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Seasons are so long, can involve so many different competitions and matches that it is difficult to consider a single playing cycle as an integrated whole. As with any large project it is difficult to “see” the end of the season, or at least to envision the entirety of the pathway that needs to be navigated in order to arrive at success.
Instead teams need to be able to set near term goals that can be ticked off, markers that continue to build towards the more distant goals that will define ultimate success. With each marker checked off a club can feel reassured that it is in fact on the right path. As the writer E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
For any side that has set for itself the goal of winning the Champions League trophy, one of the key markers that arises in the first half of the season is winning the group stage of the tournament. Coming out on top of the one’s respective group not only assures continuation in the competition but also makes the subsequent pathway simpler. It is both a marker of one’s level of play and an intermediate “success” that provides benefits later on as the tournament proceeds.
The match against AC Milan presented Barcelona with the opportunity to achieve this early season milestone. Functionally speaking, with Milan failing to take full points in their last round match against Bate, a draw was all Barça needed for success. A draw would have left Barcelona with a commanding lead with only one match left against Bate at home. However, a win away at the San Siro would seal the top spot in the group for the Blaugrana. In addition it would give Barça additional flexibility as it would turn the second leg against Bate into an exhibition match. Given Barcelona’s difficult schedule this winter, being able to rest in the final group stage match would not be a small matter.
Given what was at stake, Barcelona’s 3-2 victory was an unqualified success. It achieved a much needed early season goal. Barcelona have now won Group H. Additionally, the team earned the opportunity rest rather than needing to expend more energy against Bate in December. This will allow them to better prepare for La Liga and the Club World Cup.
These intermediate accomplishments enhance the team’s probability of achieving their ultimate goal of winning the Champions League. The outcome optimizes the position the team finds itself at this stage of the season. That Barça was able to accomplish against one of the premier clubs in Europe and do so away at one of the most difficult grounds to play on as a visitor only heightens the scope of the accomplishment. That they did so without Iniesta and Pique only further speaks to the capabilities of the squad and the level of achievement its established as an expectation.
However, football is a game of outcome and process. Of the result and performance. Often we think of the manner the game is played as a matter of aesthetics or romance, of how beauty or entertainment a contest produces. Those are secondary issues however in the thick of the season. Instead, how a performance is engineered carries weight because a team’s process is what’s repeatable and can generalize over a long season. Results are always prone to circumstance and random chance. But over the long run the quality of performance is what generalizes.
While the result was an unqualified success, the quality of Barcelona’s performance was more mixed. There were certain positives such as the team’s ability to create numerous scoring opportunities against a side known for its defensive prowess. But the match raised important questions as well, particularly with Barcelona’s own defense.
What makes these questions noteworthy is that many center around the major tactical innovation that Guardiola has focused on introducing this season: the 3-4-3 formation. Given this, the match provides additional evidence for whether and how Barcelona may be able to depend on this tactical innovation in order to achieve its ultimate goals of winning La Liga and the Champions League. For these reasons, the Barcelona formation and defense will be the focus of this match review (the team attacked well and scored three goals – but the defense and formation were the most noteworthy parts the match).
How Barcelona played against Milan was heavily influenced by suspension and injury. Dani Alves was unavailable due to accumulated yellow cards. Adriano was unavailable due to injury. This meant that the two Barcelona players who have been entrusted to regularly play at RB would not be playing. In turn, every option Guardiola was left to chose from wasn’t optimal.
Guardiola had three main options given the absence of Alves and Adriano. First, he could have changed formations and utilized a 3-4-3. This would negate the need to play a formal RB. Second, he could deputize a CB to play at RB. Finally he could have called up a B team player to play RB and maintained the base 4-3-3 system. Each of these options had its advantages and disadvantages. It’s worth reviewing these pluses and minuses briefly to gain insight into how Guardiola may have been thinking about the match.
Playing a 3-4-3 would remove the need for a formal RB. It could in theory allow Barcelona to further dominate midfield and enhance its attacking thrust. However, Barça has looked shaky defensively at times while playing the 3-4-3 due to limitations in how the formation spaces the pitch. Given that the team only needed a tie and were playing away these were significant risks.
Playing a CB (Puyol or Mascherano) at RB would have provided solidity at the back. However, it likely would have diminished Barça’s ability to maintain possession and the potency in attack. In the first leg, Milan defended very narrow and Barcelona’s lack of width hurt them. Playing a CB at RB would diminish Barcelona’s ball play on the flank.
Playing a youth team player would allow Barcelona to play their base 4-3-3 system. However, given lack of experience, the opponent and playing at the San Siro, it would have been very difficult to ask a B team player to assume that role.
Guardiola only heightened the uncertainty in how the team would play with the announcement of his line up choosing to start: Valdes – Puyol- Mascherano- Abidal- Busquets- Keita- Xavi- Thiago – Cesc- Messi- Villa.
How this series of players would line up was unclear as they didn’t easily fit into either a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 formation. What was most striking about this choice of starters was the the number of players who are primarily accustomed to playing in the center of the pitch – whether in midfield or at center back. It’s possible to argue that Barcelona fielded a team that had only one natural flank player – Abidal, and even he has spent increasing minutes playing at CB.
Massimo Allegri fielded: Abbiati – Abate- Nesta- Silva- Zambrotta – Aquilani- VanBommel- Seedorf – Boateng- Ibrahimovic- Robinho. Of note was the absence of Pato, a player who troubled Barça in the first leg with his pace. Pato only recently came back from a knock, playing his first twenty minutes in several weeks this past weekend in Serie A. Left back has been an issue for Milan this season and Allegri chose the experience of Zambrotta at that position. He elected to field Aquilani and Van Bommel over Nocerino and Ambrosini in midfield. Boateng played up front on the wing.
Once the match began, it became quickly clear how Barelona would be playing. Ultimately, Guardiola arranged his line up in a 3-4-3 and this set the parameters for the match dynamics on the Barcelona side. While Barça has utilized a 3-4-3 type formation several times this season, they implemented the system differently against Milan. Each of these alterations would have a significant impact on how the match played out.
Puyol started at the right center back position with Mascherano playing centrally as the sweeper. Guardiola likely picked Puyol to play on the right due to his experience playing on the flank and the difficulties Mascherano had as the right center back in the 3-4-3 against Valencia.
Rather than playing as a sweeper as he has in the past in the 3-4-3, Busquets played in midfield as the holding player. This complicated Barcelona’s spacing in the middle of the pitch due to Barcelona playing three other formal midfielders with two players functioning as “false 9’s” (more on Busquets’s role later).
Cesc Fabregas started as the nominal central forward rather than at the tip of the midfield “diamond.” In and of itself the distinction between playing in a free role as the most advanced midfielder compared to a false 9 may be small. However, the biggest impact playing Fabregas at the false 9 has on Barcelona is that is requires Messi to start off on the right flank.
At this point in his career development, Messi has in many ways outgrown playing on the flank. It diminishes many of the ways in which he can influence a match through his creative play. As such, he is less apt to stay wide then he even was during the 08/09 season. And as expected, Messi pulled off the right flank early in the match. This had a major impact on Barcelona’s spacing and balance because Alves was not playing behind Messi to man the right flank.
The match was markedly different from the first leg at Camp Nou. It was extremely open with both sides looking to attack and generate opportunities.
What was perhaps most striking about the way the match opened was how high the Milan backline was playing. Milan looked to defend aggressively up the pitch and played their defensive four accordingly. While this helped them win the ball it also left them very vulnerable defensively. Outside of Thiago Silva, the Milan backline lacks pace.
Playing high exposes this limitation. This weakness was further accentuated due to inconsistent by several of Milan’s more advanced players. Without coordinated pressure across the outfield players up high, the Milan backline was repeatedly left playing high and forced to react to Barcelona breaking through the upper regions of the pitch and attacking decisively.
While Milan had their problems defensively, Barça had their own. We’ll examine Barça’s defensive issues in detail later on, but on the whole, Barcelona did not space the pitch effectively. Too many of their players clustered towards the middle, leaving significant regions of the pitch vacant. This was particularly true of the right flank which often had no Barcelona players stationed on it until Puyol. These open regions gave Milan large areas to play the ball quickly into for the advanced attackers to run onto.
Barcelona played with so much fluency upfront with position switching between the advanced attackers that it made them very difficult to defend. But that fluency almost came at the cost of defensive solidity.
There was so much movement and interplay that when Barcelona lost the ball they weren’t necessarily spaced to defend and press. In addition, while Thiago spent the most time on the right Xavi and Cesc also switched there. As such, it was unclear at times which player was to mark Milan attackers on the right and do so at which times. Alternatively, on the left flank Villa always stayed wide to defend and Keita was naturally shaded over to that side.
Often these spaces left the Barcelona backline with too much space to cover. It became difficult for the defenders to both control space and mark an attacker. Even more importantly, these open regions diminished Barcelona’s main defensive strategy – pressing. Often, there weren’t enough players in an area to “hunt in packs” and pressure the ball once it was lost. In turn, this particularly caused Barça’s transition defense to suffer.
It was interesting that in a match where Barcelona played so many skilled players in midfield that they only had 60% possession. Away at the San Siro one wouldn’t expect them to have 70% possession but given all of the midfield talent 60% was surprising. A key feature for why Barça didn’t have closer to 65% possession was that their pressing wasn’t nearly as effective as it usually is. They didn’t repossess the ball as fast as they usually do.
There were two reasons why Barcelona lost defensive balance and in turn opened up the match for Milan’s attacks. First, the players collapsed into the middle too much. We’ve discussed Barcelona’s lack of width extensively here. Often we focus on the impact of lost width on the attack. But losing width can also have very negative impacts on how a team can defend and we saw that against Milan. Second, the 3-4-3 is a formation that lends itself to becoming narrow at baseline and potentially leaving areas of the flanks open.
At this point it’s worth considering a few points related to tactics and formations. Tactical formations are neutral. There are no “bad” formations or “optimal” ones. All formation involve trade offs that match up differently depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. What matters first is how a formation is interpreted and implemented by the players a managers has available to use. For example, in this last series of Champions League matches it was interesting to see how different Barcelona’s 3-4-3 was compared to Napoli’s 3-4-3, which was structured around defending deep and counter attacking – the exact opposite for how Barcelona plays.
Barcelona’s implementation of the 3-4-3 this season has been highly influenced by the number of players accustomed to playing in the middle of the pitch that are fielded in the formation. Guardiola has used the formation as a way to utilize the greatest source of depth and talent on the team – central midfielders. The match against Milan was a good example of how he has tried to utilize the formation to make up for weaknesses on the team by redeploying talent. If Alves or Adriano were available, Guardiola would have been less likely to use the 3-4-3. He attempted to make up for the limitations of depth by altering formations and experimenting.
That said, implementing this formation with the central midfield focused players Barça is proving to have both strong advantages and strong disadvantages. It’s producing extremes in how the team is able to function. We’ve now seen this in the matches against Valencia, Sevilla and now against Milan. Under what circumstances the trade offs of playing the 3-4-3 produces net benefits for the team is one of the major strategic questions Guardiola will need to assess this season.
Barcelona opened the match brightly with Messi on the right, Fabregas in the middle and Thiago playing at the tip of the midfield diamond. Below is the opening positional diagram for both teams during the first fifteen minutes:
Thiago was particularly effective early on playing in the most advanced midfield position making effective forward runs.
One of the chief strengths of Barça’s 3-4-3 however is the fluency it allows between the front six players. And soon after Barça’s positioning changed radically:
The two diagrams above show the average positioning from minutes 15-30 and 30-45 in the first half. After the opening of the match, Messi moved to a central position, functionally switching with Thiago who moved towards the right. Fabregas moved from the central striker position left while Keita moved deeper to a central position. Xavi pinched in from the right more towards the center.
Now average positional diagrams for Barcelona can be misleading because there is so much position switching and fluency. For example, Fabregas frequently moved to the right when Thiago made forward runs.
However, what is important to notice is that over the course of the first half the Barcelona formation on average became much more narrow. And it particularly became more narrow off the right flank. Once Messi moves off the right the only Barcelona player on that flank in front of Puyol was Thiago – and Thiago himself was pinched in towards the middle and not playing very wide. Compare Thiago’s average position on the right to how wide Villa was on the left.
This narrowing enhanced one of the inherent weaknesses in the 3-4-3. In that formation there is often empty space on the flanks between nominal winger and the lateral center back. There is no natural player in the 3-4-3 to track forward runs by the opposition full back for example. On Barça’s right flank this problem was further heightened by the fact that Messi pulled off the flank and Thiago playing towards the middle. This meant that Puyol was functionally manning the right flank by himself. It was this open space on the right flank that Milan quickly came to focus their attack around as they attempted to exploit this weakness over and over (more on this later).
What’s also important to notice from the diagrams above is how clustered Keita and Busquets became and how deep Xavi played. Because of the number of players in advanced central positions (Messi, Fabregas, Thiago) Xavi was forced to play deeper – more towards the space that Busquets occupies. Something similar happened with Keita. Because these players were playing each other’s space functions became somewhat redundant. In a way Busquets’s role in offense was absorbed by Xavi and his role in defense was absorbed by Keita. This was an example of the sub-optimal spacing the of the pitch. It wasn’t really Busquets fault – it’s just that Xavi and Keita wound up playing in his space reducing his influence.
Finally, if you look at the Milan positional diagrams for their front line all three players appear clustered together. This is misleading – in fact what the Milan frontline was constantly trying to do was to move and switch positions. And the reason they were in part trying to do this was that the Barcelona back three had a large amount of space to cover and no extra defender. They were particularly trying to isolate attackers 1 vs. 1 against Puyol in wide positions. This was especially dangerous because the Barcelona backline was 3 vs. 3 against the Milan front line.
Mascherano really couldn’t provide extensive cover for Puyol or Abidal because he had his own attacker to mark. This is one of the weaknesses of the 3-4-3 against a 4-3-3. There is no spare defender. And if an attacking player makes a forward run it’s possible for the defense to be quickly over run 3 vs. 4. This is what happened in Milan’s first goal.
The Right Flank and Transition Defense
The dynamics of the match in the first half changed after the first twenty minutes. The key tactical change was made by Milan. After seeing how Barcelona’s set up evolved and narrowed in shape, Milan intelligently identified and focused on attacking the space that opened on the right in front of Puyol.
Their chief attacking tactic was to play balls quickly in that open space for players to run onto. Seedorf was critical to this evolution as he started to move wider right and into more advanced positions. Essentially Seedorf looked to station himself wide and behind Thiago and well in front of Puyol. Similarly, Boateng and Ibrahimovic both looked to move right and drop back to receive the ball in space. The sequences below demonstrate this strategy and Barcelona’s weakness in this area.
The shot below shows how much open space Milan had on the Barcelona right flank:
At this age, Zambrotta isn’t a particularly adventurous full back. But notice how he’s intelligently moved forward up field directly into open space, wide and in front of the Barcelona midfield.
A few second later Aquilani receives the ball and quickly switches play from the left side to the right.
This was one of the chief ways Milan looked to damage Barcelona – switch flanks quickly to play the ball into open space on the right for an attacker to run onto while the Barça defense was pinched in too far centrally. Notice in the image above how Thiago is positioned to try to keep watch of Zambrotta.
The effects of this simple switch of play produced dramatic effects:
Seedorf has intelligently moved into completely open space on the right flank. Thiago is essentially left alone on t he right flank forced to mark both Zambrotta and Seedorf. Thiago attempts to play it half way and winds up in an in between defensive position marking neither attacker fully. Thiago probably should have tracked Seedorf but this is not an easy position to be placed in as a defender as he’s been isolated 2 vs. 1. This is a good example of an individual player being caught by a systems level deficiency.
Why is Seedorf so open and Thiago forced to mark two players? The reverse angle shows the key:
Milan has very effectively exploited the weaknesses of a three man backline. Notice above how all three Barça defenders are marking attackers 1 vs. 1 – as they should be. What Milan has done however is to shift their entire frontline left. In turn the Barça backline had to shift left. As there are only three defenders there is no extra CB to provide cover. By shifting left, Milan further increases the open space on Barça’s right flank. Because this space is lateral the DM can’t readily cover it.
Seedorf then runs into this space. What he’s effectively done is to overload the Barça defense. Milan have a 4 vs. 3 advantage along the front.
What starts out as Aquilani possessing the ball in a seemingly safe position quickly translates into Milan’s first goal due to this open space on Barça’s right flank:
In the images above, Puyol is forced to leave his attacker – Ibrahimovic – in order to pressure the man with the ball, Seedorf. Puyol is isolated 2 vs. 1. In addition, Mascherano the CB cannot provide cover because he himself has to continue marking his attacker who is also in a dangerous position. Ibrahimovic splits the gap with his run and a very simple pass outside of Puyol puts the Milan striker in position to score.
In the above sequence it is easy to blame Thiago. And it’s true – he probably should have run back faster. But even if he did the situation was a very difficult one to read and respond to. This was a very good example of a goal that primarily scored for tactical reasons as one system efficiently exploited a weakness in spacing by its opposition. This was a systems failure much more than the fault of any individual Barcelona defender.
Milan utilized these kinds of tactics over and over in the first half destabilizing the Barça defense on several occasions. A real problem Barça had was transition defending as shown by the following sequence.
Below Van Bommel has the ball in midfield towards the right.
What’s noteworthy in the image above is how ill equipped Barça is to press the ball. Essentially Thiago is 1 vs. 1 with Van Bommel. And not only does Thiago have to close down the ball he also has to be careful to defend the large amount of space behind him on the flank. There is no right wing to track back and help him press in a pack of defenders.
And fundamentally, above, Barça has become too narrow. Robinho takes advantage of this by dropping back into this open space:
Through a simple pass and movement to a wide position Milan has broken containment producing another dangerous situation:
Above Puyol is again put in a poor position due to the lack of defensive cover wide in front of him. Puyol has to decide whether to stop the ball or continue to mark his runner. Milan have generated a 3 vs. 2 and both Mascherano and Puyol know they have no extra cover defender behind them. A simple pass and run have overloaded the Barcelona back line.
Second Half Adjustments
During the second half, Guardiola made a series of adjustments that solidified the Barcelona defense. First, at half time he changed Busquets positioning, moving the holding player deeper on the pitch. Essentially what Pep did was to move Busquets back so that he would not longer be stationed as much in the space Keita and Xavi were playing in. This reduced the redundancy in Busquet’s role. He functionally played as a stopper for much of the second half. Busquets’s changing role is shown by the positional diagrams below:
Notice the increased gap in space that’s developed between Busquets and Xavi. They are spaced more efficiently, particularly given where Keita was playing. In possession Busquets would move forward in front of the back three. But when Barça lost the ball he dropped deeper acting as a sweeper. This allowed Mascherano to function more in a free cover role.
As the half proceeded Busquets continued to move deeper eventually ending the game stationed as a traditional center half. An important effect of Busquets’s positioning was that it allowed Puyol and Abidal to have to defend less space behind and wide of them. While Milan did score in the second half that goal was primarily due to the sheer individual effort of Boateng. Overall the backline stabilized with Busquets deeper.
Guardiola then implemented changes that moved Barcelona further away from from a 3-4-3 back towards their base 4-3-3 to protect the lead. The team’s shape changed significantly with the substitution of Sanchez for Villa. Initially Sanchez played along the left flank in Villa’s prior position but then he quickly changed sides moving to the right wing.
Sanchez’s introduction markedly changed how Barcelona was able to space the right flank. Sanchez provided Barcelona width both in attack and in defense on the right flank. His pace and tracking back wide provided cover for Puyol. With the substitution of Pedro for Fabregas, Guardiola had moved migrated his squad back to a 4-3-3, as Busquets formally moved back to play as a CB. Compare Barcelona’s positioning as a team to end the match to how their narrow shape in the first half.
Guardiola: Continued to push the team to play in new ways. However, playing a 3-4-3 with players he utilized created significant defensive deficiencies and issues spacing the pitch. While I didn’t focus on it in my review, Barça would have benefited from additional width in attack as well.
Team: Won an important match that ensures their position at the top of the group and did so against a top side away from home. Terrific result. However, this is still a team in the process of defining what it will be and how it will play. Having the team healthy again will be a big step forward. Interesting that despite playing a 3-4-3 they “only” completed 450 passes. Generated multiple scoring opportunities and were it not for strong goal keeping could have scored 2-3 more goals.
Valdes: Not his best game. Got beat near post on that second goal which should not happen. VV appeared to guess on the shot as Boateng took it. Perhaps could have done better on the first goal as Ibrahimovic didn’t connect on the ball solidly.
Mascherano: Very good match under very difficult circumstances. Often matched against a striker 0.25m taller than he, Mascherano more than held his own again showing that the notion of his height being a problem for him at CB as overstated. Didn’t clear the ball well on Milan’s second goal but otherwise was very good.
Abidal: Solid game. His side was less focused on by the Milan attack but overall did fine. Could have closed down Boateng more strongly on the second goal and allowed a cross to pass by the goal mouth in the first half rather than clearing. On the whole played well.
Puyol: Given the circumstances, Puyol had a very good game. Hasn’t played many minutes. Limited defensive support in front of him and repeatedly forced into last minute interventions when he was isolated by the Milan attack wide on the right flank. Usual warrior performance.
Busquets: Played a confusing match in the first half where he wasn’t able to contribute much due to crowding in the midfield region where he plays. Helped the backline in the second half but he’s still not a natural CB. This showed on the second Milan goal. Interesting that Guardiola did not substitute Pique as he moved the squad towards a 4-3-3 in the second half
Xavi: Controlled the midfield well when Barça had possession. Led the team with 73 passes completed and a 90% completion rate. Moving to the right of the midfield circle in the 4 man “diamond” midfield takes him out of the position where he’s at his most dangerous. Wonderfully calm finish for the third goal. Man of the match.
Keita: Excellent match. Beautifully timed inside our run and cross to set up the first goal. Multiple important interventions defensively. Given the lack of effective pressing in more advanced positions his defensive cover and mobility were critical in breaking up Milan’s attempts to break at speed into open space.
Thiago: Continues to show both how talented he is and how he is able to translate that talent onto the pitch. Yes his positioning and defensive cover could have been better – but to focus on that fails to take into account how young he is. He was put in a very difficult defensive position for uch of the match. Neither Xavi nor Iniesta played this well at a comparable age. Gave the Milan backline multiple problems with his runs with the ball and passing.
Fabregas: Played well but had a relatively quiet match. Came close to scoring a goal were it not for a wonderful Abiate save. False 9 is not his best position in the Barcelona system.
Villa: Another confusing match. Villa did an excellent job maintaining tactical discipline staying wide left. Excellent work rate. His defense on the flank was part of why the left side of the pitch was more secure than the right. Unfortunately, he’s struggling to incorporate himself into the attack from that wide position. Has lost a step in terms of pace from his peak. And he is now pressing to score goals. Put two quality shots on goal but badly mishit a few balls on clear goal scoring chances. Should have squared a cross to an open Fabregas for an easy tap in, but instead went for goal only to be thwarted by a quality save.
Messi: Grew into the game and his influence expanded as the match wore on. His runs crated progressive difficulty for the Milan defense. And this despite being closely marked not only by Thiago Silva, arguably the best defender in the world, but by multiple defenders. His assist to Xavi for the goal was sublime – a run and pass only one player in the world can likely execute.
Sanchez: Had a strong, positive impact on the match once he entered. Defended very well and helped stabilize the right flank. Was repeatedly fouled when attacking with the ball by a Milan defense that was clearly remembering the havoc Sanchez wrought on them last season in Serie A.
Pedro: Good to see him back. Tremendous work rate and commitment to defending. Limited opportunities in attack.
Dos Santos: Incomplete. Good to see him signing a new contract with the team.
Barcelona advance and can mark off an important in-season goal. The process of their play however shows that this is still a squad in evolution.
Since taking over, Guardiola has focused on making sure the squad is as defensively sound as it is potent in attack. This has been perhaps the central hall mark separating Barcelona from other attack minded teams of the recent past that have struggled to translate their skill with the ball into effective football. At the same time, Guardiola has continuously sought to push his team to expand how they can play, introducing the new 3-4-3 formation this season.
At the current moment those two goals – defensive solidity and tactical innovation – are somewhat in conflict as the new system of play is creating certain weaknesses in how Barça defends as a team. How Guardiola resolves this conflict will likely have a major impact on how Barcelona is able to accomplish its ultimate goals.