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Tuesday, March 27

Preview: AC Milan - Barcelona

A preview of the opener of AC Milan and Barcelona's Champions League quarter-final tie.

Co-published on totalbarca.com

After already finishing atop Group H of the Champions League, Barcelona and AC Milan find themselves again staring down the barrel of another two European fixtures against each other.  While both sides have seen injuries weaken both squad depth and ability, one constant has emerged this campaign:

AC Milan's manager, Massimiliano Allegri, employing a 4-3-1-2.

NERO: Defenders || ROSSO: Midfielders || ROSA: The Link || BIANCO: Forwards

The narrowness of the Rossoneri's shape is a double-edged sword: their strength up and through the middle leaves them both predictable in attack and vulnerable down the flanks.  But so effective is this technique for Milan that striker Zlatan Ibrahimović again finds himself part of a squad atop it's domestic table, and so dangerous is it that Arsenal received a 4-0 thrashing at the San Siro in the last round of Champions League ties.

The back of Milan's shape is of typical design for a contemporary four-man-defence: fullbacks advancing onto space, centre-backs adept in the air, at marking and providing cover.  The fullbacks aren't as forward-favouring as their Barça counterpart, Dani Alves, but if wingers fall asleep with regards to their defensive responsibilities, the width provided normally by Ignazio Abate and Gianluca Zambrotta is often dangerous.  Dangerous and, often, needed, given the proximity to the interior of the six remaining outfielders.

The head of Milan's midfield diamond is its most important piece: as Sergio Busquets is Barça's link between defence and midfield, the 1 of the 4-3-1-2 links Milan's midfield and forwards.  Where Mesut Özil, when playing centrally, will look to create and attack from such a nominal position, Milan's advanced midfielder will often play with his back to goal, passing back to the other midfielders, setting the stage for his forwards to be joined atop the shape.  And, with the ball wide, he'll also look to run touch-line to touch-line, providing support and leaving room in the centre for another to run onto.

But, as Milan showed against Juventus, the head of their midfield can also join the forward line.

 Ways Milan's "1" plays off the forwards

It's an integral role in Milan's shape, and Allegri's first choice for it, Kevin-Prince Boateng, is more than capable of providing spectacular exploits in it, provided his girlfriend hasn't wrecked him via her sexual prowess.  Now fit, Boateng is a threat that must be looked after by Barça.

Former Barça man Mark van Bommel is entrenched in the holding role of Milan's midfield, but unlike his Barça counterpart Busquets, his chief duty isn't linking the defense and midfield.  This is for two reasons: Milan likes to play the ball long, and centre-back Thiago Silva provides tremendous distribution out of the back.

In the two sides' previous meeting in Italy, Milan attempted 392 passes -- versus 546 from Barça -- with 66 attempted longballs, 13 of which came from Silva.  In the first meeting between the two sides, Milan attempted only 264 passes -- versus Barça's 799 --with 40 long balls.  With Ibrahimović and Boateng as strong target men, Silva's passing and the fullbacks looking to get forward when space is open, van Bommel is more free to patrol midfield then help to patiently build out of the back.

The trouble for Milan is, Thiago Silva is out for four weeks with a thigh strain, and van Bommel is out due to yellow card accumulation.  Where Milan used to have some alternative to steamrolling through the centre backed by their numbers superiority, Silva and van Bommel's absences put even more of a burden on Ibrahimović and Boateng ahead to win their aerial duels and be even sharper with the inferior possession allowance Barça hands out.

Intrigue in the Barça squad exists over whether or not Pep Guardiola will select a three-or-four-man defence.  Wont to play with a spare man at the back, Guardiola has often deployed only three defenders against a side featuring two forwards, as he did earlier in the campaign in Milan, but with the sting of the last half-hour of the most recent Clásico that saw Barça overrun at the back still lingering and influencing Guardiola's tactics, it's not clear which shape Guardiola will settle upon.  With Milan's ability to turn their forward line of two into one of three, however, it would make some sense to start in a 4-3-3, allowing Busquets to stay in midfield rather than dropping into defence, keeping the formation and spare man intact rather than having Busquets track an advancing Boateng.  The flip-side, of course, is Milan is one of the few sides in Europe who can pull even numbers in the centre of midfield against Barça's 4-3-3 and Lionel Messi dropping deep.  What will Guardiola want more: a spare man in defence or midfield?

Also of note is that, with Barça often struggling with supplying more than token width, Milan's narrowness has the ability to compound Barça's problems with their own flooding of the centre, but with the options available to Guardiola -- a 4-2-4, Tello and Cuenca -- the lack of width noticeable in the two sides' Camp Nou tie shouldn't rear its head again.

AC Milan has pieces in Ibrahimović and Boateng who can threaten Barça's defense with size, speed and physicality, but the question is whether Milan will have enough of the possession to make use of them, and whether they'll be able to defend with their absences as surely as needed against a team with the pace and skill of Barcelona.  With Guardiola's men seemingly hitting their stride -- to say nothing of Lionel Messi's superlative-defying performances of late -- it would surprise to see Barça not with the advantage heading into the return leg.


  1. Love the analysis, very good... Glad to see you back posting again

  2. I've hopefully found the balance to keep this going just as active as it was before. Thanks for the kind words.