For the fifth and sixth time in the space of 18 months, Milan have the ‘pleasure’ of taking on Barcelona in the Champions League. You would have thought the previous meetings with the Spaniards will have given Coach Massimiliano Allegri enough information to formulate a decent plan to have the best possible chance of progression, but such are the differences between this Milan team and last year’s version that he has decisions to make over his approach.
To press or not to press
You have two options when playing Barcelona – press or sit back deep with numbers. Anything in between this and you get crushed – see Real Madrid’s efforts during Jose Mourinho’s first year or so in charge, where their game plan floated in between these ideas, leading to regular beatings.
In the home leg of their quarter-final tie last year, Milan chose the latter option, probably because Allegri was put off the alternative by the 2-3 home defeat in the group stages where the Rossoneri, having already qualified in second, attempted to take the game to Barca and lost.
This team, however, has a little more mobility and pace. The quality has dropped, but the upside is that Allegri could press with a little more success.
The problem is that the vast majority of teams that try to press Barcelona get beat heavily, partly because they tire later on, and partly because they are not particularly well versed in the methodology, which allows some of the best players in Europe to employ their standard passing triangles all the way to the goal. Milan could fall into both categories, so their best chance of success perhaps remains the tried and trusted sit deep in numbers.
4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2
Last year Allegri employed no other system, so the choice was obvious. Now that he has moved Milan away from their long-time stock 4-3-1-2, the selection is not so clear.
The 4-3-1-2 did a reasonable job in the first leg of the quarter-final, where the main aim was not to concede an away goal, because it allowed Milan to crowd the middle of the pitch out with four central midfielders. But for Milan to progress they are going to have win the game at San Siro, which means scoring a goal, and for this purpose it may be less useful.
That is augmented with Kevin-Prince Boateng’s largely abysmal season thus far – an underperforming trequartista is not going to help matters – while a 4-3-3 will at least give full-backs Daniel Alves and Jordi Alba something to think about and poses more of a goal threat if they use three strikers.
Play with three strikers, or use Boateng wide
The composition of a potential 4-3-3 throws up a few questions. Boateng is more than likely going to play, the choice Allegri has is where to use him. He played at trequartista for all four matches in 2011-12 with little variation in his role, but this year has played a number of times in the wide positions.
Silvio Berlusconi wants to see Milan play the tie with three strikers, which would mean Boateng back in midfield where he is best suited. But with a clean sheet so important, Prince playing wide as a more combative and defensively able player is a genuine option, though it would have to be in place of one of the wide forwards, most likely M’Baye Niang assuming Stephan El Shaarawy is fit.
Against Parma he started wide but wandered infield – a deliberate move that may have been in practice for Wednesday’s match. They certainly do not have the quality to match Barcelona man for man, and even Real Madrid have resorted on occasion to the numbers game in the middle in an effort to stay competitive in midfield.
Massimo Ambrosini or Riccardo Montolivo in front of the defence
This should be a simple choice – Ambrosini played this role in both quarter-final games last season and did it very well, though he was a little laboured in the second leg having been forced to play games every three to four days due to injuries in the squad.
It makes more sense to have a defensive minded player against a team with Barca’s attacking potential. It is Montolivo’s handling of the position over the last month or so, while Ambrosini has been injured, that may cause a few doubts. Allegri praised his defensive showing after Friday’s win against Parma, giving special mention to his covering of the full-backs when they went forward.
Both players will play, but their positioning will give an indication as to Allegri’s approach for the game.