Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Classic Match Series - AC Milan 4-0 Barcelona (1994)

Johan Cruyff's Dream Team against Fabio Capello's personal version of the tactical ideas laid out by Arrigo Sacchi.

In the build up to the match Barcelona were seen as the favourites. In some ways they were seen as heavy favourites. Milan were without their defenders, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta as well as being without Marco Van Basten and their young attacking threat Gianluigi Lentini.

Added to this was the fact that because of UEFA rules at the time, they were forced to leave out Florin Răducioiu, Jean-Pierre Papin and Brian Laudrup.

They therefore started in a rough 4-4-2 formation without many of their first choice players.

Barcelona could field a very strong line up with renowned players such as Koeman, Guardiola, Bergiristain, Stoichkov and Romario. They set out in a 4-3-3 formation, similar to the system that the current Barcelona have.

Now with the fact that Barcelona had a strong line up, their system was fairly similar to what they usually held. Their possession game was good, they opened up and shaped wide when they had the ball, they passed it around at the back. Guardiola drifted around making himself constantly available for the short option in defensive midfield. Bergiristain and Stoichkov stayed fairly wide though did come inside when the ball was on the opposite flank and Romario was the head of the line. When the full backs moved forward, the centre backs moved wider and they kept the ball fairly well up to the middle third.

From the middle third to the front third was where their main problem lay. Mostly, this was because of Milan's defensive shape, which had the midfield four fairly compact and one of the strikers dropping deep. It was very hard for Barcelona to pass through this defensive shape because it was so compact. Stoichkov and Bergiristain were being tracked very tightly by Panucci and Tassotti on the ball and because of the narrow Milan midfield, it was very difficult to play it straight through to Romario.

Milan's midfield four very compact in front of defence and Barcelona finding it hard to break through.

Romario himself was struggling to find space. The Milan back four were generally sat deep when Barca had possession so he struggled to go behind, nor could he drop deep because there was little gap between the defence and midfield. When a straight ball was played to him when he did drop deep, Galli marked him very tightly with Maldini the spare man, whilst Albertini and Desailly were in close company.

Romario marked very tightly by Galli in the green. Meanwhile Maldini acts as the spare man at centre back

Barcelona perhaps could have done with moving Stoichkov and Bergiristain further infield whilst allowing the full backs to make more overlaps. Ferrer and Sergi did move up the field but not high enough to unbalance Milan nor making many quick overlaps when Stoichkov or Bergiristain got the ball with their backs to goal. This was part of the reason why Stoichkov and Bergisitain had fairly quiet games. They were tracked so tightly by Tassotti and Panucci that when they received the a short ball from deep, they generally had their backs to goal and were unable to turn their respective full back.
Therefore Barcelona's attacking threat was very limited. They couldn't pass through the Milan midfield (the only time they did was when the Milan midfield had pressed them naively and left space between the defence and the midfield, resulting in pretty much the first opening for Barcelona). They weren't that dynamic on the flanks because the full backs weren't overlapping and the wingers weren't allowed to turn, and so they were generally passing it about in non-threatening positions.

They created very little overall. As said they had one opening when they'd created an overload between  Milan's midfield and defence and they had one shot on goal when Stoichkov was on the ball, cut inside and had a shot from 25 yards out. Other than that their only other openings occurred when they played diagonal, long balls from deep, behind Panucci for Stoichkov to run onto.

In fact they possibly could have done by taking more risks with their passing. Because of their lack of ability to break through Milan's midfield, they possibly should have played it longer more often because even if it had been cut out by Milan's defence, it would have meant they would have been able to press Milan from the front instead of midfield or defence where they were having to do a lot of their pressing.
Milan with their formation, had one less man in the middle of the field. Guardiola was generally the spare man for Barcelona in a deep, playmaking role so Milan had to deal with that. They dealt with it in a couple of different ways.

The first way was by simply dropping one of the strikers deeper when Barcelona had possession, thereby creating a narrow 4-4-1-1 formation. This meant that Guardiola could be pressed and meant that Barcelona couldn't take advantage of any extra man in midfield, simply because they didn't have one.

Milan's 4-4-1-1 shape in possession

The second way was something that seemed to occur after a few minutes. The fact that Barcelona's full backs weren't going very high up the pitch (in the way Dani Alves does now) meant that this was easily possible. What Milan did was to get Albertini to occupy Guardiola. Then Desailly would occupy one of the centre midfielders, while either Donadoni or Boban would occupy the other centre midfielder.

Albertini, Desailly and Donadoni track Barca's 3 in midfield while Boban is up against his direct opponent Sergi. This leaves Ferrer free on the right but means that Barca are covered in the middle.

This would generally occur when Barcelona had the ball on one side meaning the full back on the opposite side was generally left free. Then when Barcelona spread the ball to the opposite side, the system would swap sides, leaving the other full back free. (Video below)

Milan could use either of these options depending on whichever suited their positions when they lost the ball.

Milan's attacking play had a number of different patterns to it. The overall strength of it though was how fluid it was. A lot of teams who have lots of specific tactical plans are quite rigid in the execution of these. In fact Barcelona were meant to be the exciting, fluid team and Milan were meant to be the rigid, defensive team. Yet in a way it was the opposite in terms of attacking play. Barcelona were too rigid in their 4-3-3 and Milan had lots of interchanging and little tactical ideas moving smoothly from one to another.
It did help Milan that because of their excellent defensive shape that they generally won the ball in the centre of the pitch. If they had won it in the defensive third of the field, as spoken about already, Barca's pressing could have overwhelmed them at that point. Yet they generally won it in midfield so could move quickly from there.

The main damage took place on the counter attack. With quick one twos and interchanging with midfielders coming from deep, they generally took over between the lines on the counter. The strikers, Savicevic and Massaro, worked together well positionally. One generally went deep, the other went long, they both stretched the centre backs with Savicevic generally playing to the right in between Nadal and Sergi and Massaro generally played on Koeman or between Koeman and Ferrer.

Savicevic and Massaro's general positions. Savicevic in the space between Sergi and Nadal

Milan's midfield going forward were excellent. The 'wide' men weren't generally on the flanks, especially Boban,so they could interchange well in those positions. Often the strikers would interchange with the wide men, particularly Boban and Savicevic, so the striker went wide while the wide player cut inside.

In terms of general positioning in midfield, Milan mainly committed three of the four midfielders forward and leaving one, usually Desailly, to hold. Desailly actually found himself lots of space from deep and had a good game with regards to passing so his distribution from deep was good.

Desailly in the lone holding role in midfield.

Another example

Milan's compact four in midfield.

Boban and Albertini press two of Barcelona's midfielders. Meanwhile, Desailly covers.

The ball drops to Desailly in space and he has time to pick one of the options in front of him.

Albertini had license to move forward from centre midfield and was generally the highest of the midfielders, often resulting in a diamond formation in midfield.

Milan's diamond on the ball

With such narrow positions though from the midfield though, they needed to be able to spread the play when Barcelona actually got men back. This is where Tassotti and Panucci came into the attacking phase of play. Though Milan got forward quickly and smoothly on the counter attack when there was space, there had to be a good shape when they Barca dropped deep. As the first half went on, Tassotti and particularly Panucci moved very high and wide up the pitch, able to stretch the play well and cause several chances for Milan.

In terms of actual attacking play, it varied for Milan. Savicevic was often used as a target man when Milan one the ball back and with his positioning generally on the right, it gave the chance for the diagonal ball. Massaro often did the same on the left hand side though he was usually more central than Savicevic when Barcelona had the ball.

Milan made good use of triangles and one twos because with two strikers and three midfielders forward as well as the full backs, they could afford to interchange. If one player moved forward, the other would cover. They executed this excellently and because everyone was aware of each zone that needed filled and were aware of different players positioning, it flowed superbly and Barcelona struggled to deal with it.

As Desailly charges forward, Boban acts as the holding player.

Savicevic picks up the ball and drops deep while Albertini and Desailly make runs.
Tassotti gets forward from full back, providing width. Albertini (blue) breifly sits in the holding role while Desailly runs back and Boban, out of your picture, makes the overlap on the right.
Tassotti moves forward with the ball while Boban (blue) makes a run on the right. Up front, Massaro stays on the defender while Savicevic comes deeper. Meanwhile Desailly on the left trots back to hold in midfield. It was this kind of play that made Milan dangerous. Everyone was aware of the space that needed to be filled and they stretched Barcelona where ever they could yet still maintaining one player in the holding role.

The use of the strikers as target men on occasions also meant that they would hold the ball up in the centre while midfielders rushed forward with momentum. Thus they managed to split open Barcelona and create space to work with.

When Barcelona got men behind the ball, Milan tended to concentrate down the flanks and Boban and especially Donadoni moved slightly wider than previously to create numerical superiority on the flanks. Ferrer had trouble with this and it was no coincidence that the second goal of the game came through this - Donadoni got past him on the left and ran into the area before pulling it back for Massaro to knock in his second.
Nadal at centre back for Barcelona was directly responsible for two of the goals, the first goal when he messed up his heading from the back and was then too easily beaten by Savicevic and the third goal straight after half time when he again dallied around the ball allowing Savicevic to close him down, the ball off him and lob the keeper. Despite the individual mistakes, Barcelona as a whole defended poorly.

When they got hit on the counter attack they generally had numerical inferiority around Guardiola. When they had men back, their central midfielders were too deep. Hence when they cleared the ball it often came straight back at them.

An example of Milan's 4-1-3-2 on the counter attack with four defenders, Desailly holding, the other three midfielders going forward and the two strikers, one dropping short, the other going long.

The systems at the start of the second half didn't change really. Milan were concentrating more on the counter attack than in the first half and Guardiola was getting more time and space on the ball but the overall outcome was the same. Milan's 3rd goal came quickly after the break and at that point Barcelona seemed to know that they weren't coming back. Milan's play in the attacking phase was still as quick and smooth as before and Barcelona were becoming increasingly frustrated, picking up three yellow cards in succession.

One player who became more influential in the second half was Marcel Desailly. In the first half, his role meant he was seen as fairly quiet. Barcelona weren't really threatening in attack and he was mainly playing the holding role when Milan had possession so he wasn't really seen in that area. In the second half, Barcelona had even more possession than they did in the first half (they had 56% of possession in the first half) so Milan's defence was becoming more important. Matched with the fact that Albertini was playing a more restricted role than he did in the first half, Desailly was able at points to charge forward or to close down quicker because, unlike in the first half, he had a covering man. He scored Milan's fourth goal of the night after winning a challenge in midfield and exchanging passes with Albertini before getting behind the defence and slotting it past Zubizaretta into the right hand corner.

From there on, the game was effectively dead. Milan's full backs stayed back and very rarely made forays forward. Desailly and Albertini sat deep in midfield so Milan generally had a 4-2-2-2 in attack. Barcelona made a couple of substitutions and slight changes of system but still struggled with the same problems they'd had in the first half.
Milan started closing down and compacting within 30 or 40 yards of goal so Barcelona still struggled to break through Milan's defence. In the end the only team who looked like scoring again were Milan and they got behind Milan's full backs on a couple of occasions, one in which the ball was pulled back to Savicevic who should've scored.

At which point the game ended and Milan after one of the most amazing performances ever in a European Cup Final took the trophy home leaving Barcelona's Dream Team in tatters.
Like this? Follow the blog on twitter @lankyguyblog


  1. Fantastically detailed. Really enjoy reading these old reviews.

    There's a guy on twitter called @TimHi , he writes (or used to write) similar tactical analyses of classic games, and he's a Liverpool fan too. Maybe you could give him a shout to see if he could redirect some readers your way?

  2. @The Backwards Gooner

    Thanks for the compliments.

    Yeah I already follow him, he has a great blog, I might try and see if he can retweet this article.

  3. Amazing analysis. Could you tell me where you found a video of the match. I would very much like to watch it.

  4. @mb

    I think it was on youtube but it's no longer on there anymore. If you look around, you should be able to find it


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