FC Barcelona – Liverpool: Messi Creates The Gulf In Quality In An Even Contest (3-0)
Lionel Messi’s brilliance left Liverpool with a mountain to climb as Barcelona is taking a massive 3-0 lead to Anfield. Contrary to many expectations, Jürgen Klopp chose to take the game to Barcelona and it was pretty much an even contest until late stages, but Liverpool squandered plenty of good opportunities and lacked clinical edge, while Barcelona ruthlessly took theirs.
Tactical analysis and match report by Cem Soylu.
Barcelona and Liverpool, the two remaining big guns of this year’s Champions League, clashed for the first time since 2007, when Rafa Benítez’s side eliminated the Catalans in the last sixteen. Stereotypically, the matchup could have been seen as the blistering paced counterattacking football of Klopp’s Liverpool versus the ultimate possession-based side in Barcelona, but both teams’ identities have significantly changed in the past two years. As a resilt, this game produced an entirely different contest in Camp Nou.
Ernesto Valverde opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with Arturo Vidal playing as a wide midfielder on the right. Lionel Messi played a free roaming role off Luis Suárez, while Philippe Coutinho was the left midfielder. Ivan Rakitić was chosen as Sergio Busquets’ midfield partner instead of Arthur, while Sergi Roberto started at right back instead of Nelson Semedo.
Jürgen Klopp stuck to his preferred 4-3-3 shape, but to everyone’s surprise, he played Georginio Wijnaldum as a false nine A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. between Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, as Roberto Firmino failed his late fitness test and was only fit enough for the bench. James Milner and Naby Keïta were chosen ahead of Jordan Henderson, who impressed lately, and Fabinho played as the number six behind them. Another surprise selection was the inclusion of Joe Gomez at right back instead of Trent Alexander-Arnold, his first start since his serious injury in December.
Liverpool’s brave approach defines the game
Unlike some of the more cautious setups we have seen from Liverpool especially against Manchester City, Klopp chose to press Barcelona high and take the game to their opponents in Camp Nou. This had a defining effect on the game. Despite Liverpool being arguably the best side in the world at doing this, Barcelona is still one of the best teams to build from the back and evade pressure. Liverpool’s brave approach produced a first half wherein both teams looked very threatening when they passed the halfway line and entered the opposing half.
Barcelona’s buildup, as usual, involved Busquets dropping in between Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet. Liverpool had the trio of Mané – Wijnaldum – Salah pressing high against them, with Mané and Salah having angled runs at the two center-backs to block the pass into the fullbacks. Coutinho positioned high to occupy Gomez and open space for one of Barcelona’s biggest weapons, Jordi Alba, while Vidal dropped into the midfield to form a double pivot Two defensive midfielders are together called a ‘double pivot’. with Rakitić in a 3-2 buildup shape.
Danger man Jordi Alba
The interesting aspect was in the midfield pressure of Liverpool – Keïta pressed his direct opponent Vidal, but Salah’s advanced positioning and Jordi Alba’s importance for Barcelona led Klopp to use Fabinho to press left-sided Rakitić, while Milner stayed more conservative on the right to stay closer to Alba in case the ball is played there. However, Barcelona’s capacity to play perfectly weighted balls to Alba and Alba’s sublime timing of his runs were a thorn in Liverpool’s side throughout the first half. Fabinho stepping forward to press also meant Messi could occasionally find space between the lines, and he also had a few promising moments.
Moreover, after Barcelona progressed the ball to the final third, Alba’s runs were largely untracked, which is one of the most dangerous things you can risk as Barcelona’s opponent. Alba produced Barcelona’s biggest threat throughout the first half, and unsurprisingly provided the assist for Luis Suarez’s goal, although it was more due to magnificent execution than tactical exposure in that particular case. Coutinho opened himself up for a Vidal switch, laid the ball for Alba who arrived freely, and his excellent delivery found Suárez who pounced to make it 1-0.
13th minute – Rakitić in possession. During Barcelona buildup, Lenglet passes Rakitić. Fabinho moves higher to press him, while Coutinho drops deep, dragging Gomez with him, and Alba starts his sprint. Milner tries to follow but Rakitić turns and sends him through, Alba’s cutback almost finds Messi for a clear chance.
Barcelona’s shape allows loads of space for Liverpool but Firmino badly missed
Klopp’s approach was brave, but so was Valverde’s. Barcelona also attempted to press Liverpool in the first half, risking a lot of one-on-one battles in the back. Barcelona’s 4-4-2 shape pressed in a diamond shape during Liverpool buildup, with Suarez and Messi closing down the center-backs and Rakitić moving higher to press Fabinho. Although they succeeded in forcing Liverpool to lose the ball in a few occasions, they were immediately exposed if Liverpool were able to progress the ball, and their intensity dropped gradually, especially right after ending their attacking moves.
Vidal was often drawn narrow to help out, which risked Robertson’s marauding runs on the left but the Scottish left back could not do what Alba did to capitalize on it. Liverpool was also unlucky to lose Keïta to injury in the twentieth minute – this was a perfect game for the Guinean’s dribbling ability and at his best he is more of a creative force than any other Liverpool midfielder.
Mané against Sergi Roberto was a favorable battle for Liverpool and the Senegalese wide forward looked very dangerous in the first half. He missed a golden chance from a wonderful pass from Henderson, who had replaced injured Keïta and switched with Milner to play as the right sided central midfielder. Liverpool often got into dangerous positions throughout the half also with Salah, but against an in-form Barcelona defense who kept six clean sheets in their last seven games, they were not clinical at all and often failed at the final pass. Wijnaldum never played that role before for Liverpool, and Firmino was badly missed for his perfectly weighted service to Mané and Salah in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.
42th minute – Barcelona ends a move, Alisson distributes with his hand to Fabinho, Messi and Suárez switch off. Rakitić moves towards Fabinho but Fabinho has all sorts of options. Mané moves closer and drags Sergi Roberto, receives and passes back to Fabinho, Robertson has a huge space to run into but Fabinho’s pass does not go through. Similar to Barcelona’s Alba situation above, but much more poorly executed.
Barcelona retreats, Liverpool dominates, Messi deals the blow
The second half started with the same dynamics as the first half, and neither team made changes initially. Liverpool immediately had a very good chance with Milner in the beginning of the second half, and then another promising opportunity in the 53rd minute that ended with a dangerous Salah shot from outside the box that forced a save from ter Stegen.
Liverpool started to come dangerously from the right side, with Henderson predominantly playing in the right halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. Gomez overlapping and both combining with Salah. Valverde brought resistance to that side by removing Coutinho and introducing Semedo as a right back, in a move that saw Vidal move to left midfield and Sergi Roberto to the right midfield. After a first half with an even share of possession, Liverpool was now having more of the ball and winning the ball back earlier, but still lacked the quality to create good chances in the final third. Both teams had around 0.75 expected goals The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. each by 75th minute, showing the lack of good quality chances created and how even this battle was.
Then came Messi. The aforementioned inclination for Fabinho to press was punished as he moved forward, Messi got the ball in the space behind him, burst forward and laid a beautiful through ball to Sergi Roberto. Suárez hit the post, and Messi finished into the open goal for 2-0. Klopp brought in Firmino for Wijnaldum, but a few minutes later Fabinho fouled Messi for a free-kick and the greatest player of all time scored a magnificent curler into the top corner for 3-0.
Liverpool had a golden chance straight after with Firmino, and then Salah hit the post instead of the open goal. From that moment on Liverpool are lucky that this did not turn into a thrashing – they got exposed twice with only one man left behind after corner kicks, and Barcelona wasted really good opportunities to effectively kill the tie.
This was an open contest for the most part, with both teams leaving defensive exposures in their approach but looking threatening in the other end. Valverde had to pick his battles and he was always going to risk something as his team really needed to get a result in Camp Nou. He used a 4-4-2 shape with Messi as a free roaming forward, used Vidal to help defend Robertson and trusted his defenders to defend the occasional situations they would encounter as a result of their risky approach.
Klopp decided to really go for it in this first leg and his team played an even game with Barcelona, but there was a gulf between the quality of the decisive actions in the final third. It is normal to have a gulf in quality when the opposition has Lionel Messi, but Liverpool’s most frequent creators are Firmino and the two fullbacks. Considering two of those three were not playing today, it is unsurprising that Liverpool’s creativity in the final third today was lackluster.
Gomez is a better defender than Alexander-Arnold, but since this was an offensive approach and Gomez did overlap all game, Alexander-Arnold could have proven a better choice with the quality of his deliveries. That said, Liverpool is a spectacular side and they were really unlucky to lose this game by a three goal margin having played pretty decently for Camp Nou standards. It might be outrageous to say, but knowing the capacity of this team the tie might not be over yet.
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