Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One good one bad. One half Max is aces, one half he’s folding like a lawn chair. Lecce 3 – 0 Milan at half, remember that one? Down 2-0 to Lazio? How about 4-0 ahead at halftime to Arsenal in the Champions League? Surely there are many other examples strewn throughout the Allegri era, but I believe the best context for this loss is not simply to say, “Barcelona were the best team what can you expect with a year zero Milan side” but “why?”
First, addressing M’Baye Niang – the answer “why?” is luck. Luck, kid, that’s what you need to be successful in this game. What is luck? Phrase it another way as Max Allegri did, “For a matter of centimeters, maybe if Niang had scored, we would be here talking about a different game.” But that’s not to say Niang is at fault. Look no further to Allegri’s boss Dr. Galliani, “When Niang hit the post, I understood everything. On nights like this, certain signals are crystal clear.” A bit pessimistic, but both these men are dancing around one point, and that is that when you’ve got it, you’ve got it, and when you don’t – you simply don’t. Milan had it at San Siro, but didn’t have it in Catalonia. Bojan was a bit more blunt than Galliani, “If the ball had gone in then the tie may have ended in a different manner.”
You can have the total package in football (Milan are nowhere near that), but without luck, it doesn’t matter. Had Alba not made a last-gasp tackle to deny Robinho, or had Niang’s effort not rocketed against the post (or even had the subsequent sliding handball by Dani Alves been called) Milan would have found themselves in the driver’s seat for the tie. For which again, then the question of luck would be around again – even a side such as Barcelona can’t deny fortune when it comes.
After Milan’s first leg victory (and that in itself is the problem – it wasn’t a victory it was a halftime lead) it seemed a mental error to treat the two leg against Barcelona as two matches. They weren’t, and as we’ve seen on countless occasions over the last couple years, Max Allegri got his tactics and preparations all wrong in the big match. Part of why he got his tactics right in the first leg explain why he got them wrong in the second leg.
I would break down the tactics more, but Zonal Marking did such an excellent job in this leg that I would risk just rehashing his main points ( I will a bit further in the piece), so refer to his piece for this aspect of the match. Here’s a brief recap: in the first leg, Barcelona struggled for width. Alves and Alba weren’t far enough up the pitch, and Messi had trouble getting into the game because he was both tracked by Mexes from deep, and Ambrosini from in front when he dropped to receive the ball. The problem came at “halftime”, when Milan found themselves with a 2 goal advantage over Barcelona heading into their leg.
Philosophically, they approached the game in limbo, caught in two minds of “attack/defend”. Sure that’s the basis of football, attacking and defending, but telling players to do both in an already confusing scenario was always going to lead to inactivity and hesitation. And indeed that’s what happened after Messi scored 5 minutes into the second leg. Look at shots of Milan after the goal, if you’ve access to the match. Heads drop instantly. Abbiati is furious and kicking the ball back into his own net. Barcelona are brimming with confidence.
David Swan pointed out that Milan simply conceded too early in the tie- and they were doomed after that. There’s a valid point to be had there. But Milan’s approach was one that lacked authenticity, lacked conviction, and lacked a belief at the end of the day.
Although I disagree with part of the point made by David, Milan had actually been here before. Abbiati, Mexes, Abate, and El Shaarawy all were a part of the 3-0 Arsenal loss last season. Add in Ambrosini and Boateng who were present on the 3-1 drubbing Barcelona gave Milan in last year’s CL quarters, and you’ve got 6 of the 11 members of the side who have big game experience, of late, in the Champions League, and who tasted heavy defeat. That’s more than half of the side, which against Barcelona is not enough. Of those 6 players with previous experience, it can be argued, none of them performed today. Abbiati watched more goals go past him than he has in any match in recent memory, not even making a dive on Messi or Villa’s effort. Also note, Flamini’s experience doesn’t count until he does something productive on the football pitch.
Flamini’s role was unsuccessful along with many other parts of the system because, in essence, Barcelona changed their game plan over he last 3 weeks, while Milan didn’t (stop me if you’ve heard this before). Milan had success pushing up Ambrosini, giving him a bit of a free role in behind a line of defense and line of midfield, and counting on closing down the space on the ball. Couple of things went wrong with this, Milan didn’t press with anywhere near the same intensity that Barcelona did, Milan’s outlet play was their worst in many seasons of my observation, and they no longer had the same match ups that they had in the first leg. In essence, Flamini would have been better off marking Xavi than Iniesta, but by no means was that the main issue.
Barcelona’s midfield didn’t flip, but Milan mirrored theirs, with Montolivo moving over to the left, and Flamini on the right. In the first leg, Boateng was influential on Iniesta, and his marking of him was tight and effective although he did often have a second defender in Riccardo Montolivo sheparding Iniesta away from goal. No such luck with Mathieu Flamini, who for the umpteenth time this season, has shown why he should not be resigned in June. Flamini’s energy would have been good in tracking Xavi, but on Iniesta, Flamini got lost in outer space trying to chase Iniesta around the pitch. Montolivo ended up marking Xavi, both of whom are content to sit back, and so Xavi found more time to dictate play, spraying assists all over the pitch.
Barca’s most important tweak from last leg to this leg was to alter the way in which Messi received the ball. In the first leg, he often received the ball facing away from goal and had to turn, in which case Milan had 2 defenders waiting for him to make his move. In this tie, however, Barcelona used an extra wall pass from the front man, David Villa or Pedro, or sometimes even an advancing Iniesta to pass the ball to Messi so his first touch was already towards goal. This was the largest alteration, and Milan were still waiting to defend the initial pass into their defense, not realizing it was going to be the reflection ball to an attacker running onto them that would cause them issues this time.
I’m not going to knock Allegri further for his game plan. He made some errors of judgment (Kevin Constant to reprise his role on the left side turned out to be one of the largest mistakes, albeit one of the more obvious ones before the match) which cost the side, but I don’t believe at the end of the day Allegri is why the side lost, I don’t believe that anyone thinks that. But like other Champions League matches before, this simply shows what Max’s limitations are, and what he perceives to be important in the preparation for a match. You can see that he’s a familiar coach – he sticks to what he knows. Perhaps with good reason too, as his one notable risk today, starting M’Baye Niang at center forward, backfired on him and required an in-game tactical shift at the 33rd minute mark.
Of course, not to be forgotten, the reason Niang was starting in the center was because Balotelli was cup-tied, while Pazzini was for some reason started against Genoa (shades of the Thiago Silva Coppa Italia flash into view) and subsequently was hacked down by Portonova. By starting Pazzini vs Genoa, Max had made his bed, and against Barcelona he had to lie in it.
- Barcelona’s pushing Alves up higher worked perfectly, as Constant did not have the composure to both track Alves’ runs with his eyes, and stay in position to not allow Messi inside.
- Milan were content to let players in between the lines in the second leg, as in the first, however this time they were made to pay as Messi and Iniesta had men in front of them when dropping in between the lines this time, and this created the space they needed to operate.
- Barcelona were absolutely on their game, and Serigio Busquets was everywhere. He recovered possession at almost every go, was positioned perfectly to provide stability to his defense and be near the danger zone, and his passing was second to none in the Barca double-pivot with Xavi once the tie started to dry up.
- Milan were timid. They didn’t look ready to win the ball in 50/50 challenges, and often looked unsure of whether to step into space to deny or to sit back in position. In a larger sense, Milan were also unsure of whether to come forward to attack for the away goal, or sit back and defend their lead (which was answered in 45 minutes)
- How important was the quality of the pitch? San Siro has been known for it’s notoriously poor surface (look no further than every European club to come in and complain). Camp Nou was a different story altogether.
- One more, this side has actually been here before moments, as Arsenal scored 7 minutes in vs Milan in last season’s round of 16 tie, before opening the floodgates. Milan also were in a 4-3-3 that day.
- El Shaarawy’s tracking was subdued during the match, and he seemed to be off the pace of the match for large stretches, especially defensively, which he was not his normal self.
- Kevin Constant – ugh. The only thing as bad as his defending was his clearances. Welcome back to Earth after a few mercurial performances against mid-level Serie A sides. Doesn’t seem to be the answer at LB. Better sides simply expose his frailties.
- Barcelona scored 69 seconds after Niang hit the post. The tie, even when seemingly out of reach for Milan, was always on a knife edge.
- Late on, Milan’s wingers tired, and Milan giving up, Barcelona’s wingers still managed to be the most fit players on the pitch, Jordi Alba’s lung-busting full-field run was magnificent.
- Milan have never won an away knockout leg tie under Max Allegri.
- At the end of the day though, this allows Milan to focus on the league (a very “Europa League” attitude) and claiming second place and qualification to next year’s tournament. I’m not saying the system is broken, but it just seems strange to me that qualifying for next year’s tournament almost always takes precedence to performing well in this year’s tournament especially once the knockout stages begin.
- Milan take on Palermo at home next, the only Serie A side unable to record a single victory on the road this season.
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