Champions League Knockout Preview – Part Three
Isn’t this the best time of the year? The winter cold slowly fades away, to be replaced by the thin and hopeful sunlight of early spring. Club football enters its decisive phase, with lots to play for in every competition. After a set of very enjoyable Champions league ties last week, the biggest competition in club football is back at it again tonight.
Article by José Perez, Om Arvind and guest writer Siddharth Ramsundar.
Olympique Lyonnais – FC Barcelona (José Pérez)
It has been a while since the last time Lyon managed to keep so many talented players on the team for two consecutive seasons. After a few months of using a 3-4-2-1 formation, coach Bruno Génésio returned to a nominal 4-2-3-1 shape. The charismatic double pivot of Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar use their outstanding dribbling skill to progress through midfield zones, helped by the unique left back Ferland Mendy.
Up front, Bertrand Traoré and Memphis Depay provide speed, dribbling and goals. The pair start on the wings and then cut inside to switch positions and combine with Nabil Fekir, Lyon’s brain in the final third. At the tip of the spear lies striker Moussa Dembélé, who often maintains depth to give the creative players behind him more time and space to work their magic.
Lyon’s build-up and chance creation mechanisms rely more on their individual talent than on a collective structure. This unstructured attack also leads to an chaotic counterpress upon losing the ball, significantly exposing Lyon at the back and forcing Ndombele to make superhuman feats to mop up a lot of threats. To make things worse, their central defenders – Marcelo and Jason Denayer – are not great either, and the position of right back has been a serious problem, with both of Rafael’s replacements Léo Dubois and Kenny Tete making some very unimpressive cameos.
The tactical struggles of Génésio to create a structured attacking system mean that Lyon are often more comfortable counterattacking against a European giant than having the initiative against a lower-ranked team. This is why Lyon can struggle against smaller Ligue 1 sides like Reims, Caen or Guingamp but then play European giants Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City out of the park, by mixing up sitting deep and counterattacking with pressing high up the pitch for periods of time.
Key injuries and suspensions
Fekir suspended, Ndombele and Denayer doubtful due to injury.
Ernesto Valverde has tried to make his 2018/19 Barcelona into a more offensive pressing team, moving away from his previous conservative 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation. After a few failed experiments, perhaps the best versions of Barcelona this season have been the ones that have featured the young Arthur Melo in central midfield and Ousmane Dembélé on the left wing instead of Phillipe Coutinho. Arthur’s ability to keep the ball and his developing ball progression abilities are exactly what the current, slower versions of Busquets, Messi and Suárez needed.
However, Barcelona’s more aggressive style this season has come at a defensive cost. Central midfielders now play further away from a declining Busquets, who is unable to cover as much ground as before. This means that Barcelona has consistent issues defending when their pressing line is broken or in attack-to-defense transitions. And despite Arthur’s growth and the more offensive style, Barcelona are still a slow and predictable possession team who depend heavily on Messi, Dembélé’s one-versus-one skill and Alba’s expert runs into space to disorder defenses.
Despite the above issues, Barcelona’s individual talent at both ends of the pitch (Ter Stegen, Messi, Suárez) gets results in the league even if the team does not play at their best. Will that be enough to progress deep in the Champions League, though?
Lyon are the underdogs here, but do not expect them to stay back. Génésio’s men will probably want to follow a similar script to the one used against PSG earlier this month. In their 4-2-3-1 shape, midfielders and forwards will attempt to press and disrupt Barcelona’s buildup, looking to create quick breaks on the counter.
Barcelona usually defend and attack in a narrow shape, with only the fullbacks providing width. Thus, Barcelona might initially block Lyon’s attempts at progressing through the middle, but Lyon can then exploit the flanks. Pay attention to the battle between Lyon’s left flank and Barcelona’s right.
Since Barcelona does not really have a right winger (Messi plays centrally), the right central midfielder (usually Rakitić) takes care of defensive duties. If Rakitić cannot shift over to the wing on time, left back Mendy and his corresponding winger can overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. Barcelona’s right back and get into good crossing positions. Then, if Lyon has a good day counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. and winning second balls, they might even pin back Barcelona. However, the absence of Fekir in the first leg also means that Lyon probably will not be able to exploit the spaces around Busquets in the center.
Barcelona will aim to overcome Lyon’s press and control the game through possession. Lyon will prefer a fast-paced, open game and Barcelona’s midfield must prevent that. This is why Arthur’s injury hits so hard: he was Barcelona best bet to achieve midfield control and control the tempo. Barcelona will thus require the better versions of Busquets and Rakitić and… we have not seen those in a while.
While this preview paints a grim tactical picture for Barcelona, let’s remember that this will be an open game and they still have the superior assets at both ends of the pitch. Ter Stegen has been stopping the unstoppable, Piqué is in outstanding form and Messi can score the impossible. And if Suárez can recover his best Champions League form and bully Lyon’s lackluster central defenders, or Ousmane Dembélé can exploit Lyon’s faulty attack-to-defense transition, there will not be much Lyon can do. Besides, if the vital Ndombele does not make the first leg due to injury, Lyon’s entire game plan could come crashing down anyway.
Just like they did against PSG and Manchester City, Lyon will show their better version and even dominate at times, but in the end Barcelona’s superior talent in both boxes will prevail.
Liverpool – Bayern Munich (Siddharth Ramsundar)
The Merseyside club has arguably been the best team in Europe this season, pairing their devastating attack with an organized and crucially versatile defense. Jurgen Klopp has improved the team in practically every way this season. Switching between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formation, Klopp has specifically dialed back the press to leave the team with more in the tank for what could be a sixty game season. The team defends well in a deep block, while regaining the ball in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. more often than ever.
You've seen this narrative a lot, but what's happened at Liverpool is that they've gradually stopped pressing as intensely over the last three years, but they win the ball in the final third even more now, and the shots they concede are less dangerous. Data from @FB_WHISPERS. pic.twitter.com/zW9NOSzVOx— Ashwin Raman (@AshwinRaman_) February 16, 2019
Of course, the team is facing injuries, a problem plenty of teams have when they contend on multiple fronts. Going into the tie, injuries to Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip mean Fabinho might have to start at center-back, which is a bigger blow to Liverpool’s midfield than it is to their defense. Gomez is probably the most important of the injured trio, given his athleticism and success alongside Van Dijk earlier in the season, but he is still out for four to six more weeks. Furthermore, Virgil Van Dijk is suspended for the first leg. Luckily, Trent Alexander-Arnold is back for this tie.
Given Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury, Naby Keïta’s struggles really hurt Liverpool’s ceiling, but he will have a role to play if Liverpool opt to play on the counter in the away tie or in the last half hour of the home tie.
Klopp’s challenge is putting out a balanced midfield that can pose a dynamic threat in any situation without Fabinho, who was clearly a step above his midfield partners when introduced against City. In their best form, Liverpool can definitely match any team, but with injuries, Van Dijk’s suspension and Keïta’s struggles, Klopp will have to get his selection right.
Bayern have had a mixed season so far. Based on precedent – and talent – they should be able to compete with anybody, but the team does have some gaping issues that come to the fore from time to time, leaving them second in the Bundesliga. Just when a decent, Bayern-esque winning streak was being put together, a defeat at Bayer Leverkusen happened.
Bayern’s problem this season has really been more of a collection of problems due to their slow rebuild. In defense, the center-back rotation as weak as it has been for years. Boateng and Hummels have dropped off, while Süle has risen as the best performer. None of the center-backs are that athletic. The midfield has plenty of talent, but requires full concentration and effort to be balanced, which has not always been the case. On the wings, Kingsley Coman’s injury means only Serge Gnabry is available besides Robben and Ribéry.
With many returning players still firing, this is basically a downgraded version of previous Bayern teams.
In what has become the fittingly defining narrative of Bayern’s season, manager Niko Kovač has moved James Rodríguez in and out of his 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 setups, and has struggled to find consistency. It has been suggested by several media that Bayern do not want to keep the Colombian superstar.
Bayern’s personnel driven issue going into this tie lie in defense. Arguably their first choice midfield of Goretzka, Thiago and James might be weak in defensive transition. They no longer have an all action center back who can compensate for lapses with speed and anticipation. A lot hinges on Kingsley Coman’s fitness. If he is healthy, Bayern could play comfortably on the counter with him and Gnabry, and shield their slow defenders.
Liverpool have been the comfortably better side this season, but are missing more key players going into the tie. They should still retain a matchup advantage if they put out a good lineup and stay organized without Van Dijk.
Klopp’s challenge is setting up a side that can create from open play without compromising anything else, especially because he needs Fabinho at center-back. The key question is whether Klopp will go far a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. The latter saw Liverpool reach great heights in last season’s Champions League, but the former has been put into place with great success so far, this season. The 4-3-3 formation allows the wider central midfielder to cover the fullbacks. If that happens playing the 4-2-3-1 shape, a bigger space in midfield will appear.
Considering this specific game, a 4-2-3-1 shape with Salah up front and a Wijnaldum-Henderson midfield could work, as it would look to exploit Bayern’s lack of pace, while matching their wingers and fullbacks. Pressing and pace will play a role in any Liverpool goals at Anfield.
Kovač may start Javi Martínez over James Rodríguez, which would help in defensive transition but would greatly reduce the side’s ceiling in open play and transition. Bayern would benefit from an intense 4-2-3-1 shape, akin to Chelsea under Mourinho in 2014/15, with Thiago and Goretzka manning midfield, and a hard working front four, pressing and dropping back as needed to protect the center-backs.
Liverpool score early before inviting pressure later in the game, while Bayern bring on James and fresh attackers as the game goes on; defensive errors from both sets of center-backs will guide the final result.
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