When Josep Guardiola gave his acceptance speech after winning the Gold Medal of Achievement from the Parliament of Catalunya, he talked about his favorite part of being a manager.
"Before every game, I lock myself in an office in the basement of Barça’s facilities. There is no natural light. I stay there for about two hours. I bring two or three DVDs featuring games our next rivals have played. I sit down, grab pen and paper, and start to analyze our rivals, taking notes." This all sounds a bit like torture, so why does Pep love it so much?
"There comes this moment… exciting, fantastic… which gives meaning to my profession. Believe me, I'm a coach just to live that instant. It's the moment that I think, ‘I've got it. We are going to win tomorrow.’" Guardiola is nothing if meticulous when it comes to preparation. Lionel Messi summed it up best: "every game, he prepares for it as if it were a final."
So let’s put on our Pep hats, just a bit. Don’t worry, you won’t be locked in a basement. I’ve gone through the gametape on my own to spare you. Just follow along as we look at Milan’s last three losses. A word of warning, of course: this coming game will be different. Different players, different conditions, and so on. You can’t expect a carbon-copy, but there are constants that can be generalized.
Lazio 2-0 AC Milan (Serie A / Stadio Olimpico / Feb 1)
Key #1: Pressure on the Ball and Pressing
In the sixth minute, Milan nearly went ahead as Ibra found time on the ball and delivered a great aerial pass to Antonio Nocerino, whose header was just tipped wide by goalkeeper Federico Marchetti’s quick reflexes. There are two important factors at play here. One, Milan cannot be afforded time to deliver the ball. They are an experienced side and know how to pick out a pass. Two, Nocerino loves to make driving runs from midfield and score (he is Milan’s second-leading scorer on the season) and Ibra can drop backwards and pass effectively (no, really.) Lazio learned their lesson and pressed heavily the whole match, making Milan look a bit sluggish.
Key #2: Runners from Deep / Fluidity
Though Lazio played on the counter, Barcelona can learn from Lazio’s goals, neither of which came from a fast counterattack. Lazio did well to overload Milan’s flanks with midfielders running towards the box. The first goal was started by a winger cutting in from the right, which Hernanes sealed with a stinging shot from that side. The second had Hernanes near the left corner flag, playing in Senad Lulic, who slipped the ball for Tommaso Rocchi to hammer into the net. To attack Milan effectively, players must be fluid and intelligent in their movement across the pitch. Hernanes epitomized this ability, deployed as a central midfielder, but finding himself on opposite flanks in the two goals.
AC Milan 1-2 Juventus (Coppa Italia / San Siro / Feb 8)
Key #3: Defending the Attacking Trio
Milan manager Max Allegri does not change his 4-3-1-2 formation often, and he relies on a trequartista, a support striker, and a target man to score goals. One of the key concepts in tactical defense is to retain a "spare man" at the back, which means having four players back to defend that trio. A three-man line with a holding midfielder is the most obvious option. This is exactly what Juventus did, and the Rossoneri had to send players from the back into attack. Milan’s left-back Luca Antonini did provide a key pass in the buildup to Milan’s lone goal, but he gave Martín Cáceres way too much space to knock in both goals for Juve. Barça emulated the three at the back concept, albeit in a hybrid fashion, with Carles Puyol as a left-back tucking in and Dani Alves as a right-back bombing forward. Sergio Busquets must stop Milan’s trequartista to retain the man advantage at the back. If he can do that, Barça will find it much easier to keep the clean sheet.
Arsenal 3-0 AC Milan (Champions League / Emirates Stadium / Mar 6)
Key #4: Speed on the Wing
In the first leg, Arsenal deployed Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky as outside midfielders. Walcott had a bad game and was substituted at half-time for Thierry Henry, moving Aaron Ramsey to the flank. Arsenal then had two midfielders more comfortable drifting to the middle than attacking the flanks, and Milan were comfortable. Now, that wasn’t the only thing wrong with their 4-0 loss, far from it. But Arsène Wenger wisely decided to correct that for the return leg, starting Walcott and Gervinho on the wings, with the added pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield. It was Gervinho who forced a corner on the left flank that led to Laurent Koscielny’s opening goal.
The London club played a high line, but all its players harried and harassed Milan. The result was that despite Arsenal lacking defensive numbers, Milan either could not deliver a good pass or strayed offside. On the other end, Walcott burst through the right wing and played a through pass to Robin van Persie, whose shot forced an anxious save from the keeper. The Gunners’ next goal came as a result of a poor clearance from Thiago Silva, but it started from Walcott attacking with speed down the right again. Once more, Arsenal surged through the right, this time with Ox running into the box and being dragged down. Van Persie buried the penalty, and Arsenal were well on their way to achieving a historic comeback.
Though the Gunners could not muster the fourth goal, Barça should attempt to emulate the high-pressing and good wing play Arsenal achieved. Pedro and Alexis spring to mind as players who can do both. Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca remain options. Alexis will surely figure, but Pedro’s poor form and the lack of experience of the other two may make Pep want to play it safe and opt for Andres Iniesta on the wing and either Seydou Keita or Cesc Fabregas in midfield. However, past games tell us that going with a less highly regarded player may be the most advantageous strategically in this case.
There have been different opponents, different pitches, and different lineups, but Max Allegri is known for keeping his system constant. Most teams that have success against his side manage to employ the above strategies effectively. Barcelona will have to find extra energy after some difficult games to press better than they did in the first leg. The defense must remain strong and keep their man advantage. The attack will have to spread Milan’s back four and go forward with speed. As Guardiola noted, no one is capable of finding a "magic formula" to win; evidently, he has lost games. But you can bet that somewhere, in a dark basement, a certain baldheaded man with a stylish sweater-vest feels joy. "We are going to win."