Barcelona 4-0 Milan: Villa plays centrally and allows Messi space between the lines

March 13, 2013

The starting line-ups

Barcelona recovered from a 2-0 first leg defeat.

Jordi Roura (perhaps with help from Tito Vilanova) used David Villa upfront, with Cesc Fabregas on the bench, and played Javier Mascherano rather than Carles Puyol.

Max Allegri kept things close to the first leg XI – Mathieu Flamini replaced Sulley Muntari, with Riccardo Montolivo moving to the left of the midfield trio. Upfront, with Giampaolo Pazzini injured, M’Baye Niang played upfront.

Barcelona were excellent in the first half here – and although the home side’s strategy was slightly confused after the third goal which had tipped the balance of the tie, Milan didn’t have an answer for their unusual system.

Barcelona shape

Barcelona needed to change their overall strategy from the first leg, when they were at their predictable worst:  nambitious play in the centre of the pitch and little penetration through Milan’s midfield or defence. As much as any side that has defeated Barcelona in this era, Milan really seemed to have found an answer to Barca’s short passing, so it was imperative they didn’t play the same way again.

The solution was, in Barcelona terms, quite dramatic. Pre-match rumours had suggested that Barca would switch to a 3-4-3 diamond for this game – a formation they used last season against Milan, with mixed results – and it wasn’t too far away from the truth. Roura’s side played a compromise, hybrid system that was roughly a cross between a three- and a four-man defence, and this worked nicely.

Strangely, the reason for the unusual defensive format was actually about what was happening upfront. In the past couple of seasons Barca have generally played Lionel Messi as the primary central forward, but here they used David Villa as a central striker – with Messi behind in the number ten role.

Villa as a blocker

This was important in getting Messi into the game – he found more space and received the ball more frequently. The problem in the first leg was that Messi was tightly marked by Philippe Mexes, who was happy to come high up the pitch to shut him down, with Cristian Zapata covering. With little running beyond Messi, Milan rarely looked troubled.

This format was very different. Interestingly – as mentioned after Barca’s Copa Del Rey defeat against Real Madrid – in the match against Sevilla (immediately after Barcelona’s defeat in Milan) Messi commented on the positive impact of Villa playing upfront. “With Villa up front in the second half, Sevilla’s centre backs couldn’t move forward, which gave me more space,” he said. Nothing mind-blowing, but it’s quite rare for Messi to comment upon his side’s tactics.

Here, exactly the same thing happened. Messi was in roughly the same zone as in the first leg, but Villa was in the side too. Crucially, he didn’t play as a normal centre-forward, trying to find space between the centre-backs – he played very much right-of-centre, up against Mexes. He was essentially being used as a blocker, someone to force back Mexes and give space to Messi. It’s particularly obvious for Messi’s first goal – yes, Stephan El Shaarawy could have got tighter, yes it’s a tiny pocket of space, and yes, it’s a brilliant finish – but in the first leg Mexes would have been straight into Messi’s face. Here, he’s distracted by Villa, and Messi found the space to finish.

Back to a Guardiola tactic

Barcelona's average position in the six 15-minute sections of the game. Note how Alves (2) starts off significantly in advance of Alba (18), who tucks inside to a more central position. Villa (7) is also right-of-centre, blocking Mexes.

Their positioning caused the lopsided shape of the rest of the side. Pedro Rodriguez played on the left rather than the right, but Barca still needed width on the opposite side, to stretch it down both flanks – rather than just one. This meant Daniel Alves was pushed extremely high, more as a right-winger getting back than a right-back pushing forward. The approach was highly reminiscent of a strategy Pep Guardiola used two seasons ago in a 5-0 win over Sevilla: note Alves’ runs, Villa’s movement, Gerard Pique moving across and Eric Abidal in a more cautious role at left-back.

Abidal would have been ideal here, but instead Barcelona used Jordi Alba as something of a left-sided centre-back. He barely got forward to push Kevin-Prince Boateng back – instead he stayed in position and proved very useful as a defender – 2 v 2 would have been too risky against Milan’s quick attackers. So Barca had width on both sides, Villa pushing back the defence, and Messi roaming between the lines.

It’s important to remember, of course, that Milan were inevitably looking to replicate their first leg strategy. A key part of that approach was their willingness to push their midfield up, leaving space between the lines. Against Messi as a false nine it worked, but against Villa and Messi, it was disastrous. Massimo Ambrosini, far from having the freedom to move forward and press, needed to be watching Messi.

Barca win ball quickly

Another key feature of Barca’s game was their intense pressing, which has been lacking in recent weeks. By its very nature, pressing is about the whole side doing it together, but Sergio Busquets was key. Even by his standards, he was quite sensational, particularly with his positioning and reading of the game.

He didn’t have a direct opponent in this match, so played a covering, sweeping role behind the other midfielders. When they lost the ball, he was on the scene remarkably quickly. When Niang dropped back onto him, Busquets anticipated the ball quicker and got his foot in. When he got possession, Busquets was positive with his distribution – sliding the ball into Messi for the first goal. Milan struggled to get out of their half in the first 25 minutes, primarily because Busquets was winning the ball so quickly.

Milan’s approach

Milan’s routes to goal were obvious, with Barca risking three-versus-three at the back. First, there was El Shaarawy breaking in behind Alves. Their battle had been key in the first leg, but here Alves was higher and more in direct combat with Kevin Constant – El Shaarawy had more freedom and could drag Pique out wide, and take him on in one-versus-one situations. He also popped up unmarked for Milan’s first serious chance of the game after a direct attack.

In the central role, Niang is not Pazzini – his hold-up play was poor, and it was frustrating that he dropped into deep positions, trying to receive the ball into feet. He should have been playing on the shoulder, and at 1-0 he hit the post from a huge, accurate ball over the top of the defence from Montolivo. That was Milan’s best chance of the night, and demonstrated what Niang should have been doing – later, he switched with Boateng, who became a false nine and could hold the ball up more effectively.

Interestingly, that chance also arrived because Mascherano misjudged a high ball and allowed Niang behind him. Mascherano was trying to do something similar to Busquets, moving into challenges bravely and winning the ball immediately. It was risky, and was an example of how a side’s strength can also be their weakness – Mascherano’s tenacity was crucial in Barcelona’s third goal, but it also allowed Milan their best chance of the night.

Milan back into the game

The overall pattern stayed fairly constant until Barcelona took the lead in the tie, when the game changed considerably. Allegri made two changes – Muntari on for Ambrosini, with Montolivo into the holding role, and Robinho on for Niang. Later, he introduced Bojan Krkic, playing the ‘number ten’ role Allegri has often used him in – with Flamini sacrificed.

Milan rallied – they pushed their full-backs forward, particularly Ignazio Abate down the right, and suddenly started to play in the Barcelona half. This was another example of simple footballing momentum. Barca didn’t change anything in particular – they were a little more cautious, naturally, having taken the lead, and their pressing dropped as the game went on – but there’s no explicit reason why Milan couldn’t have been similarly adventurous in the first half.

Barca were unsure of the best strategy – keep-ball or attack? After Bojan’s introduction Milan were only playing Montolivo, Muntari (and Bojan, if you like) in that midfield zone. Barcelona could have easily kept the ball and slowed the tempo, but surprisingly found it difficult to change from their initial attack-minded gameplan.

Roura’s key change was the introduction of Adriano for Pedro – this meant Adriano could play deeper and track Abate’s forward runs more closely. In the end, Alba sealed the game with a terrific goal that was completely out of keeping with his overall performance, considering he’d been told to focus on defence.


For all the consistency evident in Barcelona’s approach in recent years, they have continually tried to evolve their side. That, arguably, was Guardiola’s downfall last season – trying to evolve too much – but maybe he saw how the 4-3-3 (with a false nine) was becoming too predictable. After the first leg, Barca had to try something different.

To many the solution was simple – Villa in for Fabregas, and a return to Barca’s ‘classic’ formation. In a sense that happened, in a sense it didn’t: Villa has rarely been the central striker in his Barcelona career, and his deployment there allowed Messi space. Alves’ positioning was vital to stretch the play on both sides (something Barca failed to do at the San Siro) and the semi-back-three was a consequence of that.

It relied on great Messi finishes and a couple of good last-ditch challenges, but overall it worked – and for the first time since Roura took charge, Barcelona’s tactics were excellent.  Still, Vilanova’s imminent return can only be a good thing.

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