It is all too easy to blame Tito Vilanova and Jordi Roura for FC Barcelona's 2-0 round of 16 defeat by AC Milan last week. Many observers have done just that, criticising Barça's coach and his assistant for not developing a plan B. One pundit who has not joined this chorus, however, is Otto Rehhagel.
The German oversaw one of the most unexpected triumphs in international football when he steered Greece to glory at UEFA EURO 2004. He did so without a plan B. He had a plan A – a 4-5-1 formation with a sweeper that relied on man-to-man marking and dominating games by controlling space, rather than the ball – and stuck to it rigidly.
Having used this system for years, Rehhagel decided he understood its flaws, intricacies and strengths so well that he was better off staying with it rather than adopting some new-fangled innovation such as 4-4-2. There was a degree of humility in this decision – an implicit recognition that a coach could be a genius when using one system but the fall guy when deploying another – but he certainly proved his point in 2004.
Rehhagel's feat indicates that a plan B for the second leg might not be necessary for Barcelona. It is telling that people cannot quite agree what this plan B should be. For some, it involves playing David Villa in front of Lionel Messi; for others it is replacing Cesc Fàbregas or Alexis Sánchez with Cristian Tello and for a few – who have written off the Blaugrana's chances – it entails a summer shake-up.
The clamour for a plan B is fuelled by the idea that Barcelona routinely fail to perform when opponents "park the bus". Critics like to cite famous defeats by Chelsea FC and FC Internazionale Milano, conveniently forgetting that the margin between success and failure in these instances was extremely slender. This view is also harsh on the Rossoneri, who impressed immensely in the first leg.
Arsenal FC fans also want Arsène Wenger to devise a plan B. This is where all the talk of As and Bs degenerates because the Gunners did switch to plan B in the second half against FC Bayern München – with Olivier Giroud substituting Theo Walcott as central striker – and looked significantly improved.
Arsenal's plan B against Bayern, with the Frenchman as centre-forward, had previously been their plan A in the Premier League. Walcott, at times, has proved devastatingly effective through the middle in domestic competition, but UEFA Champions League defences leave less space for him to exploit. It is this plan A that many Arsenal supporters insist should be superseded by a new plan B (the old plan A). Confused? You will be ...
The global popularity of fantasy football games has empowered millions of armchair tacticians. Yet many of this competition's greatest matches – including the remarkable 2005 final between Milan and Liverpool FC – have been defined by character, passion or skill, not tactical acumen.
The stats for Milan v Barcelona show the visitors completed only 674 passes (compared with 722 per game in Group G), were slightly less accurate (just 81% of passes found their man) and had two shots on target (against an average of 10.1 in Group G). Messi had 80 touches (his mean was 98.8 for the five group fixtures in which he played the full 90 minutes), while Xavi Hernández completed only 94 passes (133 per game in Group G).
You can see these statistics as demanding a tactical rethink. Barcelona's coaches could formulate a plan B that, in the high-pressure arena of a UEFA Champions League tie, could undo a team rather than strengthen it. However, they might be better off focusing on lifting the performances of a few players who, by their own exalted standards, simply had an off night in Milan.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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