Milan 2-0 Barcelona: Barca completely nullified
Milan restricted Barcelona to only one shot on target – a hopeful effort from 25 yards – and pounced at the other end with a set-piece and a counter-attack.
Max Allegri was without cup-tied Mario Balotelli, so Giampaolo Pazzini played upfront. Kevin-Prince Boateng replaced M’Baye Niang on the right, and Max Ambrosini returned to the side.
Jordi Roura selected what appears to be Barcelona’s first-choice XI – Alexis Sanchez and David Villa on the bench, and Cesc Fabregas in his roaming free role. Aside from Victor Valdes’ return, it was the same XI that started the recent Copa Clasico against Real Madrid.
This was a highly impressive display from Milan, and arguably the most convincing defeat of Barcelona since the current era started in 2008.
The key feature to Milan’s performance was their shape and discipline without the ball. Barcelona never found space in the final third, and seemed to find it impossible to create passing angles for intricate through-balls.
Milan were basically a defensive form of 4-3-3, which inevitably looked like 4-5-1 as Barcelona dominated for long periods. But the key to Milan’s shape was its lopsidedness – Boateng stayed deep and narrow on the right of midfield, but Stephan El Shaarawy stayed higher up on the left, ready to break in behind Dani Alves. This afforded Milan the perfect balance between defensive structure and counter-attacking potential.
Milan’s midfield combination was interesting, as the players had three different roles. Ambrosini sat deep in the centre of the pitch and tried to break up play, while alongside him to his right, Riccardo Montolivo provided close support and sprayed diagonal passes forward. Sulley Muntari, meanwhile, played left-of-centre, provided more energy and pressed. This was crucial for Milan’s left-sided midfielder – first because Xavi Hernandez is located in that zone, and can provide clever through-balls so must be shut down, and secondly because El Shaarawy’s advanced positioning meant Muntari sometimes needed to get out and support Kevin Constant, who tracked Pedro Rodriguez up and down the line closely.
However, Ambrosini’s positioning sometimes changed – on multiple occasions, he stepped forward to close down higher up the pitch, leaving Montolivo and Muntari occupying the central midfield zone. This is highly unusual for a defensive-minded side facing a team that thrives in the ‘red zone’ between the lines of opposition defence and midfield – why would you want to bring your holding midfielder into such an advanced role? It left space between the lines.
But it’s extremely similar to what Chelsea did against Barcelona last season, with John Obi Mikel protecting the defence but often stepping ahead of Frank Lampard and Raul Meireles to close down. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence, but maybe opposition coaches believes this prevents Barcelona (in particular Xavi and Sergio Busquets) passing the ball directly into attack – they have to play a lateral pass to a teammate who can knock the ball forward, which can give Milan’s other two midfielders time to cut off the passing angle.
Responding to movement
Another interesting feature of Milan’s shape was how deep Montolivo played, almost as part of a double pivot. He covered for Ambrosini when Milan’s captain pressed, with Boateng moving inside to cover some of his natural pressing zone. This left Jordi Alba unoccupied, which was occasionally a worry, but he did relatively little with the ball.
Montolivo’s positioning was also interesting when combined with Philippe Mexes’ display. The Frenchman positioned himself bravely against Lionel Messi, following the Argentine out into deep positions, but halting his movement when Messi moved into a position where he could be picked up by a midfielder. This sometimes meant Mexes moved forward to a position roughly level with Montolivo, while Cristian Zapata became the spare man, ready to sweep up behind.
Barca fail to create overloads
You’d expect Zapata, in that role, to be constantly sprinting across the defence to clear the danger, with Constant, Abate and Mexes all likely to be bypassed readily. Yet Milan rarely had significant problems with Barcelona players breaking past them, or creating overloads in particular positions.
On the right, Pedro was simply nullified by Constant, who had the pace and concentration to track his runs from outside to in, while Messi was alarmingly quiet – dropping extraordinarily deep to receive possession, at one point even deeper than Busquets.
But the real problem seemed to be with Andres Iniesta and Fabregas, whose positioning in these big games has never been completely clear. It’s difficult to explain quite what their roles are – a static formation diagram makes it look like Barcelona are playing 4-4-2ish, but Iniesta feels like a left-sided wide forward brought deep, and Fabregas a central midfielder pushed higher up.
It all seems a confused, and whereas the ‘classic’ Barcelona shape had Iniesta shuttling forward from the left of midfield and Pedro or David Villa making runs in behind, now Fabregas and Iniesta get in each others’ way. Iniesta doesn’t favour playing wide and likes to burst inside into roughly the position Fabregas occupied.
Meanwhile, although Fabregas’ “anarchic” role can occasionally work brilliantly when he combines with Messi, it doesn’t work so well when the opposition aren’t being stretched by a wide-left player. If Barcelona had a proper outside-left dragging Abate wide, Fabregas would have enjoyed space to break into. But with Iniesta drifting inside into midfield, Abate could defend narrow and Fabregas roamed around contributing little. Alba’s bursts provided some kind of width, but Barcelona’s recent success has usually come when they played with permanent width on both sides.
Barcelona simply didn’t create the passing angles to break through Milan’s ranks. The obvious way to get the ball forward in central positions would be from Busquets/Xavi to Iniesta/Fabregas, but this route was often blocked by Ambrosini and, in particular, Montolivo. Xavi couldn’t find a way past Muntari to get the ball to Messi between the lines. Pedro, Alves and Alba only took up wide positions, where Milan were less concerned about Barcelona getting time on the ball.
The other major problem for Barcelona was the lack of incision from the back. Carles Puyol has always been a reliable passer rather than an intricate one, but what happened to ‘Piquenbauer’? A couple of seasons ago Gerard Pique would regularly stride out of defence and knock a clever ball into the attackers – here (partly because of Milan’s good positional play, admittedly, as Pazzini increasingly got himself goalside to make Milan compact) he played simple balls to the flanks, or ten yards forward to Busquets.
Of course, another problem was that Barcelona rarely won the ball in advanced positions. Again, at their absolute peak Barcelona’s pressing was as vital to their game as their passing – but this season they’ve eased off and apply less pressure high up the pitch. There are legitimate reasons for this (sometimes it helps to let the opposition come onto you, leaving gaps at the back, and Barcelona’s ‘direct’ play has often been more impressive this season than under Guardiola) but when struggling to penetrate the Milan midfield, let alone their defence, the lack of proactiveness is obvious.
The match wasn’t entirely about Milan defending, of course – they also scored two goals. With the ball, they basically had three methods of attacking:
1) Hitting quick passes towards El Shaarawy, who had Milan’s best first-half chances – when he sneaked past Alves afer 14 minutes but miscontrolled, and when he again darted past Alves and nearly got on the end of a low cross into the penalty box. His battle against Alves was the key in the first hour, and his defensive tracking also deserves praise.
2) Set-pieces. Self-explanatory, and Milan’s first goal came from a dead ball situation.
3) Counter-attacking. When this didn’t involve El Shaarawy, it usually featured Boateng on the other side, who has become a master of taking the ball on the run and attacking powerfully. Pazzini held the ball up reasonably well but doesn’t offer pace in behind, and the introduction of Niang for the final 15 minutes created more counter-attacking possibilities.
Maybe that was the second half’s major surprise – Milan were the side that used the bench to improve their attack, despite Barcelona being the side searching for a goal. Alexis Sanchez replaced the ineffectual Fabregas and drifted across the defensive line threatening to make runs in behind, but as Milan sat increasingly deep, Barcelona failed to provide him with service.
This might be cast as a purely defensive bus-parking exercise from Allegri, but that would be an unfair reflection of an intelligent strategy. When sides have sat behind the ball and allowed Barcelona freedom of the opposition half, they depend upon blocks, saves and a bit of good fortune – there was none of that from Milan. They closed down in midfield rather than dropping deep immediately, pressed at goal kicks and sometimes pushed their entire midfield into the opposition half to provide an initial ‘block’ when Barca tried to pass forward.
Yes, when Barcelona did work the ball into the final third Milan got men behind the ball, and Pazzini’s position became increasingly deep, but this wasn’t an overtly defensive display from the home side. They cut off passing angles and followed the textbook definition of how to attack Barca (counter-attacking into the space behind the full-backs, and set-pieces), and this is, by a distance, Allegri’s most impressive match as Milan coach.
Barcelona were incredibly subdued. Excuses about the pitch may have been a small factor, but it doesn’t justify the confusion between Fabregas and Iniesta, explain why they were so incapable of passing through the Milan midfield to play in Messi, or affect their disappointing level of pressing.
Milan 2-0 Barcelona: Barca completely nullified