Previewing the return leg of Barcelona and AC Milan’s Champions League quarter-final through the lens of quotes from Barça manager Pep Guardiola.
“Milan is comfortable playing with a 0-0. We need to play with a lot of intensity and find the best way to attack them. We aren’t able to defend a result for a long time. We have to find the way to attack their extremely strong defence, I have faith that we’ll find a way through.”
The most typical of ways a side will defend with eight men behind the ball is with an alignment of two banks of four: only narrow channels exist through the middle and cover exists for runs down the touchlines.
Defending with Two Banks of Four
In the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie with Barcelona, however, Milan, as they are wont to do, went with a narrower approach:
Milan’s Defensive Alignment for the Opening Leg
Sitting deep behind the ball and hesitant to pressure Barça players even twenty-five yards out, Milan was willing to accept vulnerability down the wings in exchange for a congested centre of defence, obstructing the dribbling lanes of the Catalan attack. It’s a means of providing the same stability in the heart of defence a typical parking of the bus would allow without sacrificing the forwards to spur a counter-attack.
Barça’s Attack from the Opening Leg
And with Pep Guardiola’s men both in a hybrid 4-3-3/3-4-3 that essentially conceded all width down the left flank and stricken with the same finishing woes as Massimiliano Allegri’s, Milan were able to keep a clean sheet, giving themselves an opportunity to advance to the semi-finals of the Champions League via an outright win or scoring draw.
Barça had their chances to score, tallying 65% of possession, a clip high enough to out-shoot Milan eighteen-to-six, but Milan’s narrowness and compactness generated five blocks of Barça shots and countless disruptions of the intricate one-twos the reigning European champs are so capable of making and did make. Unsurprisingly, the bringing on of Cristian Tello, an out-and-out winger, for Andrés Iniesta’s take on an inverted one increased the danger of Barça’s attack, providing a width down Barça’s left that was sorely needed, a width which served to also stretch Milan’s back-line.
“We have to play on the wings, we can do it with static players and with attacking players. We will need to impose intensity on the ball and move them round as much as possible, circulating the ball rapidly. I think we will have possession of the ball but we have to find the way to create chances. I think they could score more than one goal, so we have to find the way to score more.”
One approach to strong play from the flanks would be keeping the hybrid shape, but moving Iniesta back to midfield and bringing on Tello to provide the edge to Barça’s attack down the left.
Barça’s Hybrid with Tello Starting
This route provided some of the sharpest looks of Barça’s attack in the opening leg, with fullback-cum-touchlinedemon Dani Alves racing down the right and Tello providing a credible threat down the left, but the question exists whether Guardiola would play a youngster, no matter how prized and promising, over Pedro (and over Fàbregas or Keita, meaning Iniesta would be back on the wing) in a knockout affair.
Barça’s Potential 4-2-4
There’s also the 4-2-4 option, an option rolled out both against Real Madrid in the opening leg of the Clásico Copa del Rey quarter-final and in the earlier 3-2 defeating of Milan in the Champions League group stage. In this shape, Sergio Busquets drops into defence, joining his centre-backs against Milan’s two forwards, thereby keeping Guardiola’s desired spare man in defence, freeing the forward runs of Alves and Adriano. It’s also a shape which easily transposes back into the tried-and-true 4-3-3.
“It’s tough to play with three at the back, I will think about that. It depends on the players and their feedback. I will see tomorrow.”
If Guardiola were to return to three at the back, the return of Cesc Fàbregas could lead to the return of the 3-4-3ish shape which saw to a 3-1 besting of Real Madrid in December’s league El Clásico.
Barça’s December Clásico Shape
The inclusion of Fàbregas and his more-direct approach from midfield relative to that from Seydou Keita — and, truth be told, of all Barça midfielders, for both better and worse — could very well draw attention from the centre of Milan’s defence, opening up more space for Iniesta. It also bears mentioning that, with Fàbregas filling the attack through the centre, Iniesta thrived in December’s Clásico, both pushing towards the end-line outside Real Madrid’s fullback and dribbling through the centre of defence.
With Xavi Hernández doubtful for Tuesday’s return leg, Thiago could slot in as a replacement, or Iniesta could move back to midfield, with Tello or Pedro Rodríguez moving out wide left, should Guardiola fancy a return to his big game shape from early in the campaign.
The other alternative is bringing back Lionel Messi and Fàbregas’ false-9/false-10 partnership.
Messi and Fàbregas Getting the False-9/False-10 Band Back Together
It is not coincidental Fàbregas’ sharp decline in goals as of late has come with Guardiola turning away from the risks of the 3-4-3 for the stability of the 4-3-3, thereby eliminating Fàbregas’ the delivery method of his early season success. It’s not an assured return to form for the former Arsenal captain, but it was a way of ensuring a 5-to-4 advantage in midfield for Barça, given Messi’s desire to drop into deep-lying positions. But, after already owning 65% of possession in the first leg, improving the possession number isn’t the most important of tasks.
“Milan is a team with the capacity to dominate matches. When they play games where they are the ones being dominated, they defend really well in their area and they are very strong on the counter. They can send us out of the competition. They’re leaders of the Italian League and they have fantastic players.”
It’s an in-doubt Champions League tie between two giant clubs, both with reasons for optimism. It is Tuesday’s appointment viewing.
Editor’s note: This tactical review has been written by twelve point courier. Beyond being a football tactics enthusiast, he is a sports/politics blogger with a slight emphasis on snark and illustrating the asinine and illogical. Follow him on twitter @tpcourier.
Image credit: ALBERTO LINGRIA/AFP/Getty Images