Barcelona's shock 2-0 defeat to AC Milan was a classic example of possession verus counter-attacking. The Italians sat deep and conceded the ball, and the game was effectively played on Barcelona's terms: they dominated possession, were tasked with the challenge of carrying the ball forward and creating opportunities against a massed defence.
It wasn't and won't be the last time Barcelona have failed in this task, but the defeat still prompts questions about the potency of their attack. Such is their reputation for ball hogging and intricate interchange of short passing in tight areas, they are always going to compete in these kind of 'one-sided' affairs. The degree of impotency they displayed only exaggerated what was a basic problem.
Stretching the active playing zone is a natural way to combat a team playing deep -- by playing with width, you stretch the defence in lateral areas, which forces them to concede compactness. More space is created, and the more space there is, the more room there is to exploit.
But playing with good width doesn't immediately solve the issue. Barcelona had Pedro and Iniesta starting in positions close to the touchline, and even when they inevitably cut inside towards goal, there was Jordi Alba and Dani Alves providing energetic bursts forward on the overlap. There was plenty of width in this Barcelona attack, but there was little penetration. That was because of a problem in stretching the defence in a different direction -- vertically.
Rapid counter-attacking works because it exposes defences when they are at their weakest, but it also works because the attack is actively seeking to find the spaces behind the defence. Sometimes, this can be a very small amount of space (for Barcelona, it was just the length of the penalty area, the edge of which Milan set their line), but they still needed someone to move directly into this space, to push defenders backwards.
Pedro was the only player actively attempting this, although Messi sporadically drifted wide right to attack the obvious weak link in the Milan backline, Kevin Constant. They needed more of this directness off the ball if they were to pull Milan out of shape, and so the introduction of Alexis Sanchez for the ineffective Cesc Fabregas made sense.
But even then the Chilean kept moving in between the lines to receive the ball before attempting to dribble quickly towards goal, and its hard to remember any significant contribution from the winger.
Often, that zone that Sanchez kept occupying, between the lines of midfield and defence, is credited as the 'danger area', as playmakers can slip into open spaces and find room to craft attacks on goal. But even the very best playmakers need a foil, someone making a run in behind the defence that they can find with a clever pass. Even when any of the Barcelona playmakers -- Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi -- found room in and around Massimo Ambrosini, Riccardo Montolivo and Sulley Muntari, they couldn't do anything with it.
This was an impressive show of Milan solidity, but it owed much to Barcelona's bluntness.