Alexandre Pato gave Milan a dream start with a goal after just 25 seconds against the reigning UEFA Champions League Champions. The Brazilian cut through the square centreback pairing of Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano and ran approximately 20 yards with the ball before slotting it pass Victor Valdes. Massimiliano Allegri could not have wanted a better start for his men as they now had a lead to defend against the best team in Europe.
And defend they did….
The Rossoneri chose to defend deep, as so many other teams do against Barcelona, with their defensive line just outside the penalty area and their midfield not too far ahead. The back 4 and the midfield 3 zone marked the Catalans and closed them down in the attacking 1/3 with Kevin Prince Boateng hassling them higher up the park and then dropping into the midfield band so that Milan would have 2 banks of 4 in the defensive phase. Before picking up an injury, Boateng did well to throw the home team off from finding their rhythm early on by forcing them into bad passes and make them uncomfortable in the area of the pitch where Milan were basically allowing them to play. The Ghana international who was a revelation at the San Siro last season is thriving in this role of the forward destroyer which is a new trend in European football. The forward destroyer’s job is to put pressure on deep lying playmakers like Xavi in an attempt to neutralize their impact on the game. Last season Yaya Toure (Manchester City) was deployed in this role and similarly Park Ji Sung (Manchester United) against Milan in the Champions League in 2009.
Further back, Milan had a midfield trio made up of a box to box midfielder (Nocerino), a hard man (Van Bommel) and a creator (Seedorf). These 3 players kept their positions well and were rarely caught out and together with the defense made it difficult for Barcelona to play through them. Alessandro Nesta was the star man at the back and had a magnificent game making 5 interceptions, 3 clearances, 3 blocked shots and a crucial last man tackle against Lionel Messi. The away side conceded the flanks allowing the Catalans to get the ball out to wide areas by blocking all passing lanes to good efficiency centrally (Barcelona had not 1 accurate through ball from 12 attempts). 63% of Barcelona’s shots to goal occurred outside of the penalty area is also testament to how good they defended as Barcelona are not known to attempt many shots outside of the area.
Besides Milan’s setup being defensively sound it also had a very good balance. Allegri chose to play with 2 forwards (a rarity for a visiting team to the Nou Camp) and allowed Boateng to play very close to them in the attacking phase. In theory, when they won back the ball they had enough numbers forward to mount a proper attack. What was the reality though was that they won back the ball so deeply that when they cleared the ball or tried to play in their forwards they often gifted it right back to the opposition. They had only 7 effective clearances out of 16 attempts and had a 40.5% success rate on long balls played. Pato touched the ball 27 times in comparison to his direct opposite David Villa who had 62 touches and he came off after 84 minutes. Barcelona bossed the game with their ‘sterile domination’ tactic of keeping the ball and this help them protect their abysmal centreback pairing from Milan’s front 2.
In a post match interview after being knocked out by Barcelona in the Champions League in March, Arsene Wenger coined the phrase ‘sterile domination’ when he described the opposition’s first half performance lamenting that though they had the majority of the ball they only managed 2 shots on goal. On Tuesday night Barcelona had just 4 shots on goal in the first half with minimal penetration. The Spanish Champions though have no problems with keeping the ball for long periods with limited success. In fact, one of their strengths is their patience.
Pep Guardiola made a slight adjustment to his usual front 3. Messi who usually plays as a lone centre forward in a false 9 role was deployed in a slightly deeper postion with David Villa, who usually plays on the left flank, filling the centre forward position. Pedro played wide on the left with Dani Alves coming forward to give the attack width on the right. Alves was allowed to come forward unchecked and unmarked due to Milan not playing with any wide attackers usually when he got the ball he was 1 on 1 with Zambrotta. He also did not have to worry about Milan exploiting the space he left behind because when they Barcelona attacked Abidal tucked in alongside the central defenders so they had a 3v2 advantage against the Milan front 2 to avoid being caught on the counter attack. Keita assisted the struggling defense on the few occasions the Rossoneri threatened.
In the 1st half, Barcelona moved the ball around as they usually do with Iniesta and Xavi dictating proceedings, always being the reference point of the attack but the movement ahead of the ball at times was not there. Early on a lot of their passes went astray and they just did not look their precise, clockwork self. The energy of Boateng contributed to this as it was evident when he picked up his injury and subsequently came off the Catalans began to look their regular selves. Allegri brought on Ambrosini in place of Boateng played him on the left of the midfield trio and deployed Seedorf behind the strikers. This affected Milan’s initial strategy as Seedorf is not as energetic as the Ghanaian so therefore the home team was more comfortable in possession. In the 36th minute Messi finally was able to execute a penetrating run through Milan’s defense and set up Pedro for the equalizer. Abate could have done a much better job against the Argentine and Zambrotta left the goalscorer free in the area but the goal seemed inevitable at this period.
Barcelona continued where they left off in the 1st half with the momentum all with them. Guardiola shifted David Villa out to the left flank, Pedro to the right and Messi resumed in a central position as a lone forward. Villa was not having much success in the central position and Cesc Fabragas and Messi have struck up a great on field relationship when the former Arsenal man is played as the most advanced midfielder and the World Player of the Year is played as a false 9. This had the be Guardiola’s thinking when he made this adjustment. The Catalans had upped their tempo and they were more fluid with Messi as the lone centre forward. The space he created when he dropped deep was exploited by Cesc making forward runs and Villa and Pedro drifting inside.
The go ahead goal came from a right footed freekick from David Villa and finally the scoreline reflected the dominance of the home team. Milan with the scoreline not in their favour anymore had to now come out of their shell and chase the game. They did this by pressing Barcelona in their half trying their best win the ball high up the field and making it difficult for them to retain possession but they did this without much success. What they were able to do with much more success was not give Barcelona any clear chances to score and the back 4 did remarkably to keep them in the game.
4-3-3/4-1-4-1 vs 4-4-1-1
Allegri made the first tactical substitution of the night when he took off Cassano and brought on Emmanuelson. With this substitution he switched Milan’s shape from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-4-1-1 giving Zambrotta some help dealing with both Pedro and Dani Alves and giving the team some width in attack. Guardiola’s response to this was to take off Seydou Keita who had a wonderful game and bring on Carles Puyol to not only sure up the defense but to allow Busquets to play where he is most comfortable and influential in the holding midfield role. Barcelona were now playing a 4-3-3 when they attacked and a 4-1-4-1 when they defended. They now had an overloaded the midfield 3v2 and with Busquets excellent ball retention skills combined with the talents of Xavi and Cesc made it difficult for the Rossoneri to get a foothold on proceedings. Milan chose to press both Barcelona centrebacks with Pato and Seedorf which meant that when Busquets got on ball he was either not closed down or if he was by one of the midfielders a space was created in the middle of the park.
Milan’s final throw of the dice was to bring on Alberto Aquilani for Van Bommel, typical attack minded player for a defensive minded one and Barcelona took off David Villa for a natural winger in Ibrahim Affelay. The Dutchman got the perfect opportunity near the end where he should have put the game to bed but he shot directly to Christian Abbiati and with 1 minute (or so) to go in stoppage time the champions were made to pay as Thiago Silva headed in the equalizer from a Clarence Seedorf corner kick.
Barcelona would definitely feel hard done by for not getting all 3 points because of the way they dominated this game but one would be harsh to not think that Milan didn’t at least deserve a point given the way they defended. Fittingly, their equalizer was scored by a central defender.
The Catalans for the 2nd game running have drew 2-2 and though they won their first La Liga encounter 5-0 (vs. Villareal) they haven’t yet looked to hit top form but it’s early day still. The Cesc Fabregas/Lionel Messi relationship looks one that would bear a lot of fruit during the course of the season and with Andres Iniesta possibly facing a spell on the sidelines it would be given its chance to blossom.
The Rossoneri seems to have the sufficient strength in depth to go far in this year’s tournament and if they continue to defend similarly to how they did on Tuesday night they maybe serious title contenders
Note: All stats mentioned in this article were acquired from whoscored.com
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