Barcelona secured progress to the semifinals for the fifth season in a row with a good but not great showing against A.C. Milan.
Josep Guardiola surprised many of us by selecting Isaac Cuenca and Cesc Fàbregas, leaving out Alexis Sánchez and Seydou Keita. Even the formation was a source of discussion and surprise. Was it a 3-3-4, as Zonal Marking posited?
In contrast, Max Allegri changed little from the first leg. His only modification was bringing Ignacio Abate into the side at the expense of Daniele Bonera, a like-for-like change.
You can see Pep's reasoning in choosing this system. The Blaugrana's hybrid three-man line worked well to contain Milan's attacking trio, but their lack of width hurt them in attack. Did Guardiola's gamble pay off?
In the first leg, the Culé defense kept the clean sheet with good tactics and good individual performances. Sergio Busquets picked up Kevin-Prince Boateng, Javier Mascherano erased Robinho, and Gerard Pique battled Zlatan Ibrahimović, with Carles Puyol often free to double him. But in attack, the Blaugrana lacked width. I drew this based on UEFA's "average position" graphs. Notice how narrow Milan's defense (and entire team) is.
In the return, Pep introduced Cuenca, a "classic" winger, and instructed Dani Alves to shun defensive responsibility even more. If Dani was straddling the line between fullback and midfielder in the first leg, in this game he was between a midfielder and a full-out forward. Was it a 3-3-4? You could call it that, but you can also call it a 3-4-3 diamond or even a 3-3-3-1.
Alves's width paid dividends as he was often in 1 v. 1 situations against Luca Antonini and was able to beat him often. An Alves cross was controlled well by Cesc, and it was only an uncharacteristically wayward finish from Lionel Messi that prevented los Culés from jumping forward. Cuenca did not produce much, but he hugged the touchline and stretched Milan's back four noticeably.
At the same time, Barcelona's lack of wide defenders was a risk. With Dani so high up, Masche was pressed near midfield as well. He was caught high up the pitch in the third minute, and Milan had a three-on-two counter. In the end, Zlatan could neither pass nor shoot and no damage was done. Nearly the same thing happened in the 19th, when Zlatan did not see a wide open Clarence Seedorf behind him.
Though Barça were definitely playing with three at the back this time around, there was some flexibility. Without the ball, Busquets often dropped into the defense, partnering with Pique at the back. He saved a goal in the fourth minute when Robinho would have been certain to tap in an Antonio Nocerino cross.
Barça went ahead thanks to a Messi penalty that he won himself. From a strategic point of view, it was purely the work of a team instructed to press Milan's backline, as Messi nipped it from Philippe Mexès before being fouled in the box.
Basically every player in a blue-and-red shirt was guilty in Milan's equalizer. Mascherano came out to meet Robinho but could not dispossess him. Pique slid but could not touch the ball, and the Brazilian rolled it to Ibra. This time, Zlatan showed great awareness. Busquets was ineffective in slowing the tall Swede down, while Puyol was not aware of a ghosting run from Nocerino. Cuenca did not track his man, and Zlatan assisted Nocerino to draw the score level. Masche did play Nocerino on, but so did Andrés Iniesta.This type of goal -with a wide midfielder running towards the box- was always a risk given the formation, and it came
Barcelona reclaimed the lead in a manner that will be the talk of conspiracy theorists, but it had little tactical interest. What was interesting was that a goal up, Guardiola became more cautious. He retreated Alves to fullback, moving Cuenca to take his place on the right wing and Iniesta to left forward, creating a familiar 4-3-3, albeit with the natural tendency of Alves to attack, Puyol to defend, and Iniesta to stay in midfield.
Iniesta's goal, again, did not have much to do with tactics, other than the fact that Milan were pushed up high and the Blaugrana had a rare counter. Also, Iniesta was tucking in and in a more favorable position to pounce on the deflection and score, as opposed to Cuenca who was split very wide.
After their third goal, Barcelona were comfortable. Thiago came in for Xavi, while the Rossoneri substituted Seedorf by bringing in Aquilani. Neither changed the game much, as they were more or less like-for-like. Both Boateng and Robinho were drifting towards the middle, and honestly started to be less of a threat, because Masche, Busi and Puyol were comfortable going to the middle anyway. Barcelona retained their extremely loose but less risky 4-3-3 shape:
As you can see, it was a hybrid defense to say the least. But it was effective. Milan looked a bit dejected, and in truth, it was Barça who looked most likely to get a goal, were it not for poor finishing. Milan's substitutions weren't truly important. Pato came on and had to come off a few minutes later. Maxi López replaced him, but both players were keen to stick close to Robinho and Ibra as Boateng was already doing. Guardiola ordered Keita to come on for Cesc, a typical move to add a little steel to the midfield. Pique picked up an injury, and Barça's defense had to reshuffle, with Puyol coming into the middle. Adriano came in and was told to stay back more than he would normally, and that may have presented a weakness... but Barcelona held the ball better and Milan never quite looked dangerous.
Guardiola risked much with his lineup. Frustrated by a narrow Milan, he opted for two attacking wingers. Certainly, it helped offensively, but it also let Milan free to attack the home side's flanks. Los Culés were probably more comfortable going to their loose 4-3-3 shape, but perhaps the opening formation was a good risk to take to score goals against such a disciplined, narrow defense. Not a triumphant tactical victory for Guardiola, but you can't argue with results: his team are through to the semis for the fifth year running, a Champions League record.