Milan’s Tactical Genius Against Barcelona
AC Milan’s defensive effort was fully charged and switched on for a full 90 minutes and kept Lionel Messi and the Blaugrana from scoring a single goal, managing seven shots and only one on goal. While Milan was acknowledged for their defensive prowess, they were also popularly accused of “parking the bus” against Barcelona.
Parking the bus, or congesting your team’s defensive half or even 18-yard box, was made popular in Chelsea’s upset of Barcelona in the Champions League semi final. In this game, Chelsea’s entire team (except Didier Drogba) bunkered in its own 18-yard box and challenged Barca to pass around them or shoot right through them. This tactic is colloquially chastised and deemed cheap or anti-football.
Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of play and collective change of pace mesmerizes people all around the world, dubbing them “the world’s team.” This Wednesday, people around the world reached blindly for another excuse for how Barcelona was ousted at the San Siro. It’s impossible to deny, Barcelona is the epitome of tactical excellence in football, but that night Milan was indisputably the better team. Technically, tactically, any way you shake it.
What Chelsea did to beat Barcelona last year was tell them “have your possession, but you’re not allowed to score on us.” That was quite the contrary this year, when Massimiliano Allegri used remarkable inventiveness and ingenuity to keep Barcelona from breaking down what is really a sub-par defense even in the Italian Serie A. These two games are completely different, but strangely the possession percentage in both last year’s semifinal against Chelsea and this year’s round of 16 game against Milan is the same. Barcelona maintained 72 percent of possession and its opponents were entitled to 28 percent of it. One of the major differences between the two games are that Milan kept Barcelona from scoring, whereas Chelsea let Barca score twice and did their bunkering very late in the game.
Milan did its bunkering in the first 57 minutes of the match. When playing Barcelona, most teams are forced to accept that they are going to lose the midfield battle. The problem for the Blaugrana in this instance is that the goal is not in the midfield, its in the attacking third. While Milan were expected to be man-marking Lionel Messi in this one, the emphasis was actually stuck on Xavi, who Sulley Muntari followed like a shadow. When a Barca player would get the ball ready to distribute, the rest of the midfield would get in front of the player to receive the ball in the attacking third. This did not let Barcelona change the pace of the game as quickly and kept them from getting shots on goal. After scoring their first goal, the play opened up for AC Milan, and they were able to break much easier and get into the attacking third, despite still playing sloppy in the middle of the field. Milan seemed to be adamant that they would not sink too deep and end up parking the bus the whole game. When Xavi and Iniesta cannot distribute to attacking players, Barcelona cannot score. Had they been able to distribute to Messi, Milan’s central defense does not have to mobility to stop him from scoring.
Contrary to the “Chelsea doctrine”(I made that up myself), Milan’s 4-3-3 allowed them to move forward with purpose at the end of the game. Just watch how well-worked Sulley Muntari’s 81st-minute goal was. Fernando Torres’ tying goal in 2012 was a ridiculous ball over the top to the only Chelsea player outside their own 18-yard box.
All in all, AC Milan beat Barcelona this week. They were hands down the better team this time, forcing the issue in the attacking third, giving up nothing in the defensive third, and letting Barcelona win the midfield but not the rest of the game. Massimiliano Allegri used a team with limited talent and inappropriate personnel to outright defeat Barcelona at the San Siro, and I just told you why. If Barcelona is the best team in football, a 2-0 beating of them must be commended and not dismissed by fans.
As for a prediction of the second leg, I’m saying AC Milan bunker big time in Camp Nou, find an away goal on the counter attack and Barcelona will be unable to find enough to win. 2-1 Barcelona in the second leg, 3-2 AC Milan advance on aggregate.