tight and were easy to close down, Busquets was forced back, and there was no Andres Iniesta. Guardiola brought on Alexis Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez (the latter for Fabregas), which suggests he wanted to either (a) get another goal or (b) focus on pressing. Usually, you’d expect Fabregas to drop into midfield, or maybe Gerard Pique to come on in order allow Busquets to set the tempo in the middle. Barcelona completed marginally more passes than Milan in the final minutes, but nothing like the number they usually record when ahead.
Both managers seemed to treat this game as something of an exhibition match – it’s hard to believe it would have been so open if this was a semi-final between the two sides.
Barcelona’s formation continues to be interesting, but in this match it’s not certain it worked, despite the overall victory. They were too open down their right, Messi’s through balls were superb but he rarely got into goalscoring positions, and they failed to keep hold of the ball late on. Guardiola likes the 3-4-3 and wants to evolve, but Barca need more work to play this way against Europe’s best.