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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.