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Thursday, December 15

Fluid Tactics from Barcelona

A look at the tactics from the headlining match from Group H of the Champions League: AC Milan 2 - 3 Barcelona

Defending European champions F.C. Barcelona ensured a finish atop Group H of the Champions League Wednesday night, defeating AC Milan at the San Siro in an open game played positively by both sides.

Given Milan's preference to play narrow with two strikers, Pep Guardiola chose a 3-4-3-ish formation with a diamond midfield for the group-deciding game, complete with six central midfielders up and down the pitch.  His normal "false-9", Lionel Messi, started on the right and often took very deep positions down that flank, necessitated by Carles Puyol being the only width option in Barca's own half and also having to mark Gianluca Zambrotta.  Guardiola was also without the tireless Dani Alves.

Massimiliano Allegri went with his favored 4-3-1-2 shape.  Both fullbacks often pushed forward -- at one point even being offsides -- and Kevin-Prince Boateng played sideline to sideline, seeking to stretch one of Puyol or Abidal out wide for space for Milan players to run onto.

As in the last encounter between the two teams, Milan had the better of Barca at the outset.  With Sergio Busquets not being asked to mark Boateng, Barca did not have a spare man at the back for Milan's nominally narrow trident.  Long diagonal balls out towards the corners were giving Barca real problems, stretching their back three and having a centreback-by-trade Puyol essentially operating as a fullback.  Robinho, Boateng and Zlatan Ibrahimovic rotated well, trying to overload whichever flank Milan had the ball on.  However, after eight minutes, with a deeper dropping Busquets and, almost stubbornly, Xavi realizing the need to get back more, Barca had steadied its ship, their first goal not far away.

Cesc Fàbregas and Thiago Alcântara had a "false-9" and "false-10" partnership, one dropping into the hole, the other pushing forward for runs and trying to draw Alessandro Nesta out of position to open space for David Villa or a secondary-running Seydou Keita.  In a display of the type of raw athleticism that Xavi or Andrés Iniesta or Fàbregas -- while superior players -- don't have, Thiago skied for a header at about the 14th minute, flicking the ball on towards the right corner for himself, besting Zambrotta.  Milan's defense, to that point, had been positionally sound and remarkably good at not giving Barca's players time on the ball, but Thiago's flash forced Milan to scramble back towards goal in narrow positions.  Thiago calmly found Fàbregas without a man within ten yards of him, who then slipped it in to Messi who had space.  Realizing the obvious danger, Milan furiously closed out on Messi, but this opened up space for a diagonal ball to Seydou Keita near the far post.  A Mark Van Bommel own-goal came from the resultant cross but the goal was coming regardless: the ball either goes in off of him or Xavi, who had Van Bommel bested, toe-pokes it in one yard out.

Milan's getting one back started from a danger that Barca still wasn't able to eradicate: long, diagonal balls, out towards the flanks.  Clarence Seedorf, starting near midfield, made a run down his left flank and was picked out by Alberto Aquilani, cutting into the center from the right.  Puyol found himself in no man's land: with Thiago lagging behind -- much like Yaya Toure against Napoli for Cavani's second -- he had to leave his good positioning to stop an unmarked Seedorf.  Seedorf, upon getting the ball to the edge of the box, held up just long enough to make Puyol take a step forward, leaving space for a ball behind to a surging Ibrahimovic, who made the difficult finish look mundane.  Had Thiago used some of that that elite athleticism he put on display to lead to Barca's first goal, Milan would not have pulled level.

Not seven minutes later, however, Barca found themselves again ahead, and Milan were lucky to not be down to ten men.  Getting forward more than he has all season, Xavi caught Van Bommel ball watching again and was found by Messi near the edge of the box.  Xavi then started a 1-2 with Fàbregas, who, after a false pass, played a clever little ball in behind the defense.  Aquilani pulled Xavi down, the referee awarded the free kick, and Messi -- after start-stopping on the first -- delivered, slotting the ball past a well-positioned Christian Abbiati.

Interestingly, Aquilani was already on a yellow and committed the foul but wasn't sent off, as Nesta, somehow, convinced the referee that he, in fact, was the one who stopped the clear goal scoring opportunity.  While a straight red might not have even been harsh, Nesta escaped with a yellow and Milan escaped with all eleven men still eligible.


While Boateng's goal to pull Milan level again -- even if Valdes committed a folly by letting him go near-post, like what happened at the away leg at Arsenal last year -- was as spectacular of an individual skill as any made in this week's Champions League fixtures, of more interesting tactical note was Barcelona's possible shift to a 4-2-4 system.

To the right: how Barcelona played after Alexis Sanchez came on for Villa in the 68th minute, and through the 80th minute when Pedro Rodriguez came on for Fàbregas.

With Milan making positive substitutions, Guardiola found it necessary -- and rightfully so -- to make his back three a back four by dropping Busquests back and pairing him with Mascherano, just as he did to start against Milan the first time around in Barcelona.  Wednesday night, where Milan was applying pressure, the extra body released it.

This did not, however, preclude Barca from getting forward.  Keita and Xavi formed a midfield partnership, with Keita playing the holding role and Xavi looking to orchestrate play from deep-lying positions.

The potential front four was Thiago, Fàbregas, Messi and Sanchez.  Messi and Fàbregas played the same false-9/false-10 roles they've thrived with in their 3-4-3 diamond, and Alexis was a reverse Dani Alves, maintaining attacking position but, upon Barca losing the ball, retreating deep down the right.  Thiago's job was to act as a Barca winger when in possession -- cutting in, supplying width when needed, looking for runs, swapping positions with the rest of the attackers -- and as more of a standard central midfielder when out of possession -- retreating to the center, playing the role of one of the middle 3 in Barca's 4-3-3.

The nature of Fàbregas and Messi's positions leave this a hard system to classify.  Is it a 4-2-3-1 with the central attacking midfielder playing more advanced?  Is it an off-balanced 4-3-3, with the attacking trident shifted right and Thiago, from midfield, being forced to add width?

But, given how Thiago rotated with Fàbregas, how Guardiola has used a 4-2-4 before and the picture to the right, a new shape for this campaign was probably unveiled.  As if fans needed more reasons to watch Barca.


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