AC Milan have been a team searching for an identity this season, with key players leaving in the summer, but Massimiliano Allegri has done remarkably well to keep the club competitive. Milan’s most regular system is a 4-3-3 variation, with a designated holding midfielder and a narrow front three. Mario Balotelli has recently starred as the central forward but will be cup-tied, so either Stephan El Shaarawy or Giampaolo Pazzini will play in his place. Kevin-Prince Boateng is likely to start on the left in place of the injured Robinho to offer defensive solidity, while Allegri can choose between Riccardo Montilivo, Sulley Muntari, Antonio Nocerino and Mathieu Flamini for midfield positions. With Nigel De Jong injured, Massimo Ambrosini will probably play in the holding role.
Milan face Barcelona, the team that have defined the 4-3-3 shape more than any other in recent years. With manager Tito Vilanova recovering from cancer treatment in New York, assistant Jordi Roura will continue to take charge of the team but has no major injury concerns.
Tactical Comparison: 4-1-2-3 vs 4-1-2-3
The obvious outcome of such a tactical match-up is the freedom granted to the holding midfielder due to the lack of central advanced midfielders. This is certainly the case with most exponents of a 4-1-2-3. Milan’s central midfield pair will be tasked with engaging Cesc Fabregas and Xavi, and although Boateng will likely drift infield from the left flank, his primary defensive concern will be Barcelona’s full back Dani Alves. Therefore Sergio Busquets will often find himself with no direct opponent in defence and with time and space in possession. Busquet’s is an underrated playmaker largely due to the brilliance of the players ahead of him, but the Spaniard has the ability to dictate play from deep and move forward with the ball when the opportunity arises.
Barcelona also lack a permanent occupant of the space around Ambrosini, but they maintain a threat between the lines through the movement of Leo Messi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas making runs into the zone from different areas of the pitch. Messi attacks the space from behind Milan’s holding midfielder, Iniesta from his right and Fabregas will look to run past his midfield opponent, meaning Ambrosini will be kept occupied at all times. In possession Barcelona’s intense pressing starts from the front, and Busquets will naturally move forward to allow Fabregas the freedom to engage Ambrosini.
Against most other 4-1-2-3 system’s Ambrosini would consider himself a free man, but the quality of movement of Barcelona’s players will make him the busiest player on the pitch.
Tactical Adjustments: Narrow left wingers
Interestingly both teams are likely to have a similar balance between their wide forwards. Both sides play with a direct option on the right – M’Baye Niang is a forward playing wide and looking to attack the penalty box, while Pedro is a winger capable of clever runs behind the opposing full back. On the left both Boateng and Iniesta play narrower, Boateng as a combative midfielder and Iniesta as a playmaker. Therefore both teams are likely to develop attacks in a similar way – the left forward linking with midfield before looking for incisive passes through to the right-sided attacker.
With Boateng and Iniesta naturally coming inside, both teams will look to their full backs for attacking width on the left flank. Jordi Alba energy has allowed him to mirror Dani Alves’ ‘box-to-box’ coverage of the opposing flank, so Barcelona will be confident that their attacks will not become unbalanced, but Kevin Constant is likely to be too concerned by Pedro to get forward with the same abandon. Should Milan fail to offer a genuine threat down their left flank, Dani Alves will be all the more likely to get forward at will.
Individual Analysis: Milan’s centre forward
Milan have a few selection dilemmas. In defence Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio are competing for the right back role. In midfield Allegri has a number of options (as discussed), although with the exception of Ambrosini, a natural holding player, and Montolivo, a playmaker, Nocerino, Flamini and Muntari all offer a similar, energetic midfield presence. In attack however El Shaarawy and Pazzini offer dramatically different options.
Shaarawy has enjoyed an excellent season and is likely to start if considered fit enough. The 20-year-old offers pace and movement, and would offer a target on the counter attack by drifting wide into space vacated by Barcelona’s full backs. Barcelona have conceded a number of goals on the break in recent weeks, seemingly due to the team’s failure to get back in support of the central defenders, so this may be a viable plan of attack – although it should be said that Barcelona’s players are likely to be more focused and motivated for a Champions League knockout game than a La Liga match, especially given their insurmountable lead at the top of the table.
Pazzini would offer more of a static target man. Barcelona are often mooted as being vulnerable to aerial bombardment – although all statistics say otherwise – so Pazzini may offer a target for long balls upfield or crosses from wide. Whichever player is selected will greatly determine Milan’s approach to the game.
Milan’s adoption of a 4-3-3 shape does feel like they are trying to take on Barcelona at their own game. Their use of the space between the lines is crucial – can Ambrosini stifle Barcelona’s threat, whilst at the other end will Milan’s front three be able to occupy Busquets? These teams met in the Champions League Group Stage last season, with Milan causing Barcelona enough problems to earn a 2-2 draw away and a 2-3 defeat in the San Siro. Yet seven of the thirteen players that started those two games for Milan are no longer at the club, and the majority of the current first team were warming the bench, so it would take an excellent effort for the Italian’s to challenge Barcelona again.