Barcelona 3-1 Milan: Guardiola goes with a 3-3-4
Barcelona weren’t at their best, but were fairly comfortable after scoring their third.
Pep Guardiola brought in Isaac Cuenca to stretch the play on the flank and used Cesc Fabregas in a free role, with Seydou Keita and Alexis Sanchez dropping out.
Max Allegri recalled Ignazio Abate at right-back, but otherwise kept the same team from last week.
This was an odd game – Barcelona predictably dominated possession but struggled to create chances in open play…yet still scored goals and weren’t particularly troubled after the third goal, in the 53rd minute.
The real interest here was Barcelona’s shape. Dani Alves was pushed up even higher than in the first leg, with (at first) no responsibility to get back into the right-back zone. He and Cuenca played on roughly the same horizontal line, with Fabregas in a free role and Lionel Messi as a false nine. It could be interpreted as a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield, with Fabregas at the front tip, but he and Messi were often together, playing as a partnership and dovetailing – therefore, the unusual 3-3-4 notation makes sense here.
Barcelona have played that way briefly in league games at the Nou Camp against weak opposition, but this was probably the first time they’ve looked 3-3-4 in a truly big game. In many ways, it makes perfect sense against this Milan side. It allows a spare man at the back, and if Fabregas dropped back slightly, equal numbers in midfield against Milan’s diamond. The obvious problem with a 3-3-4, on paper, is the lack of cover on the flanks – but few sides are as narrow as Milan, so in theory it shouldn’t be an issue.
There were problems with the approach, however. In the defensive phase of play, because Alves and Cuenca were playing higher up than they would as wing-backs, Milan’s two shuttlers could move outside into the channels and find space. There was an example in the first half when Alves deliberately didn’t retreat to a position alongside Javier Mascherano, and instead took up a position level with the midfielders. But then, briefly, Clarence Seedorf slipped unmarked into a position to the left of Mascherano, and had Zlatan Ibrahimovic played the right pass, he would have had a one-on-one against Victor Valdes. Only when he realised Seedorf was free in a dangerous position did Alves suddenly dash back – it would have been too late.
And almost exactly the same thing happened for the goal on the opposite side – the right-sided shuttler, Antonio Nocerino, moved forward into space outside of Carles Puyol to score. Cuenca had been watching the left-back, and this was Barcelona’s problem – who was meant to be tracking the shuttlers? If it was Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, they would have been dragged into something approaching full-back positions. If it was Alves and Cuenca…well, it wasn’t, since they were staying much higher up. It might have been a deliberate tactic from Allegri to exploit Barca there, and it worked quite well.
Barca higher up
The shape did help Barcelona press high up the pitch, four against four, and Milan’s troubles in playing out from the back were evident throughout the game – Philippe Mexes’ error that led to the first goal being one example. They arguably pressed less well in midfield, again because of the confused duties of Xavi and Iniesta.
There was another problem though, with chance creation. Barcelona didn’t produce a lot in the final third – Messi had an early chance, as did Adriano and Thiago Alcantara late on, but they depended upon two penalties and a fortunate deflection for their goals, and weren’t as slick as usual. It was interesting that Fabregas often came deeper than Massimo Ambrosini to get the ball, which then gave Milan a spare man at the back.
When Fabregas dropped deeper, Messi wasn’t at his best: isolated and often struggling to beat both Alessandro Nesta and Mexes. Fabregas and Messi might have been better off staying high up, keeping 4 v 4 against the Milan defence, and leaving the initial through-ball to Xavi and Iniesta. Guardiola wanted to dominate possession and not be 3 v 4 against in midfield, clearly, but 61% possession isn’t great for Barca, even considering the standard of the opposition.
Positioning of attackers
The other main issues were the positioning of two attackers. Cuenca’s role was interesting – he was told just to stay wide, try to beat the full-back on the outside, and then cross the ball. On the ball he did relatively little, but with he and Alves either side, Milan’s back four was noticeably more stretched – the full-backs were (at a guess) ten metres further away from the centre-backs compared to the first leg, on average.
Cuenca’s role was unspectacular and largely unproductive but entirely functional, and Guardiola will have been happy with his job. He brings something new to Barca, he’s more of a winger – tricky and willing to cross – rather than a wide forward like Pedro Rodriguez or Cristian Tello, who like space and to get the ball in behind the Barcelona defence. He meant the pattern of Barca’s passes in the final third stretched across the width of the pitch, rather than staying central where Milan were comfortable, as in the first game.
The positioning of Robinho was also interesting. In the first leg he was poor because he wasn’t doing enough to stretch the Barcelona defence with his movement and starting positioning. Here he was much better – he dropped deep to form a 4-3-2-1 without the ball, and this brought Mascherano high up into zones he didn’t do well in. The Milan goal came when the Argentine got drawn out, then turned, then followed Robinho and dropped too deep, playing Nocerino onside. Robinho wasn’t doing that kind of thing in the first leg – he was staying too high up. This was a big improvement.
At half-time Guardiola sensed the problems and moved to more of a 4-4-1-1ish shape. Alves went back to right-back, Cuenca switched to the right, and Iniesta went to the left with Fabregas behind Messi. Milan could no longer find the gaps, and Barca weren’t troubled so much.
Barcelona are a far better football team than Milan on paper – but over the two legs, they only looked marginally better. Milan didn’t do anything special to frustrate Guardiola’s side, but a combination of an over-cautious approach in the first leg, and a slightly confused formation in this second game meant that Barca struggled to demonstrate their natural superiority in the final third. In the tie, the goal that was most Barcelona-like was Nocerino’s equaliser.
Maybe it is worth other sides copying Milan and playing a diamond against Barcelona – the last side to win at the Nou Camp was Hercules, who parked the bus with a flattened diamond (in the defensive phase) and then broke quickly into the channels.
Still, Barcelona progressed, and though it wasn’t 100% successful, the shape showed Guardiola’s ability to tinker with his system without disturbing the rhythm of the side too much. Don’t expect 3-3-4 in the next round, though.