Tight Defence Thwarts Lethargic Barcelona
AC Milan won 2-0 versus Barcelona and like a chopped up bottom of a trouser leg in a library, it was a turn up for the books.
An expert defensive display against an albeit flat Barca – combined with clinical finishing from the Ghanaian, ex-Pompey duo of Boateng and Muntari – gives Milan a huge advantage going into the return leg at the Camp Nou. Lionel Messi was as quiet as I’ve ever seen him and despite having so many other top players, the Catalans have proved to be over reliant on the little wizard. When he so often does the extraordinary you can understand why the rest of the side are lured into expecting it.
The successful blueprint of stifling by Milan has been evident before through Chelsea, Celtic, Inter and Manchester United. Unlike some of those, Milan created the better opportunities too. Coach Massimiliano Allegri correctly predicted Barca would have 65% possession and so it proved. They executed his plan to make it sterile possession whilst being purposeful in attack themselves. Jordi Roura – in charge with Tito Vilanova away getting treatment for cancer – was thoroughly outperformed. Perhaps many have underestimated the need for this side to have their head coach.
It does seem though that we’ve seen this match, this type of dogged display against Barca before. Sometimes they have found a way through – Real Madrid, Milan, Chelsea, Arsenal – and at other times they have come a cropper.
Last night’s San Siro performance at home was as good a tactical execution of that strategy as any before it. I’d argue it was better than the 3-1 Inter win in 2010 as Barca were more threatening that evening. Sometimes in these games the underdog relies upon missed chances from the favourite. Not last night, as Barcelona mustered just one shot on target whilst Milan were clinical in converting their opportunities.
Barca came into the tie having conceded in their last 9 consecutive games so they were clearly susceptible in defence. In possession they were lacklustre, their passing missing the usual sharpness. An uninspired Messi and suddenly all the ingredients appeared for the Rossoneri to capitalise. As usual after such a defeat Barcelona’s tiki taka approach receives scrutiny and the extent of their greatness is questioned. Questioning their legacy after a defeat is unfair. All great teams suffered losses, it is their body of work that will define their legend. And this Barcelona already has a cherished portfolio of magnificence.
Like all great teams they will always look at where they can improve too. As I mentioned they have played against congested defences in the past many times with variable success. They have tried to address the issue of adding a different dimension. Their acquisition of Zlatan was an attempt to add some skill and height to their attack. Clearly capable on the deck the plan was to also use his vertical threat on crosses in tight games. On paper it should have strengthened them but due to personality clashes and the Ibra ego it was abandoned as it crumbled.
To my mind what they need, apart from better executing their game plan with quicker passing and more energy, are two things.
One; the use of Pique has been too conservative for me. An attacking marauding defender should be more encouraged. I wrote about the libero being a vital tool in such games and Piquenbauer can provide penetration from deep as well as adding chaos to an organised defence with forays from centre back.
Two; the thing often missing from the modern possession game is enough dribbling. Messi is devastating at the art but his space is often closed down by multiple men. Iniesta will occasionally beat a man and when he does you wonder why he doesn’t do it more. Alexis at Udinese used to dribble a lot more, at Barca that has gone from his game and his current form is poor.
Dribbling is higher risk than passing and less likely to be as assured but the rippling wreckage of effective ball carriers is huge. With deep lying defences sucking out the space for Messi and his attacking support cast in central areas, the space is often left with the full backs. When they are not going to cross to a heading expert what Alves, Alba or Adriano should be encouraged to do is run at their man. Everyone else has more than one man marking them so if they are isolated one on one their breaking of the defensive line can be crucial.
They may get tackled at times but so what. Most possessions are ultimately lost unless you score, so maximising attacking opportunities is the challenge. As a result of this policy succeeding, Messi and co are bound to receive more space themselves.
If their current full backs cannot unlock defences then why not look at Glen Johnson as a possible summer addition, as he can be a demon dribbler? The lack of demand for dribblers in the modern game means this is an unlikely scenario but the thought process against tight, athletic and organised defenders needs to be more creative.
Whatever happens in the return leg, Barcelona will have to confront this kind of wall time and again in the future and need to be proactive in finding solutions.
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