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Barcelona vs. AC Milan: What Happened?

Barcelona suffered one of their worst defeats in recent memory, failing to score and losing 2-0 against AC Milan in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League tie. Despite dominating possession, the heavily favored Blaugrana managed just two shots on goal. What in the world happened?

Iniesta was brilliant as usual, but never really threatened the Milan goal.
Iniesta was brilliant as usual, but never really threatened the Milan goal.
Claudio Villa

This game was awfully tough to watch. Barcelona passed and passed, back and forth, all night long in the San Siro, but no goal came. Milan clogged the middle of the pitch and threatened on every counterattack, notching two second-half goals and sending Barça to a well deserved defeat.

This is the sort of loss that calls into question everything we believe about FC Barcelona. There were beautiful passes, magical combinations, and hard work put in all over the pitch, but no results. What's the use of possession if you can't get a shot off? What's the point of playing attacking football when you get burned so easily on the counterattack?

I didn't want to write about this match; I hardly wanted to hear about it or even think about it, but I would like to talk about what went wrong.

First off, Barcelona's defense wasn't all that bad. When only two or three men are left in the back, defending is always a last-ditch sort of affair. Barcelona's real defense is their possession and their pressure in attack—they rely on keeping the ball and winning it back quickly if it's ever lost. Puyol isn't quite what he used to be, but he cut off a number of counterattacks and stood up well to one-on-one situations. Dani Alves could be blamed for the second goal, but he was first to the ball and had no choice but to leave Muntari unmarked, lest Shaarawy have a wide-open shot.

Certainly speed, size, and depth in defense could all be improved upon, but ask any back line to cover their entire half of the pitch with two or three men, and you're bound to concede some goals. Barcelona's defense didn't lose them this game, their offense did.

Milan, like Chelsea and Real Madrid in recent years, clogged the center of the pitch. They held two very tight, narrow lines of defense, and did not allow Barcelona to penetrate. The wings were left relatively open, but Barcelona did not take advantage for two reasons.

First, Iniesta on the wing was a decoy that Milan didn't fall for. He prefers to come inside and the Rossoneri welcomed him with open arms. While he's been known in the past to make a shifty run or two down the edge of the box, Iniesta hardly even tried to go around. Generally he sent the ball back or worked it inside himself. Alba was ready to join the attack, but sometimes he'd receive on the wing and Iniesta would be nowhere to be found—having involved himself in some fruitless midfield move. It was laughable, really, seeing Alba out there and having absolutely nowhere to go.

Iniesta is brilliant and was perhaps Barcelona's best player on the night, but a wing attacker in the 3-4-3 needs to make something happen on his wing. Thierry Henry in 2009 was about the same speed as Iniesta, had nowhere near the ball skills or telepathic connection with his teammates, but would consistently force corner kicks. In a tight game like this, a few more corners would have come in handy. Tito and Roura need to take a long, hard look at Iniesta and where he belongs, and perhaps David Villa can give them some help.

Second, Barcelona never established possession in the area of the pitch where wing runs become deadly. There's a lovely Barça scoring sequence that goes like this: Messi draws a bunch of defenders in the center of attack, then drops off to Xavi who moves forward into the little space created by Messi's move. Alves streaks down the right and Xavi has enough time to pick him out with a perfect pass over and behind the defense. Alves delivers an immediate cross and Pedro or Messi sends it home. This scenario was largely impossible because Messi rarely got past Milan's first line of defense—much less threatened their back line, and as a result Xavi and Busquets never had the ball deep enough in Milan's area, and never had the adequate time and space to make a deadly pass.

All of Barcelona's possession more or less aims for the goal-scoring formula described above: push the defense back so that all three attackers and midfielders are comfortably set up in opposing territory, then probe the sides by finding the fullbacks' runs. In fact, Barcelona did this all night long: Dani and Jordi were working the sidelines, the ball was swinging back and forth, the midfield was controlling possession. The problem was that it all took place about twenty yards too far back.

When Barcelona met resistance up one wing, they were forced to send the ball far, far back into their midfield and defense before starting again. It was as if a huge red rectangle occupied the center of the pitch, and Barcelona could work up either side, but never through the center. Switching the ball from one side to the other—the move that should expose a tiring defense—was agonizingly slow, and saw Xavi restarting the attacks from deep in Barcelona's half, just barely ahead of Puyol and Piqué.

Milan allowed Barcelona to play their game, but set boundaries as to where they could play it.

So what does this mean for this team? Many have asked for a plan B—a tactical change Barcelona can make when faced with a disciplined, bus-like defense. To me, there is no plan B, there never has been, and there never will be. Barcelona has won two of the last four Champions League titles with plan A, and if they're going to win another with this group of players it will be with the same possession football.

Besides perhaps an adjustment on the left wing in the form of Tello or Villa, Barcelona can beat Milan by playing faster and by maintaining even more possession. Leo Messi was pretty much obliterated by Ambrosini, and cheaply lost a number of possessions. Certainly his willingness to take risks is needed, but in some cases a pass was in order and may have led to a goal. Xavi put in a heroic 90 minutes coming off injury, but he was a bit rusty and sent a few passes straight to the other team. Cesc played hard too, but could have been more aggressive. Iniesta's skills are needed in the center of the field, to establish deep possession and accelerate switches from one side of the pitch to the other.

I love the faith this team has in their style, the way they stay calm under adversity, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in expecting that crucial away goal to come in the closing minutes—it has before. I don't want Barcelona to start dumping deep balls or cracking off shots from way out, because that's not who this team is. I want more urgency and more speed and more aggression.

As Xavi says, this generation of players has never pulled off an historic comeback, and he wants very much to do so. With a faster Camp Nou pitch and 90,000 fans behind them, a super-motivated squad will have the chance in three weeks.

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