UEFA Champions League: FC Barcelona vs AC Milan: Tactical Analysis

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 23: Alberto Aquilani of AC Milan and Thiago Alcantara of FC Barcelona compete for the ball during the UEFA Champions League group H match between AC Milan and FC Barcelona at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on November 23, 2011 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

After the goalless draw last week at the San Siro, Barcelona’s hopes of becoming the first team to retain the UEFA Champions League faded just a little. Make no mistake, that first leg encounter with AC Milan was never going to be easy, but a favourable result was there for the taking. Milan sat back, defending deep, willing the Blaugrana to attack, and – not for the first time – our boys looked uninspired in front of goal. That clinical touch, the ruthless streak that has been evident in the best results under Pep Guardiola was no-where to be seen. Expectations were high for some people; I saw a few comparing the pre-match situation to the Manita victory over Real Madrid, but it would have been a surprise if Barcelona got one on that night, let alone five.

However, the return leg tomorrow at the Camp Nou is likely to be a whole different story. Nigh on 100,000 people will pack the stadium, and they will not want to be disappointed; scratch that, they cannot be disappointed. Sure, the stakes may be a little higher, the opposition may be stronger than usual, but the ultimate objective for Barcelona does not change: they have to win this match.

In the pre-match press conference at the San Siro, there was one question that elicited a smile from Pep Guardiola. That one question also brought a tongue-in-cheek response from the Catalan; after all, what’s the point in asking how Barcelona are going to play? Pep made a little joke, before uttering a sentence that could well be the problem: "I think our style is known."

As always, Guardiola could not have been more serious, but I wonder if it has ever crossed his mind that the philosophy could well be the problem? I don’t mean switching away from the principles laid out by Cruyff, but what about a Plan B?

Fret not my fellow Culés, I don’t want Barcelona to sign a target-man (again), or anything like that, but I feel it wouldn’t hurt to develop a second option – tactics-wise – that could throw a spanner into the works for the opposition manager. At current, this playing style may be our "brand", but it does allow the opposition manager to construct a single game-plan. Often these game-plans are far from perfect, or the players at the manager’s disposal are not good enough to implement it fully, so Barcelona win anyway, but what happens when the opposition does get it right?

Well, Milan got it right last week, and they virtually nullified the Blaugrana attack. Aside from the odd chance here and there, such as Alexis Sanchez’ penalty appeal, Barcelona was made to look pedestrian by Allegri’s game-plan. What Barcelona needed at that point was a Plan B, a new approach that Allegri had not planned for, something to break the monotony of the usual 4-3-3.

Then we had the match on Saturday against Athletic Bilbao. Barcelona dominated the Basques with a high tempo, high pressing, and highly fluid variation on the usual 4-3-3, with one man at the centre of it all: Thiago Alcantara. Perhaps I am over-estimating his influence on the side at the weekend, but Thiago’s performance in the centre of the park was superb, a breath of fresh air even. Even at that frenetic tempo, Thiago was calm, order in chaos if you like. Was Pep Guardiola trying out a new tactic with Milan in mind, or was it just the only way he felt his side could beat Bielsa’s Bilbao? Almost certainly the latter, but who could say no to a player with such exquisite control? Here are a few situations where Thiago could start against Milan:

The 3-4-3:

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While the 3-4-3 has come in for a bit of criticism (OK, a lot of criticism) it remains our only Plan B. Early in the season, Pep realised that he didn’t have enough defenders to play in a 4-3-3, and that his side needed to be kept on their toes, so a 3-4-3 that required high levels of focus and concentration seemed to be the perfect cure. Except that wasn’t always the case. In an ideal world, the 3-4-3 was supposed to keep the defense focused at all times, but there were occasions when it merely left them outworked. Valencia was the prime example, as Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu tore Barcelona apart on the left-hand side, although correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t the main problem with the 3-4-3 been the lack of defensive width and the space it leaves for opposition wingers?

Well, in that case, what would Barcelona have to fear by employing the 3-4-3 against AC Milan?

The defense is straight-forward and basically picks itself. The one man brick wall Javier Mascherano, a resurgent Gerard Pique and the ever-reliable Carles Puyol certainly have enough experience to combat the Milan front-line, and because Milan are a very narrow side, the lack of width in defense would not be a factor. A midfield foursome of Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Thiago would likely monopolise possession, and crucially out-number the midfield Trivote that Allgeri is likely to employ once again. In attack Lionel Messi would be supported by Dani Alves and either Alexis Sanchez or Pedro, although you could equally look upon the formation as a 3-6-1.

This is arguably the easiest way for Thiago to slot into the line-up, but it is definitely the most risky proposition. The defensive triumvirate would have to be at the top of their game, and while Milan do tend to play without true wingers, there would be nothing to stop Kevin-Prince Boateng and Robinho from drifting out wide to create space in the centre for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Furthermore, in this situation, there would be added incentive for the Milan midfielders to make late runs and surge into the area from deep.

That is why any 3-4-3 would place the onus on the midfield to track back and help the defense. Alves would be responsible for the right side of the pitch, while Alexis Sanchez or Pedro would have a similar role on the opposite side of the pitch. Busquets would have to drop deeper when Milan are in possession, while both Thiago and Iniesta would have to exhibit the same work-rate that was evident on Saturday.

Basically, the 3-4-3 should allow for yet more possession, as well as overloading Milan’s Trivote, but in my opinion, it is simply too risky to implement against such high-calibre opposition.

Thiago at left-wing:

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Back in December, Barcelona won the FIFA Club World Cup after beating Santos 4-0 after one of the best performances of the season. On that day Thiago played on the left-wing. If I remember correctly, it was Durval who played out on the right for Santos, and he was given a torrid time as Thiago’s pace, trickery and physical presence got the better of him time and time again. Since then, Thiago has not played a single game out on the left-hand side, while Andres Iniesta has featured there multiple times, despite failing to impress in almost every single match. In fact, Iniesta was largely anonymous on the left-wing last week against tomorrow’s opposition. Hopefully Pep has finally seen the light of day and will not repeat that mistake again, and if he is still so averse to the idea of Pedro or Isaac Cuenca starting, why not give Thiago another try?

In fact, he could even keep Andres on the wing if he really wanted, so long as Thiago started in his place in midfield. In this formation, the defense would largely be as expected, although there is no space for Adriano, as I believe Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano should both start. The midfield is as strong as it gets, while the attack is largely full-strength, aside from Thiago’s presence on the left-wing.

However, Thiago would offer a threat like no other on the left-wing. He may not be the quickest player in the squad, but does have enough pace to trouble most defenders, although if Ignazio Abate does start, he will not have a pace advantage tomorrow. On the other hand, what he does offer is an air of unpredictability, and a whole array of skills. I might be the only one, but when I watch Thiago I am reminded of a certain buck-toothed Brazilian who actually played for both Barcelona and AC Milan. Maybe he isn’t as good as Ronaldinho yet, and he may never be, but Thiago is certainly one skilful customer. Furthermore, while Andres Iniesta hardly possesses a physical presence, Thiago is a little stronger, more powerful than his colleague. Combine all those attributes with his La Masia schooling, and Thiago could cause a lot of havoc out on the left.

4-2-3-1:

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I was thinking to myself earlier, why can’t there be a way for Barcelona to field a back-four with natural full-backs, with the trio of Pique, Puyol and Mascherano all on the field, along with some sort of a midfield that could out-number the Milan Trivote? I thought to myself how that formation would keep the width, along with over-loading the middle of the field, all without endangering the defense. If only I could think of one...then it hit me: what about the modern favourite, the 4-2-3-1?

In your average 4-2-3-1, there isn’t a whole lot of positional interchange and the whole system is a little too rigid for my liking. You only have a single attacker, and the dearth of truly great number 10’s means that creativity is kept to a minimum, especially with a double pivot of destroyers. However, at Barcelona, all these pitfalls would be avoided. Javier Mascherano may be a destroyer, but Sergio Busquets is not by any stretch of the imagination. Alongside the Argentine in a 4-2-3-1, there is a chance that Busquets would have less defensive responsibility, and he would be liberated to make forward runs and join up with the attack. If you remember Roberticus’ first post for our site, Busquets could take up a role as a "false enganche" tomorrow in a 4-2-3-1.

Also, it eliminates the problems with the 3-4-3, and in particular when Adriano or Alves are forced to play in attack. As full-backs, the two are very attack-minded, but a large portion of their game relies on the runs they make from deep. Push them further up the pitch and Milan can mark them out the game, but if they stay at full-back and surge forward when necessary, they become very difficult to pick up and defend. Bearing in mind the narrowness of the midfield three, there would a lot of emphasis on the two full-backs to provide the width and stretch the Milan defense, but these are two Brazilians we are talking about: I’m sure they would rise to the occasion.

The midfield trio would play narrow as I mentioned, but is that actually a bad thing? With Allegri odds-on to implement the Trivote again, what better way to fight back than with a trio of attacking midfielders? For the most part, the Milan Trivote was so successful because they always had enough players to cover Barcelona. There was Lionel Messi along with Xavi, and if we were lucky, Andres Iniesta moved central to help out. Keita was anonymous offensively, so it was no surprise that Ambrosini and co would dispossess Messi. However, would they be able to do the same thing against a minimum of four Barcelona attackers?

Positional interchange and fluidity would not be a problem, as Mascherano and Busquets are both capable of dropping back to centre-half to create a three-man defense, thus liberating the full-backs to attack, while Xavi and Iniesta could drop a little deeper to create a midfield diamond if necessary to cover the attacking runs of Nocerino and Seedorf. Thiago and Messi could switch positions as well, especially if Messi is struggling to receive possession often enough and with Thiago moving into the false #9 position, the attack would not be disadvantaged. Personally, I would love to see this 4-2-3-1, but equally, I want to see Alexis Sanchez as well. I guess we will just have to wait and see.

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