Catenaccio was a system introduced (or rather best used) by Helenio Herrera which emphasised on the defensive side of the game and tactical discipline. A lot of names have been thrown around since its emergence. ‘Anti-football’ and ‘Parking the bus’ being the most famous. Chelsea beat Barcelona last season using one of these styles. Some say it was luck but that is a debate discussed and dissected long enough with no clear cut compromise from either side. However, no one can deny that yesterday was nothing about luck. It was pure solid performance from the Italian side. The result AC Milan 2-0 Barcelona was nothing more than what the employers of Catenaccio deserved. There is no right way of playing football. Solid defensive displays like last night at the San Siro is very much ‘Pro-Football’.
That had to be said. The claims of negative tactics and boring football are just shameful excuses. There was nothing boring about Milan’s play, it was good solid hardwork and I will try to show what AC Milan did last night to get a famous result over the Catalan giants. Two goals from former Portsmouth players earned a brilliant result for the home side. But the general play, especially with the backbone of the team, was incredible to watch. That will be my main focus here.
No Barcelona game can be complete without mentioning and studying Messi’s play. Its a bit different this time. For a change. The little Argentinian magician wasn’t really able to perform his act. His poor run against Italian sides continues as he once again failed to score from open play against a team from the Serie A. Not only did he not score, he was completely shut out from the game, nearly disappearing in the second half. Very rarely is the impact of Messi neutralised to such great effect.
Leading up to this monumental fixture there was a lot of talk of whether Lionel Messi will be man marked to complete shut the Argentinian out. Shut out he was, but it can’t be classified as man-marking. Milan employed a sort of zonal marking system on the player. He tried to drop deep at times to shake of his markers but the moment he went up field he was pounced on by the Milan players and completely removed from the game. The man on the ball was obviously chased down (will be explained later), but the home side’s main focus was to prevent Messi from receiving the ball. A bored and disinterested look on Messi was a perpetual existence as the player was ‘rejected’ from entering the game. As the illustration on the left displays, this was Milan’s game all night, removing the threat of Messi from the game. If you can prevent a player from receiving the ball, there is a good chance you can prevent him from having even the slightest bit of impact on the game.
As the game wore on, Catenaccio was further implemented by AC Milan. Players dropped deep and defended in numbers preventing players Barcelona players from attacking or getting any real shots off. The Spanish side had one meaningless strike on target with the remaining with their remaining 6 shots either being blocked or flying wide. Iniesta came the closest with the ball flying past the post. With the Barca players too, Milan didn’t employ a man mark system. Rather they chased the players around, with two after the man on the ball. Plenty of interceptions in crucial areas were a part of their game as they prevented Barcelona from playing their usual short and quick passes forcing them into rare errors.
The picture above is a combination of two, seconds apart. Three Milan players chase Pedro on the ball with Messi in a bit of rare space, that however is immediately corrected as Boateng gets back and Milan regain possession once again. This was a general trend in the game. Milan won the numbers game and had plenty of personnel across to defend against the fluid Barcelona attack.
The same scene occurs throughout the game. Milan players continue to hound down Barca players on the ball providing them absolutely no space whatsoever and forcing them to loose possession. It was an approach that required immense concentration, but more importantly- hard-work & effort. Milan dropped deep once they scored, before that however, they covered all the spaces all over the pitch, They didn’t just sit back but rather closed down opponents constantly.
Once AC Milan took the lead with a some what controversial goal from Kevin-Prince Boateng, they could afford to sit deeper and invite pressure (up to a point) from Barcelona. It was indeed Catenaccio in its full effect. Not only defending deep in numbers, but preventing players from getting any sort of short off or even entering the box. They didn’t employ a man-marking system but it was rather a system based on defending in zones. Two lines of defence were maintained with any opposition player trying to encroach it immediately shut down. The man on the ball was tightly marked as well preventing any key ball being player or shot being taken. Our friend Messi obviously sat in between the lines, but at this point he probably didn’t even realise he was in the game. No one invited him to play! Circled in yellow on top, the Argentine was blocked out by a number of Milan players even when away from the action.
It was a proper tight defense with no sort of penetration being allowed either. Full-backs weren’t allowed to get into the game and Barcelona weren’t able to utilise the wider areas either. Wherever the Barca player and the ball went, Milan player were sure to follow, tirelessly preventing any form of tiki-tika.
Milan’s resistance was a result of a great performance as a team and sticking together as a unit. Despite that, special mention has to be given to Montolivo and Ambrosini. The two midfielders put in a terrific shift to inspire the Milan club to victory. Defensive discipling displayed by the two comes with experience. Ambrosini has developed it, Montolivo is getting there. The former Fiorentina midfielder was a completely attack minded player when he arrived at the San Siro, he has developed into a mature football since then, capable of playing a defensive role and putting across a solid performance.
Breaking up Barcelona’s cute little passes and quick touches was important to ensure a positive result. AC Milan made 27 interceptions as compared to Barcelona’s 15 with Ambrosini and Montolivo both making 11 themselves. The graph above clearly displays the important positions the interceptions were made in. Plenty of which were in and around the box which is in tune with the tactical illustration above.
Milan’s closing down paid dividend on the other end of the pitch as well. As was the case with the 2nd goal. Iniesta was chased down by Ambrosini. The Spaniard was forced to give away possession with the pressure of Ambrosini, and the fact that all his passing options were closely marked as well. The ball fell to Niang who took it forward, rather slowly but was not under much pressure as most of the defenders were still getting back into position. Shaarawy’s clever ball found a completely unmarked Muntari for the finish. While it seemed like the goal came out of nothing, it was created through the persistence and constant pressure of AC Milan and their midfielders.
This tie is in no means done despite the 2 goal lead which Milan hold. Barcelona are always capable of coming back, especially at the Nou Camp. It is ofcourse a good result to take to Spain for Milan, and seeing how they defended at the San Siro, we can be assured of a fantastic 2nd leg.
Statistics via whoscored.com and squawka.com.