Barcelona 2011 vs. AC Milan 1990
AC Milan was the last team to successfully defend the Champions League title
Both Milan and Barcelona share the same philosophy of Dutch Total Football
The liberalization of the modern offside rule would give Barcelona the edge
Ask anybody who's done it, and they'll tell you that sustaining success is much harder than achieving it in the first place. The great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann refused ever to spend longer than three years at a club because he felt that after that he could no longer motivate players. It may be that in the modern world of soccer in which money begets money, success is easier to sustain than previously, at least on a domestic level. On a European scale what that means is a cluster of perhaps eight or so super powers constantly battling for the Champions League, which is surely the main reason no side has successfully defended the title since the AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi in 1990.
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.
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.
Of course, a version of this fixture did occur in 1994, when Cruyff's Dream Team, the clear precursors of this Barca, met a Milan side remodeled by Fabio Capello in the Champions League final. On that occasion, Milan thrashed Barca 4-0, whose two fluid forwards, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario, found themselves squeezed out of utility by a combination of the Milan back four (even though it was significantly rejigged that night because of injury) and Marcel Desailly sitting deep in the midfield. Dejan Savicevic, meanwhile, ran wild, drifting from a nominal center forward's position into the spaces behind the Barca fullbacks.
Gullit, perhaps, could do something similar in this game and, while a great strength, the flanks are certainly where Barca look vulnerable, but the liberalization of the offside law must work in the modern team's favor. Sacchi's Milan was a team that favored position on the field over possession, but with opponents able to wander behind its back four without being called offside until they were interfering in a material way, it's hard to see how it could ever achieve that control. Barca, inevitably, would dominate possession, and then it would be just a question of when one of their playmakers pierced the offside trap.
It's a little unfair, because under the old law Milan would have a far better chance. Under the modern interpretation, though, I'm saying Guardiola's Barca to win 2-0, both goals coming from the sort of chance it created against Arsenal in the first half of the first leg at the Emirates this year -- angled balls played to forwards running in from wide.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.