Case Study: AC Milan 1-1 Barcelona 22/10/2013

October 24, 2013
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Considering the European pedigree of the two sides, the match was perhaps not as big a deal as it should have been. The draws have seen them paired together frequently in recent years, making it less of a special occasion than the Real Madrid-Juventus match-up the following evening, and, with Massimiliano Allegri’s job seemingly getting more difficult with each passing season, the smart money would have been on the away team to get a fairly easy victory.

With star man Mario Balotelli not fit enough to start, Milan were left without an out-and-out striker – Robinho, in the mood for entertaining with lots of little tricks, filled in at the tip of a 4-3-3 as Kaka went left and Valter Birsa right. Their gameplan was clear: sit very deep in a bank of four with five close ahead and let Barcelona pass the ball in front of them, then attack down the flanks quickly when in possession. It is the go-to gameplan for pretty much any team playing Barcelona, and typically results in a one-sided games where the Catalans either look predictable and toothless if the opponents frustrate them or the best team on the planet if they score early on and rush to a multiple goal lead. This match was somewhat of a rarity in that Milan began as the dominating side despite their defensive tactics.

Barcelona of course had most of the possession, yet were completely failing to create anything against Milan’s defence, with lots of players looking for the ball deep in midfield but few willing to make penetrative runs higher up the pitch. This hasn’t been a rarity for Barcelona, although the comfort that Milan had on the ball has been reserved for a handful of teams. It mainly came down to Barcelona’s shape being unsuited to pressing Milan. Although they both played 4-3-3, the mirroring of their midfields meant that, while Sulley Muntari and Riccardo Montolivo had direct opponents in Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Nigel de Jong and Sergio Busquets were free. Busquets wasn’t an issue for Milan as their forwards sat back and blocked any passes into the midfielders, but De Jong’s freedom rendered Barcelona’s pressing futile – the ball getting laid off to him whenever their attackers pressed Milan’s defence. One of the midfielders would then have to come up and close him down, requiring a reorganisation of the midfield that meant that, so long as they played the ball quickly, Milan could get the ball forward with ease.

Robinho’s natural position being towards the left and Kaka looking sharp meant that the ball was near exclusively played down the left side, with the Brazilians showing a good understanding. Birsa saw next to nothing of the ball and when he did it was generally when he drifted over to the opposite side. Milan’s opening goal came from a defensive mix-up, but Muntari’s correctly disallowed goal was a better example of what they were doing rightly. Nevertheless, not too long after, Lionel Messi equalised after a poor pass from Cristian Zapata was pounced upon, catching Milan’s defence out of position. It was a harsh reminder for Milan of the dangers of making a mistake against Barcelona, although it says something about the relative comfort they had been enjoying that their passing had been so relaxed. With the the holiday season just around the corner some punters will be keeping a close eye on the Christmas betting during a heavily congested period of football fixtures.

Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona started to move the ball much quicker and more directly – a new feature to their play under Gerardo Martino. This did give Barcelona greater attacking impetus, yet it also opened them up more and Milan suddenly found attacking down the right side more fruitful, with cross-field balls finding Ignazio Abate in lots of space to make use of.

As the second half wore on, the previously tight defensive lines Milan had set up close together in front of their area started to stretch as their legs tired and the frontmen found it difficult to retreat quickly. As a result, Barcelona gained control over the game and, despite the introduction of Balotelli, Milan had little more to add to the game offensively, with the game petering out into the classic defence versus attack that has become the standard for Barcelona matches in recent times.

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