El Centrocampista

Catalan giants stunned in Milan -AC Milan vs Barcelona:Tactical Analysis

The game was a foregone conclusion. It was simply a matter of turning up and taking the victory. Even some Milan fans held out little hope of achieving a result. It was Barcelona who were presenting all the questions to be answered. With Balotelli cup tied, how could the Milan frontline score? How would Milan stop Messi? How would the central defensive pairing of Zapater and Mexes cope? These were only a few of the issues for Milan to contend with. The outcome would be inevitable.

Milan’s recent form was conveniently overlooked. The early season struggles have been overcome with 12 wins in their last 17 games in all competitions. Milan have clambered back into contention for a top three finish in Serie A again. Still, they would roll over.

Yet nobody bothered to inform Max Allegri and his players what their perceived role was to be. They had questions of their own which they sought answers to from Barcelona. The questions from the Rossoneri would be more revealing.

Milan Defence – Park the Bus?

As inevitable and misguided as the notion of Barcelona requiring a Plan B, it did not take long for the assertion, incorrectly, that this was a result due to Milan “parking the bus”.

It’s a notion that is as wrong as it is misguided.

True, Milan only had 27% possession as they made just 210 successful passes from 285 attempted passes but this was not a performance that relies upon a deep defensive line and an element of luck against a team that is peppering your goal with attempts.

Firstly, Milan was content to alter their defensive line in different periods of the game. They initially set up with a fairly high defensive line and they tried to squeeze Barcelona. Valdes forced into kicking out from goal kicks twice in the opening minutes. In the 3rd minute, Prince-Boateng could be seen waving his team forward to squeeze their opponents at a throw in deep inside Barcelona territory. In the second half they again sought to push higher.

Yet they were equally content to drop deeper and hold a defensive line on the edge of their penalty area during periods of prolonged Barcelona possession.

Milan were highly disciplined, winning 17 tackles from 22 attempted and conceding just 10 fouls throughout compared to the 16 fouls given away by Barcelona.

With defence and midfield lines moving tightly together when needed, Milan were able to continually intercept Barcelona passes as shown below:-


Milan Interceptions

Milan Interceptions

Finally, there was nothing lucky about Milan and their approach. Last season, Barcelona had 47 attempts in two games against Chelsea yet lost. They would lament their bad luck with their finishing and Chelsea’s luck in not conceding. They could have no such gripes this morning.

This was the product of a fine tactical plan from Allegri allied to a collective performance from the entire Milan team. A tactical plan that adapted to the circumstances as the game progressed displaying intelligence and understanding. It’s difficult to pinpoint individuals but the diligence of El-Shaarawy and Prince-Boateng in performing defensive duties and effectively sacrificing their attacking qualities for the team must be mentioned.

And so must the midfield warhorse, Massimo Ambrosini.

Massimo Ambrosini – Still Going.

As the veteran midfielder enters the twilight of his career, he delivered the type of performance that captures why Milan were so intent on securing his services for a further season whilst so many other Milan players departed in the summer of 2012.

Ambrosini was instrumental in stopping Barcelona from progressing through the midfield area. From the 28 interceptions made by Milan, Ambrosini was responsible for nine of them:-

Ambrosini Interceptions vs Barcelona

Ambrosini Interceptions         http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

He was also able to help Milan retain possession and construct their attacks when they had the opportunity completing 25 of his 27 attempted passes.

In a career with twelve major honours at club level, this could well be one of Ambrosini’s most satisfying performances on both a personal level and also, for his club.

The Achilles Heel – Left, left, left

Over the past two months, Barcelona have produced some dazzling moments of interplay on their left hand side. Jordi Alba marauds forward from left back and links with the interchanging pairing of Cesc and Iniesta. Opponents must ponder who is the left sided attacker and who is the midfielder as they swap places at will as the left side of Barcelona begins to possess the same level of attacking intent and penetration that has existed over the past few seasons with Dani Alves, Messi and Pedro on the right.

Now, the weakness of the left has been highlighted in successive games.  It has existed for some time but events have brought it sharply into focus. Granada attacked down the left and their goal arrived following a deep cross from this flank.

And last night, Milan repeatedly attacked the left with Prince-Boateng performing the dual role of defence and attack admirably. The graphic below shows the total crosses Milan made. From 11 in total, nine came in from the Barcelona left.

Milan Crosses

Milan Crosses                   http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

The question is why has the left become a weak point for Barcelona?

The loss of Abidal has been significant. His versatility as a left back able to slot into a back three when required but also able to attack. The acquisition of Jordi Alba brings many positives but with both Alves and Alba so attack minded, Barcelona need to consider the defensive imbalance this brings. Previously, if Alves attacked, Abidal would hold his position and be more conservative. This is not happening with Alba.

Does Alba recover quickly enough or is he too lax, not recovering with the same intensity as others?

Alba often had space to attack with Prince-Boateng tucking in to provide support to his midfield colleagues yet he failed to take advantage. Barcelona’s passing was too slow, their game lacked intensity. A higher tempo was needed. They appeared content to retain possession despite lacking the cutting edge.

Sterile Domination

Max Allegri spoke prior to the game of the likelihood of Barcelona having 65% possession as per normal with Milan’s occupation being to limit the effectiveness of that possession. To make it sterile. It was a plan which came to fruition perfectly. Barcelona dominated possession, more than Allegri suggested,with 73% possession as they made 714 passes from an attempted 791 passes.

Despite monopolising the ball, Barcelona managed only seven attempts at goal of which just two were from inside the Milan  penalty area. Their sole attempt on target was a 25 yard effort from Xavi. This is shown in the graphic below:-

Barcelona Shots

Barcelona Shots              http://www.footballclub.cnn.com

Barcelona were too static in attack. There was not sufficient movement from the midfield area forward. There needed to be greater vertically from the likes of Cesc and Pedro. Instead, when Milan fell deeper and Barcelona moved higher, there was no burst from the Blaugrana. No moment of explosiveness. The players were static, unable to break forward as there was no space.

Now there are just questions.

Should Barcelona play deeper and tempt the opponent out?

When Barcelona do more forward, why will they not shoot from distance more frequently?

Does the inclusion of so many midfielders at the expense of strikers remove the tendency to be selfish and go for goal?

Previous Barcelona teams have contained a more varied goalscoring threat with the likes of Eto’o, Henry, Villa and Pedro.  More midfielders brings greater control but should there still be room for Villa or even the out of form Sanchez on the left in the majority of games?

And if Barcelona do seek control with midfielders, then why not simply play the game out last night as a 0-0. Why place pressure upon themselves to attack when opponents are waiting for the moment when Barcelona over commit and are vulnerable on transitions. Why not accept the 0-0 or even the 1-0 loss.

There was no need to commit men forward and needlessly concede possession at a throw in and allow themselves to be placed under immediate pressure.

And finally, there is the thorny issue of whether the side are now reliant upon Messi, to the detriment of both the individual and the team. Has the balance tilted to far in one direction? Is corrective action needed?

This is an issue which may need to be confronted however ridiculous and unpalatable as it may seem.


Milan posed a series of questions tonight which Barcelona were unable to answer. Milan will need to present further questions in three weeks time if they are to navigate this tie successfully. The tie is balanced in Milan’s favour but they must prepare for a thorough examination at the Camp Nou. They have one foot in the next round when most observers would had them written off before a ball was kicked. Allegri and his players need one more great performance to proceed.

For Barcelona, can they score two or even three goals in the return leg at the Camp Nou?

Of course, absolutely.

Can Barcelona keep a clean sheet in the process?


  1. Erik

    22 February, 2013 at 22:05

    Spot on. Barcelona did perhaps over commit, and did get caought out somtimes. But with the second goal milan were outnumbered 4 to 3, and it was simply bad defending.

  2. Peter

    23 February, 2013 at 17:22

    Good analysis. I would also add that Barcelona’s pressing is basically non existent now. They still have players pressing, but not at the same intensity as we have seen before. This lack of pressing also exacerbates the problem of Alba and Alves being so attack minded. An effective press can buy time for Alba and Alves to get back into position. A relaxed press, as we see now, allows for opponents to have time to pick out a pass. Ironically, this shows that even the best team in the world needs a coach. It’s no surprise that Barcelona’s level dropped with Tito’s leave of absence. Anims Tito.

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