Well, this is awkward. Just two weeks ago many outlets, us sheepishly included, were shoveling dirt on top of Barça's reign as the world's best team. But following a string of terrible results—three losses in 11 days, once to Italian upstarts AC Milan and twice to bitter rivals Real Madrid—Barcelona answered. Last year's disappointment, losing to Chelsea in Champions League play and placing second behind Madrid in La Liga, had pundits wondering if their slide began even before this season kicked off.
Backs to the wall after losing 2-0 in the first leg of their Champions League tie with AC Milan, Barcelona could only advance to the quarterfinal with a historic, no-seriously-it's-never-ever-been-done-before, you're-smoking-dope-if-you-think-they'll-pull-it-off victory at home. Barça hadn't shown much in recent weeks to indicate that they were capable of beating Milan by two goals, but following their 4-0 romp of the Italian side, their recent history appears a minor blip.
The most common charge leveled against the Spanish kings was that they'd grown stagnant, that the rest of the world had caught up to them tactically, and that their 4-3-3 formation, which consisted of the same core with the peripheral players rotated out every season or so, had been figured out. So it was a surprise when Barcelona started the match by swapping out fading center-back Carles Puyol for Javier Mascherano and shifting to a 3-4-3. They pushed right back Dani Alves up on Milan's left back, Kevin Constant, slid David Villa to center of the pitch, and dropped Lionel Messi in behind Villa as an attacking midfielder.
The 3-4-3 tactic was necessary and appropriate. It threw another man into the attack, which Barcelona needed if they were dig themselves out of a two-goal hole. In doing so, the Spanish side was able to employ four men to Milan's three in the midfield, where these matches are won or lost.
The 4-3-3 is in these days on both the club and national levels (largely thanks to Barcelona's success), and it offers one distinct advantage over the traditional 4-4-2. The 4-4-2, played with two wingers, is meant to exploit the flanks, while two central midfielders link the defense to the two forwards. A 4-3-3 places three midfielders in the center of the park, though, outnumbering the two central midfielders in a 4-4-2. There's always an extra man in a 4-3-3 to break up play and to join the attack from deep. They essentially choke the midfield. This is what Milan hoped to do yesterday, and the only way to combat it is to raise the ante. Barcelona went with the 3-4-3, their midfielders in a tight diamond. This allowed Sergio Busquets, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta to occupy the Milan midfield, leaving Messi free to run at AC Milan's back four, to link up with Villa, and ostensibly, to score boatloads of goals. It only took Messi five minutes to break through.
What you should notice as the goal is developing is that Barcelona have as many men on attack as Milan have defenders in the play. David Villa and left winger Pedro also push all the way forward on the Milan back line, occupying the defenders and leaving Messi essentially unmarked at the top of the box to do a Messi-type thing. (What's often overlooked in the star's arsenal is that in addition to his ungodly pace, strength, balance, agility and vision, Messi has a ridiculous instinct for knowing when in traffic to stop a pass completely dead instead of controlling in any particular direction. This gives an extra second of time and space, allowing him to dig the ball out from under him with a shot. Of course, a shot like this won't often beat a keeper from the edge of the box, unless you're Messi.)
Barça were still down on aggregate, and even though they were dominating, the 3-4-3 has a huge, obvious flaw, which is why almost no one uses it unless in a serious emergency: there are only three defenders. This is tough against even a 4-4-2, since two central forwards can wreak havoc on a single centerback if the outside backs stray too wide, and it leaves huge channels down the flanks if the three defenders are too compact. Against a 4-3-3, it's even worse, because the attackers are one-on-one against the backs. If Milan could get the ball to its young forwards against Barcelona's back three, they had a real chance to score. The only way to counter this is to pressure the living shit out of the ball so that Milan's players can't even afford to put their head up and pick out an attacker.
It's hard to apply full-field pressure and stay compact, and it's where Barcelona has been burned before, especially over their recent two-week nightmare. Barça's defense actually looked shaky and overstretched throughout the entire game with one fewer man on the back line, and in the 38th minute, Milan almost broke free for a catastrophic goal. Eighteen-year-old forward M'Baye Niang got behind the defense and even beat the keeper, but his strike hit the post and bounced away harmlessly. Barcelona dumped the ball back downfield, used midfield pressure to force the turnover, and found Messi again for his second goal.
Here, you see Messi join Villa and Pedro on the front line. With left back Constant out of the play, Barça's attacking players almost have even numbers against the defense again. Messi gets the ball, stops it dead, then uses centerback Philippe Mexes as a screen as he beats the Milan keeper on the near post. At the half it was 2-0, but this game already felt over.
David Villa, used almost exclusively as a decoy for Messi throughout the game, scored ten minutes after halftime. The home side was now up 3-2 on aggregate. Milan needed a goal to tie the score, but if they could get it, they'd advance on the away goal tiebreaker. So they brought on Sulley Muntari and Brazilian star Robinho, who Milan tried to use a bit like how Barcelona used Messi. He played a little deeper, linking the midfield to the forwards, trying to coax center-back Gerard Pique off his back line to leave running room behind him for Milan's athletic wingers sweeping in from the flanks. Robinho was active on the ball and looked dangerous, even creating a few chances. But the Spaniards dropped Dani Alves to right back, subbed in Puyol, and reverted to the old faithful 4-3-3 for defensive support.
The final goal came when Milan was caught with all but two men forward in stoppage time. Messi stole a pass and launched a counter attack down the right side to substitute Alexis Sánchez. He whipped it back across the box to left back Jordi Alba bombing down the center, reminiscent of his goal in the Euro 2012 final. Just like that, 4-0, 4-2 on aggregate, quarterfinal clinched.
It was a perfect display from what people not particularly prone to hyperbole have called the greatest team in the history of the sport, and a throwback to when a Pep Guardiola-led side won 14 out of 19 trophies over a four-year period. With La Liga all but locked up and the squad recently ousted from the Copa del Rey by Real Madrid, Barcelona actually has the luxury of concentrating almost solely on the Champions League. It's the greatest club tournament in the world, and if they win, they'll prove to everyone that they haven't been overtaken by Madrid, Bayern, or even nouveau-riche PSG, who last offseason swooped in for AC Milan's two best players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (a Barça alumnus) and Thiago Silva. Before yesterday's game, we were almost certain the world had passed Barcelona by. Suddenly, it seems the world may still be playing catch-up.