Champions League Special: Allegri v Barcelona 2-0 @ San Siro

Here’s the 2013 recap of when AC Milan met Barcelona at San Siro with Max Allegri as manager. The second leg saw a massive collapse in which Milan were overturned, but the first leg stands today as one of Max Allegri’s finest tactical achievements as Milan manager. 

Milan met Barcelona on Wednesday with the same formation that Barcelona have mastered, a 4-3-3. This was the Rossoneri’s most used formation throughout the season so far (not to mention their most successful) however, the formation required significant tweaking from manager Max Allegri, who was more than up to the task.

What was it that made Milan successful and Barcelona unsuccessful? Defense, really. Barcelona’s was sloppy and they made several individual errors at the back, whereas Milan were more organized than they’ve been at any other point under Allegri’s reign, and were clinical with their finishing.

Some comments have said Milan parked the bus, a phrase that drips of disdain and an unspoken reference (unless you’re Gerard Piqué and just come out and say it) to Catanaccio.  In the loose framework of the word, an implied focus on defense rather than attack, the claim seems to be on point. When it comes to the specifics of it, this wasn’t Catanaccio, this was organization, of which there is a huge difference. Milan didn’t man mark, which should alone discount Catenaccio, but furthermore, their free man was not behind the defense, but in midfield. Milan lacked a libero to sweep up play – although one could argue the libero was actually Massimo Ambrosini, who was playing in front of the defense and was often the free man in midfield, allowing him to roam.  Incidentally, this allowed him to move where the danger was, more than just mark Lionel Messi. Ambrosini was the most effective defensive player (excluding the whole – which as a collective achieved the ultimate goal – a clean sheet) tallying 9 interceptions and 5 tackles, both the highest amount in the match by any player. Milan actually played more of a 4-5-1 defensively, with both wings tucking in to deny space and freeing Ambrosini at the center.

Messi’s game is often based on the one-two pass, or the wall pass, wherein Messi plays a ball to another player, sprinting immediately as he releases the ball, as his teammates reflects the ball into his onrushing path. This creates space, as Messi’s defender often has trouble keeping pace with his rapid acceleration, but Milan solved this problem by turning to a Barcelona-esque solution – crowd the ball on both sides with multiple defenders. This was evidenced on the occasions on which Milan opted to press – which were intelligently negotiated; all credit to Max Allegri for that game plan. That’s not to say that Barcelona were not able to beat the pressure of Milan’s multiple defenders, as they were on many occasions. But in doing so, Milan forced Barcelona to make two or three extra passes, slowing the pace of the match, and allowing their defenders time to fill the space again.

This strategy from Max Allegri was significant not only because it was successful, but because it was a throwback to Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan. Allegri disciplined his team into compacting themselves vertically.  This Milan side was not as effective as Sacchi’s Milan at doing it – and indeed Sacchi often trained his side to move as a whole without the ball for large stretches of training, becoming accustomed to the positioning and movement as a team.

Sacchi says he won over Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten  by telling them that five organized players would beat ten disorganized ones. “And I proved it to them. II took five players: Giovanni Galli in goal, Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta and Baresi. They had 10 players and fifteen minutes to score against my five players, the only rule that if we won possession or they lost the ball, they had to start over from 10m inside their own half. I did this all the time and they never scored. Not once.” Sacchi continues, “In the defensive phase, all of our players always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his teammates. Every movement had to be a function of those four reference points. Each player had to decide which of the four reference points should determine his movement.” In summation, Sacchi’s Milan was about controlling the game by controlling the space, and it took Max Allegri looking back to the history of Milan to re-discover this lost art.

On Wednesday night, Allegri’s Milan were compact and moved as a unit, counterattacking with venom. When playing the best team in the world, they knew they would have to be defensive, as their previous four encounters last year had indicated. Milan could score the goal, especially on a porous Barcelona defense unable to keep a clean sheet; and the key for the first leg was always going to be to avoid conceding to give a shot at the Camp Nou.

There were several interesting personnel battles in the match, the first of which was Kevin Constant against Daniel Alves. The Milan outside backs (or Stephan El Shaarawy and Kevin-Prince Boateng when they tucked in from the wing) focused on keeping compact only coming out wide to pressure the overlapping man, the wing-back for Barcelona. As they became accustomed to this movement, the battles changed slightly with Stephan El Shaarawy dropping back to pick up Alves as he overlapped, which allowed Constant to remain compact and focus on Pedro’s darting runs. On the other flank, Ignazio Abate began by covering Andres Iniesta, however as the match wore on, Kevin-Prince Boateng shadowed Iniesta all across the field, heckling him with pressure whether he was facing goal or not. This allowed Abate to serve as a spare defender until Alexi Sanchez was put on the field, and Abate was able to double team Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta as Boateng shepherded the Spaniards into predictable positions allowing Abate time to make his challenges.

Positionally, this forced Barcelona to look for space elsewhere, and they did so by checking the usual spots – in between the lines of players. Andres Iniesta dropped back and allowed Cesc Fabregas to play the more offensive role, while Milan were content to let the Barcelona players drop deep to receive the ball, as they had erected a line at the edge of the box, for which Barcelona did not break for most of the night. Tellingly, Lionel Messi had a single touch in the box in the match, and the whole of Barcelona didn’t manage many more opportunities, with the touches they did get typically coming as a result of set piece opportunities.

On the opening goal of the tie, the ball ricocheted off of Jordi Alba’s arm, onto Cristian Zapata’s face + arm (seemed to push one into the other).

The ball clearly hits Zapata’s face AFTER coming into contact with Alba’s arm. It probably also hits Zapata’s outstretched arm. The arm was outstretched as he turned to move away from the initial shot coming from Montolivo. After contact with Alba’s arm, the ball hits Zapata’s arm, an example of ball to arm (or to face depending on your skepticism). There was no intent by Alba to deflect the ball with his  arm, and there could be no recoiling by Zapata in order to dodge out of the way of the subsequent deflection. The rules are muddy on this sort of situation, were Zapata’s hands in a “natural position”? Was there intent? Did the deflection off of Alba negate any of these factors? The call could have gone either way.

Giampaolo Pazzini served an important role in this match, even if he didn’t directly do anything of note. Pazzini is a much better striker when he is not expected to go out and get goals, and barring a few mind-numbing dribbles into a box (Bojan-style) with no exit, Pazzini was effective in his holding up role, his one chance on goal thwarted by a foul by Carlos Puyol that left Puyol out of the match for a few minutes (ultimately requiring his substitution later in the match) with a head injury while Pazzini sported a nice lump across his forehead. The referee blew play dead not for a foul, but for a head-to-head collision. Milan fans expected the ball back (as it clearly seemed Pazzini won the ball only to be struck in the head slightly late by Puyol, but the Catalans continued play. This to me, was not indicative of poor sportsmanship (some may disagree) but rather of the desperation that had gripped Barcelona already being down 1-0.

Pazzini’s main job defensively is that of any striker in any system, and that is to make play predictable for your team. A striker does this by forcing the ball one direction or another. At the highest level, what this means is that it’s Pazzini’s job to shepherd the ball into slightly more predictable areas for his team. Make one pass the more obvious one so the opposition will make a series of moves that the striker’s teammates are able to read the game and react accordingly. Pazzini did this decently, but his job was helped  by Sulley “the bully” Muntari, who often pulled out of the midfield bank to direct play to one side or the other. By the time Pazzini was subbed off for Niang, the Barcelona defense had been stretched every which way already, and the more mobile Niang was able to give the center back pairing trouble with his speed. Pazzini had been dropping off to receive the ball, and Niang, like El Shaarawy, looked to receive the ball over the top and to beat Barcelona with pace.

The second Milan goal was a brilliant team goal that begin with Massimo Ambrosini winning possession after a Barcelona throw in, quickly shuttling the ball to Riccardo Montolivo, who lobbed the ball in behind Carlos Puyol who had to furiously track back to catch M’Baye Niang. Niang flicked the ball past Puyol, who collapsed, and split Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets to find Stephan El Shaarawy with five yards of space. Dani Alves made two mistakes on this play, not covering Stephan El Shaarawy for the entry pass, and then tucking in too far and not paying attention to the streaking Sulley Muntari (although one could argue the second was a result of trying to correct the first). Muntari came up aces with his left-footed volley to make it 2-0 and the Rossoneri began their celebrations. This was the same plan (drag Alves into space and overlap with Sneijder) that Inter saw success with on the last 2-goal Barcelona defeat at San Siro.


Milan were prepared for a hand-ball situation. Boateng, Constant and others were seen clasping their hands behind their back as they defend, prepared for the fact that Barcelona look to play little dink-passes off of the hands of opposition in order to get free-kicks and penalty opportunities. Cristian Zapata did not get the memo.

Barcelona didn’t exploit the wide space well enough. Dani Alves and Jordi Alba had far too little impact on proceedings. Alves was preoccupied by El Shaarawy getting in behind him, whereas Alba was often lost positionally.

Stephan El Shaarawy is proving himself in more ways than one this season. He’s on a goal drought, true, but in response, his defensive contribution as well as his playmaking ability have both significantly improved. He is a more complete player than he was 5-months ago. Also coming forward leaps and bounds was M’Baye Niang – who would have been playing in the French second division had Milan (or Everton) not signed him.

Riccardo Montolivo had one of the best performances of the season today. It was his shot which was deflected for the first Milan goal, and it was his over-the-defense ball which freed Niang on the second goal. Montolivo was tidy with the tackle, and distributed the ball all over the pitch, initiating countless counterattacks. His best in a Milan shirt.

Niang was as successful as he was today because of Pazzini’s efforts. Had Niang been the one to start, the flow would have been dramatically different, as the Barcelona defense had adjusted to 80 minutes of Pazzini already. He was better than Pazzini was, true, however his success was derivative of the work that Pazzini put in.

About Pete Acquaviva

Pete writes about Milan on this blog. Occasionally other things. You would know which of them it is if you've gotten this far.

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