Tactical Preview: Barcelona vs AC Milan Champions League Leg 2

The key to figuring out what changes Barça needs to make today starts with understanding how AC Milan defended in leg 1.  And in my judgement that analysis begins with the following:  AC Milan did not “park the bus” in leg 1.  Unless Allegri takes a much more conservative approach, if you go about planning for this match believing the problem was that we couldn’t break a parked bus you’ll come up with the wrong solution.

“Parking the bus” is an imprecise term and it can mean different things to different people. So what I mean by this is a team that stations their block deep, stays very compact, and looks to absorb pressure.

Milan were highly organized & disciplined but they didn’t consistently play their block deep – instead they varied their block depending on what phase of attack Barça were in. Most often they played a mid block with a relatively high backline.  The purpose of this tactic was to disrupt the fluency of Barça’s build up play and slow it’s tempo by staying compact and pressuring in midfield

1 Milan back line high vs barca GK Thwarting Play out of back

The image above shows how Milan often positioned their block for much of the match when Barçawere trying to build play.  Notice how high the Milan backline is playing.  They are looking to squeeze Barcelona into it’s own half. To force Barcelona to possess the ball far away from the attacking third.

2 Milan High When Barca Trying to Build otu of back


Here’s a close up of Milan’s approach.  Notice how high Milan are playing but also notice how they aren’t running at Busquets. Instead they are willing to concede the ball to him.  Their focus isn’t to necessarily to press to dispossess the ball but to create a compact block which prevents Barça from passing out from the back as they are most comfortable doing.  And notice how there are very few clear passing lanes for Busquets to utilize.  In turn, Barça’s tempo in build up play fell off drastically and rhythm never developed.

2B Milan Block Transition Phase-Backline Pushes Up Doesn't Stay Deep

The image above is typical of how Milan oriented their defense in midfield in leg 1.   Barça have advanced the ball to midfield and in turn Milan have adjusted their defensive block.  While the block is deeper notice how high up the Milan backline remains.  Allegri’s focus in leg 1 was to make sure his team stayed compact in order to create a dense net in midfield Barça would have struggle penetrating by playing short passes on the ground.

3 Milan Very Narrow Ambrosini Between those narrow lines

Here Milan are defending during one of Barça’s infrequent breaks in transition effect.  Their block has organized itself deeper on the pitch. But again notice where the backline is. Even with the Barça pressure in attack, the backline hasn’t dropped deep into their own box. Instead they are focused on staying compact and preventing further penetration.

In this vein, ACM was explicitly not looking to absorb pressure. In fact they were looking to do the opposite-prevent pressure from forming.  This is why they generally played a mid defensive block rather than a low block.  Their goal was to create a compact barrier in midfield, one they could pressure the Barça midfielders through.  The ACM backline has been better more recently but overall they haven’t been a great strength this season.. Not nearly up to the usual quality we expect from a Milan backline.  So what Allegri was doing in Leg 1 was to focus his defense in his midfield line to screen the backline.

This is very well summarized in the heat map below:

heat map Barca AC Milan 2-0 Barca 11 touches in box
Heat Map Barcelona vs AC Milan Leg 1: Barca Produce Only 11 Touches in the AC Milan Box (Arrow Shows Direction Barca is Attacking)

What’s striking about this image is how little penetration Barça achieved.  Barça had 11 touches in the ACM box last match.  You aren’t likely to get 11 touches in the box vs a defense that “parks the bus” as it’s conventionally thought of.  The “parked bus defense” seeks to absorb pressure in the final third and penetration into the box will happen as the backline falls deep in reaction to the ball.

The vast majority of Barcelona’s possession took place in a relatively narrow band in midfield – much of which was in Barca’s own half.  This distribution of possession again isn’t consistent with a “parked bus” defense.  Instead the Milan’s compact mid block with pressure in midfield, in effect, made the pitch became very “small” functionally  as play was confined to a narrow segment of the pitch.  That narrow segment contained most of the 20 outfield players on both sides and the ball.  This in essence was the tactical victory Allegri engineered in leg 1.  This is what Barcelona must change today.

By staying compact and playing a mid block Allegri was able to prevent his backline from having to absorb pressure.  Instead the focus on the team defense became the midfield line of 5 in the 4-5-1 rather than the back 4.  The key figure in this was Ambrosini who almost played a “free” role in defense occupying space between the lines and pressuring based on his reading of the move.

How Should Barcelona Adjust?

It’s possible that Allegri will change his approach to how he defends and utilize a more conservative system where his block is positioned deeper.  But this would be a mistake.  His approach in the first leg worked superbly and changing it would be ill advised, at least until Barça can prove that they can generate solutions.

The main adjustment Barça needs to make is to stretch the pitch vertically to open up the Milan backline and use the ball to create penetration.  Milan will look to create a compact barrier in midfield to prevent Barça from playing in the final third.  Barça need to use movement off the ball to prevent Milan from staying compact and create vertical thrust.  In leg 1 the open space on the pitch was often behind the Milan backline-not in midfield.  Yet Barça insisted on trying to play the ball exactly where there was the least amount of space.  In turn Barça did the opposite of what tiki-taka is designed to do:  they made the pitch functionally “small” and thus easier for Milan to defend.

Players must run at the Milan backline rather than only dropping deep to support circulation of the ball.  Those runs need to be directly vertical – but also diagonal.  This requires Barça players to get away from their preference to have the ball played to feet.  Instead they need to be able to make dynamic runs and play balls focused on open space.

4 Messi Drops Mexes Follows Him Not Worried About Run Behind

The shot above summarizes what Barça needs to change in today’s match.  Messi drops deep into midfield.  Mexes tracks him even though it means he’s left a channel open in the Milan backline.  Both Fabregas and Iniesta are deep in midfield looking to support circulation.  Neither looks to exploit open space as they are focused on providing outlets for Messi to pass back to in midfield.  Pedro stops as the ball is played backwards and doesn’t reinitiate his run.

Over and over what the opposition does vs Barça isn’t even to pressure the ball. Instead they through press where pressure is applied to the player who is receiving the ball.  So many of the Barça players prefer the ball played to feet that the defense can “guess” with high probability who may receive a pass.  This is what’s being done to Messi in particular.  He needs to adjust.  Rather than turning himself into a midfielder as he drops he needs to play against the Milan backline and create penetrating runs.  But he himself isn’t enough.  There must be other players who make those runs to open space for him to play through.

Barça needs to have an attacker in front of Messi who can occupy the CBs and prevent a player like Mexes defending Messi as aggressively as he did in leg 1.  But that player also can’t only act as a conventional striker.  A “fox in the box” type striker or a “target man” or a striker who prefers the ball played to feet: none are optimal for situations where you’re primary problem is getting penetration into the final third.  If you can’t even get into that attacking third, if you can’t even get the ball into the box then those striker skill sets won’t be productively used.

Barça needs to score today.  But first and foremost they need to create penetration.  That’s the proximal end point for the attack today.  Create penetration and force Milan’s block to open up, to lose it’s compact shape, to play deeper than Allegri wants them to.  In way what Barça’s immediate goal should be today is to turn Milan into a team that is “parking the bus.”

Adjustments in Formation:  Some Brief Thoughts

Barca will need to balance this attacking thrust by enhancing their transition defense.  Too often playing two attacking FBs has left them in poor position to defend in transition.  This has particularly been the case due to Alba’s positioning – he assumes extremely high positions even when the attack in being run through Alves.  Too often this leaves Barca with only two defenders deep and Busquets in a difficult position as he had to decide whether to pressure or drop deep with no room for error.

For these reasons I think the best way to balance attack and transition defense is to play three at the back in a 3-3–3-1/3-3-4 type arrangement.

Three at the back will give Barca an additional defender deep and will actually enhance solidity compared to their more recent play with Alba/Alves.  I’d use Puyol at LB or alternatively Adriano in the back 3 positioned conservatively.  I’d use Mascherano at R CB to play up against El Shaarawy, who will likely be the Milan player whom through their counter will be directed.  Pique as the central defender.  This back three will allow Alves a free role on the R flank to play as a modified winger while still having support from the R CB behind him to mark El Shaarawy.

Three at the back is also the best way to create width while also having a player act as a striker in front of Messi.

In attack-the need is for vertical movement, attacking runs against the Milan backline and a player who can act as a 9 in the final third to open up space for  Messi.  The player on the squad with the skill set most in line with these needs is Sanchez.  I would deploy him as he was used against Depor over the weekend – as a hybrid RW/9.  Playing with a significant deficit in confidence, Sanchez has had a troubling season in a number of respects.  Today, in the biggest match of the season, the team needs him.

LW is a difficult trade off.  If the L FB plays conservatively this means that the LW will need to provide tactical width. That’s a must.  Vertical runs vs the Milan backline is also a need.  For this Pedro is the best choice on the L.  But at the same time Barca needs goal scoring and that calls to mind Villa.  I would personally start the match with Pedro on the L and look to create penetration so that the Milan block is driven into it’s own third.  Once that happens Villa will he able to operate in the space where he’s most dangerous and I would look to bring him into the match if goals are needed.


    1. Reminds me of how he celebrated Villa’s goal in the 3-1 CL final vs. United. The guy just loves good goals!

    2. And did you guys notice Alba celebrating like Messi did in the pic after the final whistle? Beautiful moments.

    3. And Villa’s goal celebration was like his celebration after one of his manita match goals vs. Madrid!

    4. No – at Wembley, he went right and Xavi bowled him over. At Camp Nou for the manita win, he went left and slid like that.

      It was a special goal all right – you could just see it in his body and face that it exorcised a lot of demons for Villa.

  1. Joining the party late. Had to close my ears and eyes after working all day. Caught a flight home and turned on the dvr.
    This was another moment where I was down on my knees in the living room.
    So proud of these boys!!

    1. I think this was a 3-4-3 with Messi at the tip of a 4 man midfield diamond, Villa in the middle and Pedro and Alves on the wings, transitioning to that elusive 3-5-2 with Pedro/Alves on the wings and Villa and Messi the two centre forwards.

      Of course with Barca being Barca, it was also amoeba amoeba amoeba 😀

    2. Agree, and I like the slightly broken structure. The three at the back know they’ve got to defend (although Alba didn’t always get the message) and the other seven know they’ve got to go forward to shut down the play, instead of having two wing-backs who aren’t sure what they should be doing.

  2. – Unbelievable! We made it! One of the most historical comeback in CL history against 7th times European Champion; AC Milan.

    – The first half was just wow. Beautiful! This is the real Barca that awe the world and add up lots of bandwagoners hehe. The aggresive pressing, rapid ball circulation and the player movemeent was excellent. Early goal from Messi really calm the team and we took absolute control on the game. Milan almost have no considerable threat, except that Niang run. We just showed up when it needed for the most important game of this season, thus far

    – For the quarters, I hope and we must do the rotation again in liga and “sacrifice” the two liga matches before quarter to rest the first team. We have luxury to do that with comfy cushion over RM; which I think they implicitly already giving their liga hope. They must be focussing all the energy on CL as well.

    Visca Barca!

    1. Barca is now in a wonderful position. The “reserve” team is probably the 2/3rd best team in the world. No reason they can’t play in the league, particularly now we have a huge advantage in the league. Time to put Xavi, Iniesta in a cryogenic chamber for a couple of weeks.
      My only two worries from this game were:
      Pedro – didn’t seem to add much; and
      Masc. I love his passing, but he does jump in a lot.

      Would love to see Alba, Adriano operating together on the left wing. Both can go forward, both can defend.

  3. I believed in this team, and my belief was not reduced by a defeat or three. These are the best players in the world even if their coach is physically so far away from them. If this doesn’t make people believe in and have faith in their players, I don’t know what will.

  4. Jordi Alba! What a beast!

    Mascherano has his limitations in the aerial game but his reading of play and crossfield passes are an absolute delight!

    1. I see Roara said they played Masc because of his ability to reach the wings with his passing. It does make a huge difference.

  5. – Our reaction to long ball pass from opposition should be taken into serious consideration for Tito,cs. Esp in the counter, our high line defense really got exposed. Exacerbated that we dont have height and speedy CB to recover or chase them. I realise this is the risk of the system like Barca. We play high line, and leave too much space between the last line and goalie. Am not sure what would be the solution. Am not blaming Masche either for that “isolated incident” of Niang run free; his height and anticipation to jump maybe a bit late or else. But that Milan chance almost cost us the expensive CL quater spot. I hope Tito could fix this soon.

    _ Villa in CF positioned really give Messi more space behind him. We saw the hesitation from Milan CB to move forward to heavy mark Messi because it would leave Villa in free space. Very good changes from Roura or Tito.Ini-Busi-Xavi also gave some lesson to Milan how to control the midfield; very crisp passing, movement and ball recovery (esp Busi)

    – The quarter final would offer many probability of big matches, even another classico. Lots of big teams ie Barca, Bayern, RM, Juve, Dortmund,PSG (big names). Just two “weaker teams” ie Galatasaray and Porto/Malaga (decided tonight). The likelihood we get draw a big team is high. Anyone hope for another classico? I personally dont mind for another classico :)Bayern, Juve and PSG are dominating their respective league. RM is recovering their top form gradually after lousy start. Dortmund not doing really good in Bundesliga, but the potential is still there. It would be an enjoyable quarter for neutrals. Just for pragmatic reason, Galatasaray or Porto/Malaga would be the best draw

    Visca Barca!

    1. mweh, you know RM is gonna get Galatasaray or Porto/Malaga, right?

      Although by writing this it probably makes it so that they draw us.

      Anyway, the review’s up y’all!

  6. We qualified that’s incredible but we need to put things into perspective before we become overjoyed now and be disappointed again later.
    AC Milan was not considered a favorite to win this competition. They had a lifeline because we were lazy in the first leg. Yesterday we were able to win because they defended but when they were behind they came out and caused us some trouble.
    My point is Barca is not the favorite anymore. We have one of the weakest back-line among the remaining teams in CL. RM, Bayern, Juventus and Dortmund won’t have much trouble with our defense but as a fan I hope am wrong.

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