Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Barcelona 2011 vs. AC Milan 1990

Perhaps the two classiest teams of the past 20 years are Barcelona of today and AC Milan of the early 90's.

What if they played today? Jonathan Wilson breaks down the hypothetical match-up.

Should Barcelona win the Champions League this year, though, it would have good claim to be the best side since Sacchi's. It won the competition in 2009, and may have done so again last year had the prohibition on flights after the eruption of the Icelandic volcano not forced the squad to travel by bus to Milan to face Internazionale in the semifinal. Even after a 3-1 defeat, it took a defensive performance of extraordinary resilience -- and good fortune -- from Inter to withhold Pep Guardiola's team in the second leg.

Sacchi's Milan fell apart soon after its second European triumph, the demands of his pressing game and the difficulty of retaining the hunger necessary to enact it eventually becoming too great. Given Guardiola's transition over a mere three seasons from sprightly ex-player to haggard coach, and his cryptic pronouncements about leaving the Barca job and moving to Italy, it's tempting to wonder if he is finding the maintenance of a great side, constantly stoking its desire, just as taxing as Sacchi did. With their insistence on pressing, both sides play a peculiarly demanding form of football, and one to which outsiders find it difficult to adjust. Neither coach could freshen up a squad by simply going out and signing a new player and expect them immediately to settle.

But what would happen if the teams played each other? Both probably produced their greatest displays in beating Real Madrid 5-0, Barcelona earlier this season; AC Milan in the European Cup semifinal in 1989 (both, oddly, also drew 1-1 in the Bernabeu the same season). So let's take the lineups from those two games and pit them against each other.

AC Milan: Giovanni Galli; Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini; Roberto Donadoni, Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti, Angelo Colombo; Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten

Barcelona: Victor Valdes; Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal; Sergio Busquets; Xavi, Andres Iniesta; Pedro, Lionel Messi, David Villa

Milan had Giovanni Galli in goal and a back four of, from right to left, Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini. Frank Rijkaard and Carlo Ancelotti held the middle of midfield with Roberto Donadoni to the right and Angelo Colombo to the left, with Ruud Gullit playing just off Marco van Basten in a classic 4-4-2. Barcelona, meanwhile, had more of a 4-1-2-3 shape: Victor Valdes in goal. Dani Alves and Eric Abidal surged forward from fullback, with Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol as the two center backs. Sergio Busquets held at the back of the midfield, with Xavi and Andres Iniesta just in front of him, while Lionel Messi operated as a false nine, allowing David Villa and Pedro to cut in from wide positions.

Both sides self-consciously pursue the same philosophy of soccer; Sacchi evangelized the Total Football Dutch teams of the seventies, while Guardiola was captain of the Johan Cruyff-coached Barcelona Dream Team (1991-94) that espoused the same theories as the Netherlands and Ajax sides Cruyff had captained. The difference was in the shape, and that may be conditioned by era.

Sacchi's Milan could afford a 4-4-2 because it pressed high up the pitch, the high offside line (Sacchi's ideal was 25 meters from center back to center forward) squeezing the space and preventing the opposition having time on the ball. The liberalization of the offside law has made such a high line impossible, and any side that doesn't play an additional man in the center of midfield struggles to control possession. If this imaginary game is being played under modern rules, Sacchi's side immediately has a problem.

Then again, Barca is not used to sides that press as hard or as high as Sacchi's, and when Milan do win the ball, Colombo and Donadoni give Dani Alves and Abidal a dilemma. Do they press on as they would usually to, providing attacking width and overlapping the inverted wingers, or do they try to deal with the potential attacking threat? The evidence of this season has been that Barca's fullbacks tend to push on regardless, and that could mean a steady supply of crosses to Van Basten, an excellent finisher of aerial chances.

Franco Baresi

Messi's drifting, such a problem for so many sides, shouldn't present Milan with too much of an issue, given its offside line should compress the space available to him, forcing him into the area occupied by Ancelotti and Rijkaard. The concern for Milan would be that if any of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi do have even a fraction of time on the ball in a central area, they could feed angled balls through for Pedro or Villa to cut onto from wide. Part of the idea of pressing is to panic the opposition into hasty passes, but even when those three are under pressure, the suspicion must be that eventually one would find the killer pass, particularly given the changes in the offside law that make it easier for Villa and Pedro to time their runs.

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