Barcelona is a side that seeks to control midfield by dominating the ball and wants to play through the center. One of Milan’s great strengths is their defensive solidity in midfield and the resistance they offer through the spine of their side. It is this direct contrast that is one of the major factors that makes the Barcelona-Milan Champions League tie particularly interesting. Whoever wins this battle in midfield will likely be the side that progresses.
Milan’s Midfield In Defense
Since taking over Massimiliano Allegri has changed the structure and orientation of the Milan midfield, particularly this season. The holding midfield role was radically changed with the departure of Andrea Pirlo. In general, Allegri looks to play a defensive minded midfielder in the deep position now. Allegri also changed the orientation of the 10 position in very interesting ways. Milan plays a 4-4-2 diamond formation. This formation is well demonstrated in the two images below from the second leg of Milan’s Champion’s League tie with Arsenal:
In this structure the player at the tip of the diamond is often required to be the most creative player on the pitch. In fact, in this formation that player at the tip of the diamond often carries an enormous proportion of the burden to create.
In Allegri’s formation however, he has reimagined how this player can function depending on the opponent. Rather than being the quintessential trequarista linking midfield to the attack, the Milan 10 is now often a defensively oriented player with a high work rate who will look to pressure the ball in defense and utilize athleticism in attack. Against certain opponents Allegri will utilize Seedorf or Robinho at the 10. But often Allegri’s first choice player at the tip of his diamond has often been Kevin Prince Boateng. (It was Boateng who played this position against Barca during the CL qualifying round.) Until very recently Boateng was out for an extended time due to injury. In his place Urby Emanuelson often assumed the 10. While a more attacking player than Boateng, Emanuelson is far from the kind of creative force the 10 position has been conceptualized as being.
How does Milan afford to play a 4-4-2 diamond without necessarily fielding a true creative trequarista? This is where Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s versatility and diverse skill set is so vital to Milan. It is often Ibrahimovic how will take on the responsibility of either developing scoring opportunities for himself out of little (e.g. his second goal vs. Roma this past weekend) or takes on the responsibility of creating for his teammates. Though he has the build of a classic target man, Ibrahimovic often drops deep for Milan and plays away from goal, creating danger from between the lines.
In Allegri’s system, midfield often becomes a zone oriented around work rate, industry, steel and defense while the creativity largely comes from the front line attackers. In turn, the front line attackers have fewer defensive responsibilities. It’s this symbiosis which helps make Milan function organically. Now this isn’t always the case – Milan certainly have options and flexibility and can add creativity when needed. But they do regularly play in defensively structured fashion through midfield.
Creating the ability to play this way makes a great deal of sense for Allegri. Sides in Serie often play relatively narrowly. And Milan’s system reflects a response to this tendency. Most sides today play in four bands (e.g. 4-2-3-1 forms four distinct lines). Milan’s system often segregates into five bands in defense. Their 4-2-4 diamond is more precisely a 4-1-2-1-2. When coupled with Allegri’s reorientation of midfield towards work rate and defense this formation creates tremendous defensive activity and density through the middle across the entire pitch.
The holding midfield occupies the space between the defensive line and midfield. The nominal 10 almost functions like a holding player between the forward line and midfield. Importantly, the two lateral midfielders pinch in very centrally to play along the interior rather than on the flanks (this is the major difference between the 4-4-2 and the 4-4-2 diamond).
While this change may seem pedestrian it’s been critical to Milan’s success under Allegri. Milan’s vitality in midfield allows it to create defensive solidity without needing to defend deep and maintain a rigid shape (compare how Milan are able to play tactically vs. Napoli for example). At the same time it allows them to create pressure across the central column of play while not having to play their backline positioned very high. In other words, they are well suited to defend against sides that utilize attacking formations that are narrow in orientation (e.g. The 4-3-2-1 “christmas tree” formation).
The Barcelona Connection
Milan concentrate players along a central column that extends vertically along the pitch from the midfield circle to goal. That central column is exactly the space through the middle that Barcelona often feels most comfortably playing through. This is the challenge in this tie that the blaugrana face. They are up against an opponent that has developed a system designed to stop attacking thrusts through the very region of the pitch that Barca are strongest through.
For example, when Messi drops deep into midfield Barcelona often develops a 4 vs 3 or even 4 vs 2 numerical advantage in midfield. If the opposition has a fullback track Messi they can retain numerical balance-but they do so at the cost of their backline losing shape and developing gaps.
But against Milan the dynamic is completely different. At baseline it is Milan that has numerical advantage in midfield 4 vs. 3. When Messi drops Barca won’t achieve numerical advantage – they will only develop numerical equivalence.
All Formations Involve Trade Offs
Above I’ve detailed many of the strengths that Allegri’s system creates. It can create significant advantages for Milan, particularly in Serie A, because it creates density down the spine helping them thwart attacks through the middle and do so without needing to defend deep. By not needing to defend deep Milan is in turn able to augment their own attack (e.g. Involvement of full backs; Thiago Silva’s long passing,etc)
However, all systems involve trade offs. And Milan’s strength along the spine comes at the cost of relative vulnerabilities down the flanks.
The main natural source of width Milan have comes from their full backs. This is not only the case in attack – but also in defense. The lateral midfielders pinch in to the middle rather than play as true wingers on the flanks. Allegri seeks to minimize this deficiency by utilizing players with very high work rates at the lateral midfield positions (one of the reasons why Nocerino has been such a vital player for them this season and why they focused on obtaining Emanuelson last season). However, no player can be positioned in two places at once. And Milan’s structure is vulnerable to leaving space open in wide positions both in front of and behind the full backs.
One of the most interesting stories in Serie A this season has been the way in which Antonio Conte has looked to create a system which will attack Milan along their weaker points. Conte has emphasized width in his system (Ironically this is why Pirlo fits so wonderfully at Juve now – Pirlo’s long passes wide are an ideal way to attack Milan). Juve has played a 4-1-4-1/4-2-4 type of formation often and against Milan has also utilized a 3-5-2 type formation. The obective is to spread play wide to prevent Milan from concentrating their resources the way Allegri wants. Barcelona can learn useful lessons from those kinds of models in this tie.
Breaking Milan’s Structure
In order to maximize their chances of beating Milan, Barca must look to exploit Milan along the flanks. If they do this the following will happen. Milan’s lateral midfielders will be forced to spread wide to defend lateral attacks. When they spread wide Milan’s midfield diamond – a key shape to their structure and play – will break. Rather than an organized diamond that clusters through the middle their midfield can be reduced to a linear formation, one that will have gaps in it. This in turn will open up the middle for Barca to play through.
In other words Barca needs to start and focus their attacks first from wide positions rather than building up play through from the back through the middle. Ultimately to play through the middle in dangerous positions Barca first needs to attack wide. This is critical. If Barca don’t do this Milan will be able to maintain a tightly packed midfield diamond, a shape that will be very difficult to play through, even if Barca elect themselves to play a 3-4-3.
The key in this tie is to drag the Milan lateral midfielders or the Milan holding midfielder wide. Force them to the flanks and the middle will open. If the the Milan lateral midfielders don’t move wide or are late doing so Barcelona need to continue to push their attack down the flanks as dangerous opportunities will develop because the Milan full backs will be isolated by themselves in space.
I mentioned Juventus’s approach prior. Due to differences in systems Juve isn’t the ideal model for Barcelona. Another extremely insightful match that Barca can learn from is the second leg of the tie Milan played vs Arsenal in the last round of the CL. Milan won the first leg at the San Siro convincingly 4-0 only to see Arsenal nearly reverse the tie at the Emirates 3-0. Wenger implemented an extremely intelligent plan for that second match. He made sure Arsenal played “outside in” rather than trying to force their way through the middle to Robin van Persie.
Let’s take another look at an image I posted above:
I showed this image prior because it well illustrated Milan’s formation, with the clustering of the midfield in relatively narrow midfield diamond. This same image also shows the vulnerability Milan can have to balls played rapidly to wide positions.
In the image above notice how wide open in space Walcott is (lower edge of image). The left sided midfielder in the diamond was pinching in centrally. The L FB Mesbah is playing deep. Walcott positions himself in the open space between them. When Walcott gets the ball and attacks Emanuelson is forced to try to recover by running. But he has so far to go that he can’t actively engage in defending wide. This essentially means that Mesbah is isolated 1 vs. 1 with Walcott as the CB has to mark the striker.
Compare the space Walcott has to use to the Arsenal players in the center who are all tightly marked in compressed space. Here’s a closer view of how much space Walcott finds wide and how far the midfielder needs to run to try to mark him:
Because the midfielder is late to cover Walcott continues to press his advantage driving down the flank at the L FB who retreats deep as he knows he has no help along the flank. This ultimately creates this situation:
Notice what has happened. The L midfielder is unable to catch up with the play. Instead van Bommel moves wide to try to double mark the ball. This now leaves Rosicky alone in space in the middle. Silva drops deep so rather than driving to goal Rosicky stays in space and looks for the pull back.
Walcott puts in a mediocre ball into the box. However Silva puts a poor clearance on the ball and Rosicky, unmarked, is able to easily intercept it.
Rosicky, wide open in space with the ball, easily slots in Arsenal’s second goal of the match. The goal was primarily due to Silva’s clearance. But Arsenal’s manipulation of space is why Rosicky was even in the position to intercept the ball and score so easily.
This kind of “outside in” play is imperative against Milan. Playing directly through the middle can be very difficult due to the narrow defensive formation. Here’s an example of how narrow Milan can become in midfield:
On the right, for Barcelona, Dani Alves and/or Sanchez will need to create similar havoc to open up space for Messi and Xavi centrally.
Arsenal utilized this strategy all match long and it was critical to why they were able to beat Milan so decisively in this match. Here’s another example from the opposite flank:
Here the ball is played out to Gervinho on the left flank. He is free in almost the same space Walcott was on the other flank. Notice how centrally the R midfielder Noverino (#22) is positioned. He is attempting to stay central because van Persie has dropped deep between the lines. By dropping deep van Persie and Rosicky create a potential 2 vs. 2 against van Bommel. Nocerino is trying to prevent this. And if the ball was played through the middle he would be well positioned to stop an attack. But when the ball is played wide he is forced to try to recover position and support Abate.
El Sharawy tries to track back but he has too much ground to cover from his attacking position. The R FB Abate is again forced to concede space and retreat as he is functionally isolated against the ball because Nocerino isn’t in position to defend wide. Ultimately this leads to a dangerous opportunity:
Gervinho drives the ball at the Milan R FB. Gibbs intelligently overlaps from his L FB position. This means that even when Nocerino comes over to close down the ball Milan only have a 2 vs. 2 on the flank. Gervinho has the option to play the ball to the wide open Gibbs to further exploit open space on the flank. Instead, however, he plays the ball into the middle. Gervinho’s run forces Nocerino wide. Van Persie drifts into the space Nocerino had been marking wide of van Bommel. Van Persie comes very close to scoring with the open look from middle.
Again, notice how playing the ball wide forces the Milan midfield diamond to lose shape which in turn opens up the middle – the very area the midfield diamond is designed to fortify in defense. Iniesta can create tremendous problems off the left by running at defenders in a similar fashion. He needs to play aggressively on that side of the pitch.
Milan can be particularly vulnerable to attacks from wide in transition situations:
Above notice how Gervinho has stationed himself deep of both the Milan R FB and R lateral midfielder. Arsenal win the ball in the middle and quickly play the ball wide.
This attack led to an opportunity that nearly resulted in Arsenal scoring its 4th goal and leveling the tie. While Barca is likely to dominate possession when they do press and win the ball back they should look to play the ball out wide quickly.
This wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive preview. There are obviously many other factors that will determine the outcome of the match. But I wanted to highlight in detail the factor that I thought is particularly critical to Barcelona’s potential success.
Barca’s natural style of play is to build out from the back and through the middle. The flanks are often used as outlets to relieve pressure. Barcelona can’t fall into the trap of relying too much on what they feel most comfortable with. Against most sides they can get away with that just due to sheer talent. But Milan is particularly set up to stop that kind of play through the center.
Yes Barca beat Milan in the opening round of the CL and took the group. But we know how quickly things can change in the later rounds of the CL. Milan has grown. They are a better team now than they were earlier this season. They are missing key players due to injury – but as a unit they have coalesced.
They key here for Barcelona is to make the pitch large to break Milan’s midfield shape. Midfield is the region where Milan seek to stay compact. Breaking that shape will require the combination of wide play and rapid ball circulation to the flanks, coupled with direct runs with the ball in space. If Alexis Sanchez drifts in off the right flank when Messi drops deep Alves will need to try to force two players to mark him by creating havoc down that flank. On the left, with Puyol at LB, the left sided central midfielder for Barca will need to move wide to support the LW to generate potential 2 vs 1 against the Milan RB.