Milan kept a close watch on Messi throughout the evening
Barcelona's Champions League hopes were dealt a serious blow Wednesday night at the San Siro, courtesy of an impressive defensive performance from AC Milan.
The Rossoneri defended steadfastly throughout the night, keeping their collective shape in the face of Barcelona's probing attacks, and benefiting from the diligent work of several key players. When given the opportunity, they attacked with ferocity and finished clinically.
Barcelona, meanwhile, didn't offer much to answer Milan's disciplined defensive display. Adding to the difficulty of zipping passes along a rough pitch, Lionel Messi was unable to find any joy on the dribble. As a result, the Blaugrana lacked their usual inspiration in attack, and hardly tested Christian Abbiati in the whole of the 90 minutes.
It was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances for Barcelona, and one they'll be hoping to avoid entirely in the return leg. Let's have a closer look at exactly what led to their shock defeat.
Ambrosini was a massive presence as Milan's holding midfielder
Simply put, Milan kept their shape brilliantly when Barcelona were on the ball. Setting up in a 4-5-1 formation, every player knew exactly where he had to be at all times.
The midfielders in particular—forming a compact line that moved together from one side of the pitch to the other—denied key passes throughout the 90 minutes, and collapsed on the ball in the middle of the pitch with consistent success.
The system seems so simple: when the ball comes into a player's area, he pressures the ball. When it leaves, he drops back into the line. The line moves across the field in unison.
But of course, human nature inevitably interferes, and players' attention typically drifts toward the ball. Milan's players were constantly checking their surroundings, making sure they fit into the team's overall formation. Riccardo Montolivo, Massimo Ambrosini, and Sulley Muntari, Milan's central midfield three operating from right to left, were magnificent in this respect.
Defending also requires hard work, and Milan were not lacking for it. Stephan El-Shaarawy and Kevin-Prince Boateng were called upon to defend doggedly after streaking forward in attack, and doggedly they defended.Time and again, wide players let slip the runs of Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, but the two Milan men refused to be caught out, making key interventions on otherwise promising Barca attacks.
Cesc Fabregas failed to find space and make runs to trouble Milan's defense
Milan defended well, but this is Barcelona. We're used to seeing them shred even quality defenses to pieces. How did they fail to create?
The first problem was a relative lack of movement ahead of the ball. Everything was side-to-side, with the occasional in-and-out.
A typical barometer for Barcelona's attack is whether their players are moving while the ball is in transit from one player to the next. Defenders, after all, have an easy time tracking attackers' movements when the ball is at another player's feet, but while it's moving, they have trouble keeping track of both the ball and the player.
On this measure, their performance was dismal. Cesc Fabregas, Xavi and Messi typically make these unpredictable "second" runs off the ball, but on Wednesday night, they never got going. Even Alves wasn't quite streaking down the right in his usual fashion, seeming to save his energy, somewhat puzzlingly.
Messi struggles to retain possession, as he did all evening against a dogged Milan defense
Barcelona often overcome their collectively poor performances, relying on their players' individual brilliance to distort defenses instead. Messi's dribbles usually leave one or more midfield players for dead, drawing defenders out to pressure the ball and leaving spaces behind them, ready for exploitation by Pedro, Iniesta and the rest.
But on Wednesday night, Messi was marked out of the game, and seemed but a shadow of himself in the second half. Without his destabilizing effect on the Milan defense, Barcelona were seriously lacking for attacking energy.
Another player Barcelona have relied on for midfield inspiration—Cesc Fabregas—seemed even more out of sorts, failing to complete simple passes and exerting almost no positive influence on the match. He was duly substituted on 60 minutes.
With two of their biggest names putting in subpar performances, Barcelona certainly could have used another world-class attacking option on the pitch.
Alexis Sanchez failed to influence the match after coming on for the final half hour
Barcelona needed another attacking option in this game, and they needed it badly. With Messi off his game, they missed David Villa more than ever.
When Messi drops deep to receive the ball, the attacking players making runs ahead of him—while all brilliant players—aren't the types of players who can consistently test a back four. They're not going to hold a line with the last defender and threaten runs in behind. They're not going to receive the ball under pressure and create just enough space for an unexpected shot.
Unfortunately for the Blaugrana, the highest quality player on the bench capable of filling that role on was Alexis Sanchez. But the Chilean has struggled all season to find the back of the net, and was never likely to make the crucial difference at the San Siro.
It's too late to deny it now—Barca rely too heavily on Messi for goals, and tonight, it cost them.
Things will surely be different at the Camp Nou, but will it be too little too late?