Milan 0-0 Barcelona: lots of little battles

March 29, 2012

The starting line-ups

Both sides created chances, neither found the net.

Max Allegri was without various players, most notably centre-back Thiago Silva. However, Robinho was fit to start upfront.

Pep Guardiola named Carles Puyol at left-back, and used Seydou Keita in midfield with Cesc Fabregas only on the bench.

A brief summary of the tactical battle? Milan often did well to crowd out Barca’s attacks, but Barca should have stretched them more. There wasn’t a key battle, nor an overall tactical theme – but instead plenty of small areas of interest.

Barcelona shape

Guardiola used 3-4-3 in the previous fixture between the sides – it didn’t work that well overall, despite Barcelona getting the win. But it remained the logical shape to use – Milan play with two upfront and one behind, so using three at the back in conjunction with a diamond midfield means a 3 v 2, extended to a 4 v 3, and therefore always the presence of a spare man, which Guardiola generally likes.

This was more like the 4-3-3 system Guardiola has generally favoured throughout his time in charge at Barca, although it was perhaps a hybrid of the two systems. Daniel Alves was filling in as the right-sided defender without the ball, but with Puyol staying deep and central in the left-back position, and dropping in to help the two centre-backs, it’s impossible to say that Alves and Puyol were playing the same role.

It was roughly 4-3-3 without the ball, then 3-4-3 with it – Alves becoming the only true wide attacker, with Seydou Keita or Andres Iniesta drifting to the opposite side sporadically.

In all, Barcelona basically kept a spare man at the back with the use of Puyol in a lopsided back three, despite playing with a back four…


The game’s weakest player was Robinho, both in terms of his tactical role and his contribution to the match in general. His role was crucial to the shape of the game – did he track Alves, or stay high up and try to exploit the space in behind? He did neither particularly well – sometimes coming back, more often staying high up – but in central positions. Javier Mascherano came out to meet him, leaving Gerard Pique and Puyol against Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Interestingly, there was a similar problem in the group stage game at the Camp Nou, when Antonio Cassano played in the position Robinho occupied tonight. ZM said then: “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.”

The same applies here – and Emmanuelson again seemed a good bet for that role. He can track Alves, then try to burst in behind. Allegri might consider this in the return leg.

Robinho was the first man to be substituted, but it was Stephan El Shaarawy who replaced him.

Pressing and sitting

Allegri said before the game that Milan wouldn’t be submissive. This was half-true. Milan did press very well at times, particularly when Barcelona tried to play out from the back at goal-kicks. Robinho’s early miss came after Clarence Seedorf intercepted an underhit Sergio Busquets pass when the whole side moved up to pressure Barca’s defensive players. Also, Ibrahimovic’s first half chance came after Massimo Ambrosini got tight to Xavi Hernandez and made a good tackle. It was noticeable how much Barcelona were out of position when they lost the ball in deep positions – their preferred shape with and without the ball was very different, so they weren’t in a good position when they were dispossessed in their own half.

On the other hand, once Barca got into a passing rhythm in midfield, Milan reverted to a system of sitting deep and narrow on the edge of the box, defending with 4+3+1, with Kevin-Prince Boateng moving back to flatten the diamond and help out in midfield. Their shape was generally good, though they were often too narrow and let Alves have too much space on the right, which goes back to the Robinho problem.

Barcelona’s pressing wasn’t as good as usual. They seemed a little confused about when and when not to press, and who had the responsibility of moving with each Milan player. They press much better when (the out-of-form) Pedro Rodriguez is in the side – he sets the tempo for the rest of the side.

Physicality and midfield battle

One of the main features of the game was the physicality. This was obvious from the number – and type – of fouls committed. Milan broke up counter-attacks cynically in their own half, with Alessandro Nesta literally holding his hands up to acknowledge he was doing this. Barca, more subtly, foul consistently high up the pitch and stop breaks before they’ve even begun.

Of course, Milan are a side based around strength and steel in the centre of the pitch and Guardiola was guilty of over-compensating for this. The selection of Keita was an indication that he wanted to compete in this respect, but Barca would have been better off playing to their strengths with Andres Iniesta in the centre of midfield, and a true wide midfielder on the left.

Iniesta doesn’t like playing in the front three and his narrowness made Barca too predictable, always going down the centre and right, while Xavi had a good game but is more comfortable as the second function midfielder (ie between Busquets and Iniesta from bottom to top) than in a more advanced role. He received the ball too often with his back to goal, and couldn’t see the pitch ahead of him. Keita, the man this debate revolves around, did little wrong personally.

Both sides were both keen not to be outnumbered in the centre of midfield. Barcelona are used to dominating this zone with possession, and Milan do the same with numbers – four central midfielders. Therefore, both coaches crammed players into this zone, and with little width, there were only two corners in the entire game.

It was also interesting that Philippe Mexes and Javier Mascherano both came forward quickly from the defence to get tight to forwards dropping deep into the midfield zone.

Minimal changes

There were substitutions, but only one significantly changed the tactical battle. That was when Cristian Tello replaced Iniesta. This was a good move from Guardiola – Iniesta was quiet and Barcelona needed to stretch the play on both flanks. Tello did that – he’s a natural wide forward and stayed up high. Whereas Iniesta got short passes into feet, the balls to Tello were longer, indicating how he was stretching the play, and he had a couple of late chances.


0-0 is always an interesting first leg result. Does it favour the side playing the second leg at home, or the side who know a score draw in the second leg will take them through?

Both coaches can learn lessons from this game ahead of next week’s re-match: Barcelona must stretch the play on both sides, Milan must use their second striker more effectively.

Barca remain favourites.

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