Barcelona-Milan Champions League Tactical Preview: The Midfield Battle

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:

Milan's 4-4-2 Diamond Formation

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:

Milan's 4-4-2 Diamond Formation

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:

Walcott Open in Space Wide

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:

Attack from Wide Force Milan to Lose Shape in Middle

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 Open in Middle Due to Attack from Wide

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:

Milan Extremely Narrow Centrally 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:

Gervinho Open in Space Wide on Left 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:

Attack from Left Flank Opens Space for Striker Centrally

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:

Milan Vulnerable to Counter Attack from Wide

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.

Wide Attacker Open in Space

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.

The End

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.

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  1. March 28, 2012

    Hmm. But how do we make the pitch large if they decide to take a dump on the pitch like they did against Arsenal in the first leg?

    • blitzen
      March 28, 2012

      Hah! I was just coming here to say that!

    • March 28, 2012

      If they were worried about Arsenal’s width, then I fear not only will the sides be “tampered” with, but they’ll try to muck up any portion of the pitch they believe Messi might step on.

  2. March 28, 2012

    Really liking the defensive-10 concept as a way to play against us. I’m surprised more sides don’t do this. That Milan does has me hoping Keita gets the start since being able to rotate who our DM is in-game may be a useful tactic.

    And Ibra playing the false 9 has me wondering even more why he couldn’t do that with us. Was it just that he couldn’t stand being 2nd banana to Messi?

  3. messifan
    March 28, 2012

    So should Cesc be in the starting lineup? Personally, he should not start this game. His speed of thought is bit slower than the rest. I would like see Thiago in the starting lineup more than Cesc. And who should play out wide? Cuenca and Tello are too young and Pedro has not been playing well.

    • March 28, 2012

      Was talking about this on Twitter yesterday. The only thing Cesc has over Thiago is (CL) experience right now.

      I’d expect it would be a decision to start either Thiago or Keita in the midfield in a 352.

      Because Puyol is most likely going to be at LB, we need even more cover than usual on that flank. Cuenca/Tello too young and give the ball away cheaply – i.e. not good enough defensively. Pedro – good defense, meh offense. Therefore, the best realistic option would be Iniesta. In terms of additional left flank cover (left mid position) Keita’s the most reliable option in that scenario, but Thiago’s also improved substantially defensively so he could play there too. (Hence the Keita vs Thiago situation stated above)

      Iniesta on the wing isn’t bad – he’s just better in the midfield, so with the interest of keeping him in his preferred position, I’d play Thiago at LW.

    • jordi™
      March 28, 2012

      “The only thing Cesc has over Thiago is (CL) experience right now”

      Well thats hardly true though is it? and I say that as a sizable Thiago fan.

    • March 28, 2012

      Ah, should clarify: I mean in this game specifically. Cesc will be played in the midfield and as he is now, he’s much looser with the ball and slower in possession. Detrimental given how Milan play.

      Cesc’ll improve of course, but Thiago fits in better right now.

    • March 28, 2012

      I’d start Cesc simply because of what he did 4 years ago at the San Siro..

  4. March 28, 2012

    Basically the team picks itself (Valdes, Alves, Pique, Masch, Puyol, Xavi, Busi, Iniesta, Messi, Alexis) except for the Cesc vs Pedro vs Thiago vs Keita thing. I would prefer Keita with Pedro coming on late but my guess is Pep will start with Cesc, who’s started almost all the big games this year.

  5. Roberto Senyera
    March 28, 2012

    Give me the December Clasico lineup. This isn’t rocket surgery people.

    It’s going to be a bootle of Italian Pinot Noir today folks. I always enjoy drinking the blood of my enemies whilst we slay them in their own homeland.

    Enjoy the match everyone.

    Visca Barça!!

    • mom4
      March 28, 2012

      Rocket surgery- got a chuckle outta that.

    • Roberto Senyera
      March 28, 2012

      Duh. We can’t have the December Clasico lineup since Abidal is unavailable.

  6. March 28, 2012

    Ramzi called it:

    Barça lineup (official): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol; Busquets, Xavi, Keita; Alexis. Messi, Iniesta

    • mom4
      March 28, 2012

      Keita in there comforts me a lot. Takes care of their right side. Frees Busi up to be his busi-est. Gives us defensive security and a taller target in the box.

      For all our injuries, we can still field one heck of a lineup! If we play our game, we’ve so totally got this. We even have some impact subs.

      Now, nobody is allowed to get injured!

  7. March 28, 2012

    Keita it is. Official lineup:

    Valdes Alves Pique Puyol Busi Xavi Iniesta Keita Alexis Messi

  8. March 28, 2012

    I will celebrate the occasion by having an early dinner.

  9. Messiah10
    March 28, 2012

    Thanks Euler. That was a fantastic post! It helped me so much to understand the function of Allegri’s diamond formation. I still feel confident that we can work through the middle if we have to. Xavi & Iniesta, even Busi are very hard to close down. Their comfortability on the ball and not losing posession looks key to breaking that diamond formation. Alexis will be huge on the left or right as will Cuenca. Tello has more speed then Cuenca and I like him more down the long run, but Cuenca is an excellent paasser and crosser of the ball from wide positions. I think if Theo Walcott was half as decent we wouldn’t be talking about Milan. I hope Kieta gets the start. He’ll be huge in this game. Has the starting 11 been named?

  10. Jackieboy
    March 28, 2012

    Yay, Keita. Love to see him finally start a big game.

  11. Huckleberry
    March 28, 2012

    Pep wants to win this game.
    Pique, Pujol, Busquets have to start to defend set pieces in the air.
    I can’t see Pep without Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta in midfield in big games. And Messi and Alexis up front. Alves plays left either back or in front or both.
    So, only two more to add: Mascherano, Thiago (who has experience from the Milan game in San Siro), Cesc, Keita, Pedro? Perhaps Keita for his heading capabilities. But then Busquets had to drop back in the backline. Don’t think so.
    I guess: Mascherano and Cesc.

  12. Messiah10
    March 28, 2012

    Nice Keita!!! Barca Barca Barca!!!! I hope to hear quite a few OLE’s!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. jordi™
    March 28, 2012

    Serie A fans sure are an angry bunch.

  14. mom4
    March 28, 2012

    We got Eulergized, HOORAY!

    Nice lineup. Very nice lineup. I just want to see some pretty football.

    Who has the loveblob today?

  15. Jim
    March 28, 2012

    Not anticipating a huge struggle in midfield so maybe Iniesta on the wing won’t harm us tonight but need him in his best position from now on. It’s been a problem since Villa’s injury.

    Main thing for me is that we’re not going for three at the back although I’d be happier with Puyol in beside Pique for his positional sense.

  16. Messiah10
    March 28, 2012

    For all the confidence I had since the draw was announced I find myself w/an anxious disposition! I want that 1st goal to go in so I can expel a huge sigh of relief!

  17. Messiah10
    March 28, 2012

    Boateng won’t be doing any flips and back hand springs today!

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