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.

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  1. nia
    March 12, 2013

    Barca, Barca, BARCAAAAA!!!!!

  2. Blau-Grenade
    March 12, 2013

    Four goals finally! I expected Barca to score 4 goals… and they did!

  3. pr17
    March 12, 2013

    same here. i am crying

  4. simple_barcafan
    March 12, 2013


  5. March 12, 2013



  6. March 12, 2013

    Like I said. I did get the final score wrong though.

    • Messiah10
      March 12, 2013

      U were pretty damn close though! Who would’ve thought? 2 clean sheets in a row!!!

  7. jordi™
    March 12, 2013

    Im actually in tears :’). This group deserved a historic comeback.

  8. March 12, 2013

    God i love this team!

  9. jordi™
    March 12, 2013

    Robinho the legend. Tells the Milan players to get forward. Plays sideways pass to no one 😆

  10. TITO
    March 12, 2013

    That was the worst performance of the season, no doubt. It should have been 8.

  11. pr17
    March 12, 2013

    villa, alba and most importantly masch. great performances.

  12. TITO
    March 12, 2013

    Gallata made it too!!!!
    That’s our next opponent.

    • Blau-Grenade
      March 12, 2013

      Balotelli is a great player. I have a lot of respect for him. Not sure where the hate is coming from.

    • March 12, 2013

      This is what he said after the first leg

      Mario Balotelli: “I didn’t participate today because of the laws of the Champions League but I do not know why Messi didn’t participate.”

    • jordi™
      March 12, 2013

      Fake quote probably. They do that a lot with Ibra and Balotelli on twitter.

  13. Messiah10
    March 12, 2013

    Man we came out to play today! Pressing like nobodies business and Our Midfield was simply sensational! I love this team so much! We were a little shaky in the back, but boy what a joy to watch! God I love this team, this club, this feeling! Visca Barca! Visca Barca!

  14. Tarik
    March 12, 2013

    Pretty sure I’m the only person in Istanbul who stopped watching the Galatasaray match to focus on the Barcelona match. Chaos outside. I am going to pretend they’re cheering for Barca also.

  15. deckardcain
    March 12, 2013

    I’m so happy right now I could run naked through town. What an unbelievable game, what an extraordinary team. Messi steps up when we need him the most, sensational.

    Only thing that had me rattled all game was why they still insisted on pushing Alba so far up the pitch, I almost had three heartattacks when Abbate sprinted past him a couple of times.

    But still: http://www.barcelonafootballblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/messihate.jpg

  16. KEVINO17
    March 12, 2013

    Biggest tactical change today was that Allegri was forced to drop his groundsman.

    • Jafri
      March 12, 2013

      Hahaha. Biggest change on the night 😉

  17. TITO
    March 12, 2013

    Ok, hamburgers on me!

  18. El deu
    March 12, 2013

    Damn, that was good. Remuntada!!

  19. KEVINO17
    March 12, 2013

    AC Milan defence was not technically very good and they had never experienced Barca-style pressing. They didn’t have a clue.

  20. DumbOx
    March 12, 2013

    Kxevin!!!! You’re prediction (4-1) was (almost)correct!!! 4-0, you couldn’t have willed an even better result! Visca Barca!!

    • March 12, 2013

      Also showed that in Europe we should say goodbye to false-9 and unleash this Barca every time.

  21. March 12, 2013

    Messi was a beast in every area of the pitch. Good things happen when Messi defends. What a night!

  22. replayed
    March 12, 2013


  23. faizal
    March 12, 2013

    You are right kxevin..we are unstoppable when we play like the best team in the world

  24. March 12, 2013

    Guys forgot it’s a 4-0. Ok it’s not a final. But with 2-0 they though they had one leg in the quarters. We hurled them back out. This 4-0 also would hurt as much as the 94 final. Finally the Golden Team gets the revenge for Dream team.

    • barca96
      March 12, 2013

      Found this great comment by jaktonat over at the Guardian.

      Milan came witha plan they said – As Mike
      Tyson said ” They all have a plan untill they
      get hit in the face ”

  25. Jim
    March 12, 2013

    At last. We play a sensible formation and Villa repays us. Joy ! Great pressing and the midfield were brilliant. Couldn’t have done this without an amazing level of fitness though. Maybe the coaches judged it right and we’re coming into our physical peak.

    • barca96
      March 12, 2013

      Yeah they haven’t played like this in 2013. But the players used to be able to play like that for the whole match until last season. I wonder if there’s a change the training regimen. Even in this match they slowed down a lot in the 2nd part of the 1st half and likewise in the 2nd half.

  26. HisR0yalFlyness
    March 12, 2013

    We need to see Villa in the starting lineup all the way to the final. This is the Barca we know. I love my team. When we play like we should its such a beautiful sight. VISCA EL BARCA!!!!!

  27. y2k156
    March 12, 2013

    It just clicked. I went in pessimistic but we were simply superb today. Really special victory this! Visca barca.

  28. zashaw
    March 12, 2013

    Euler, thanks for this tactical preview! I really felt I understood this game much better than I normally do, especially in the first half, thanks you your write-up. And I’m also very happy with the result, of course!

  29. Ryan
    March 12, 2013

    We did even better than Kxevin’s 4-1 prediction! Visca!!

  30. March 12, 2013

    I sat quietly, cautiously optimistic, nervous throughout the game. Only Alba’s goal made me explode. The grass’ effect on the game was so clear to see. The ball was moving well, reached our players faster and also got away from the opponent faster. Even when they tried to work a quick transition forward, the ball invariably was over hit and rolled away rather than come to a stop as would have been the case in a field with uncut and dry grass.
    But what a response from my team. Respect. Love.

    • Blau-Grenade
      March 12, 2013

      Great insight on the grass!!!!

    • KEVINO17
      March 12, 2013

      Yes, very interesting point on the grass. It’s a bit like golf, isn’t it. When they cut the greens short it really sorts out the men from the boys. Amazing how many times AC Milan tried a ball over the top and it just zipped away.

  31. Jafri
    March 12, 2013

    Gosh, I did not sit down for the entirety of the match. What a game. What a match by us.

    We. Are. Through.

  32. Barka
    March 12, 2013

    I thought everything was over when Niang got the ball and raced towards Valdes. Luckily he didn’t score and Messi got the second goal a few minutes later.

    THis was a great game from us.

  33. psalmuel
    March 12, 2013

    ever since pep left, we haven’t pressed like we did 2day,good to see new tactical tweats. Notice how villa and pedro’s presence occupied milan’s RB,RCB leaving messi with just The LB and the LCB, oboy! Messi is a genius! what a match! I lost my voice after going nuts over messi’s 2nd goal. And where is that writer on goal.com who wrote an article about messi failing to turn up against italian teams?

    • Ryan
      March 12, 2013

      Folks just look for oddities in the stats to denigrate Messi. It has ranged from Messi not scoring on English teams, to later not scoring in England, or from open play, not showing up for Argentina, to not scoring against Italy teams. Let them scamper away and find an obscure feat that Messi hasn’t accomplished yet – he’ll do it eventually anyway!

  34. KEVINO17
    March 12, 2013

    I love the fact that Alves wasn’t afraid to cross the ball because:
    1. He knew there was a CF there (even if not a big one); and
    2. If Barca lost the ball we would be pressing like crazy to get it back. No problem swinging in crosses if you press like that.

  35. xavi_purrnandez
    March 12, 2013

    MAGIC (said with RayRay’s intonation)! that game was easy on the eyes (if not on the heartrate). Visca el Barça 🙂

  36. icemel
    March 12, 2013

    Screaming, pounding the floor with each goal.
    This is one to savor…whci on can do while waiting to get hectored here:

    A “swarm” is right. They made sweet honey with the ball at their feet; but the sting with which they pressed today is the story.

    Not sure I could have survived 4-1, but sure glad the team obviously read the rest of Kevin’s post…on second thought maybe they DID read the post and figured we’re going to get 4 we can spare one.


  37. KEVINO17
    March 12, 2013

    Fascinating to watch how much easier it was to circumvent the three-man midfield defence on a good pitch. Xavi, Busquets just fired bullets at Messi, Iniesta between the lines and they just trapped the ball in plenty of space. Suddenly, Allegri’s tactics (and his players) looked very pedestrian.

  38. culewifetoamadridista
    March 12, 2013

    I love this team! I love you all! Never doubted this team. Visca Barcaaaaaa!

  39. Blau-Grenade
    March 12, 2013

    barcastuff ‏@barcastuff
    Barcelona are the first team ever to turn around a 2-0 loss from the first leg in the Champions League knockout stage history #fcblive

    • endico
      March 12, 2013

      I don’t think this is correct. Deportivo once overturned a 1-4 deficit against AC Milan by winning the second leg 4-0 in quarter finals the year Mourinho won the CL with Porto.

    • Ryan
      March 12, 2013

      But that isn’t overcoming a 2-0 deficit. (Granted, it’s an even bigger achievement!)

    • endico
      March 12, 2013

      That’s exactly my point. I don’t see why this should be mentioned as an historical feat when something more superb as already been achieved by another team. Anyway as a Cule I’m extremely delighted by the win.

    • Tsivoman
      March 13, 2013

      It’s historic because Barca did not have an away goal, that’t the difference.

    • Jafri
      March 12, 2013

      The complete stat was that no team has turned around a two goal deficit without having at least one goal in the first leg, so the 4-1 doesn’t count in this case.

  40. March 12, 2013

    I don’t want to see Iniesta on the wing ever again in my life.

  41. Sam M
    March 12, 2013

    “Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my window, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies–but not before they have been hanged.” -Sigmund Freud Civilization & Its Discontents

  42. cuqui
    March 12, 2013

    Iniesta MOTM for me. Incredible defensive game and his assist to Leo was razor sharp.

    No other player in the world scores that first Messi goal. Blanketed by 5 players and he jackhammers it in.

    Been a long time since we’ve seen this intensity. Moving towards peaking later this spring. The plan is coming together.

  43. KEVINO17
    March 12, 2013

    Thought Busquets was excellent today. Sometimes he can be too conservative. But he kept pinging the ball forward through tight areas.

  44. sd
    March 12, 2013


    Watch closely as the players celebrate. Mascherano comes running and jumps up, cramps and then comes running/leaping on one leg. Pretty ridiculous. Of course, I lost my shit when they scored too! Also people jumped out from the crowd.

    • mom4
      March 12, 2013

      Hi, Kari!

    • Kari
      March 12, 2013

      Heya, mom4! Bring cookies with sprinklers for everyone! We gon’ to the quarters!

    • mom4
      March 12, 2013

      Great pic.

      Right click. Set as background.

  45. mom4
    March 12, 2013

    Just finished watching (DVRed/ had to work).

    We were pretty again!

    • mom4
      March 12, 2013

      But the Fox Soccer commentators were ATROCIOUS!

  46. providence
    March 12, 2013

    I nearly died wen it was 3-0. and Milan was still pressing. Jesus!!! dat Bojan ball across nearly killed me. …

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