Liverpool – FC Barcelona: Klopp’s Tactics Crowned By Clever Corner Decide A Night To Remember (4-0)
The seemingly impossible became reality. Jürgen Klopp’s immaculate tactical tweaks got Liverpool off to a great start and Liverpool managed to survive a handful of Barcelona chances. In the end, Liverpool completed one of the great Champions League comebacks, the final goal coming from an unforgettable moment of guile.
Tactical analysis and match report by Tom Quartly.
Liverpool have had their share of historic comebacks. The 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul and the more recent 2016 Europa League quarter-final comeback win over Borussia Dortmund spring to mind. If anyone was to overturn a 3-0 away loss in a Champions League semi-final, at least Liverpool had some historic performances to back them up.
To make up for lost ground, the dynamic, high intensity pressing of Jürgen Klopp had to come up against the possession-hungry Barcelona and the improved defensive solidity under manager Ernesto Valverde. However, in stark contrast with Valverde’s reputation stands that night in Rome last season, where Barcelona squandered a 4-1 home win to go out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.
Following an ongoing injury to Roberto Firmino and now also Mohamed Salah, Liverpool looked light going forward when the teams were announced. With Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi coming in to replace them, Sadio Mané was the only constant in Liverpool’s infamous front three. Elsewhere, Joël Matip returned for the outgoing Dejan Lovren and Georginio Wijnaldum was swapped out for James Milner in Klopp’s usual 4-3-3 formation.
Barcelona remained unchanged from the 3-0 win at the Nou Camp, after allowing a second string side to face Celta Vigo on Saturday, a game which they lost 2-0. Setting up in his usual 4-4-2 shape, it would be interesting to see if Valverde would alter Arturo Vidal’s wide role in that midfield. The first leg, at times, saw both him and Sergi Roberto exposed by Andy Robertson’s marauding runs in behind. If the Scotsman was able to capitalize at Anfield, there were always chances to be had down Barcelona’s right hand side. An early goal would make this game very interesting
Klopp’s tweaking and a floating Sadio Mané
After a goosebump inducing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, the game was away and it began with the expected ultra-high tempo. The frantic opening saw the anticipated Liverpool press. Operating in their 4-3-3 shape, it was interesting to see the attacking position Jordan Henderson took up; he was almost a number ten on that right hand side, feeding off loose balls before driving at the Barcelona defenders.
This bared fruit in the seventh minute when Jordi Alba’s poor header gave Henderson the chance to slalom through Gerard Piqué and Clement Lenglet, firing his shot at Marc-André Ter Stegen, who saved low to his right. Divock Origi pounced on the rebound, slotting into an empty net.
Alongside Henderson’s advanced role, Klopp made some other changes to his side’s structure. Interestingly, James Milner was tasked with performing the role of a modern-day carrilero, shuttling the ball down the channels as well as breaking up Barcelona attacks. This allowed Fabinho to sit deep, recovering the ball and launching attacks. Klopp’s setup had stifled Barcelona’s usual buildup from the back. We were watching Piqué panic and Sergio Busquets clip the ball long. A sight to behold for Liverpool fans, and most, if not all of this was all down to Klopp’s tactics.
With the absence of Salah and Firmino, it was clear that Sadio Mané was given the license to roam across the front line, specifically trying to isolate himself one-versus-one against Sergi Roberto. The Spanish fullback had struggled at the Nou Camp and Klopp had decided to attack that side once again.
Klopp’s switching of the roles was obvious when Liverpool were in possession. Note Henderson’s role just in behind Origi.
Barcelona regains control
Liverpool’s extremely intense press can often leave them susceptible to ill discipline and that certainly began to be the case. Liverpool’s prolonged attacking spell halted after a flurry of three fouls in three minutes. This allowed Barcelona’s players a way to regain control of the match, wasting precious seconds and settling the game down to their preferred tempo. This became a particular issue as Liverpool’s legs tired towards the end of the first half and Barcelona found it easier to maintain possession. The constant fouling and stoppages did not benefit the home side.
Andy Robertson’s injury at the end of the first half meant that Jürgen Klopp was forced into a half-time substitution, introducing Georginio Wijnaldum in his stead. This triggered a reshuffle that saw Milner go to left back and Wijnaldum take his place on the left of the midfield three. Retaining the 4-3-3 formation, Wijnaldum offered a livelier option in midfield, rendering the aforementioned carrilero role useless as the Dutchman prefers to go more box-to-box.
Straight away Barcelona set up in a low block, A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. intent on asking Liverpool to break them down, rather than counterattacking. Whilst playing through a large quantity of players can be troubling for Klopp’s side in the Premier League, this was not the case tonight. Ten minutes after the second half began, Liverpool had their second goal.
A poor header from Trent Alexander-Arnold seemed to end the Liverpool attack but the right back’s persistence regained him the ball and allowed him to flash a ball across the Barcelona box. Taking a deflection on the way, the ball found substitute Wijnaldum, who fired first time past Ter Stegen. The German goalkeeper could perhaps have done better, but it was clear that Liverpool’s tails were up. Would a third follow?
It did. Only two minutes later and Wijnaldum had found the net again. A fantastic Shaqiri cross located the free Wijnaldum, whose guided header flew past Ter Stegen once again. 3-3 on aggregate with almost an entire half to play.
Valverde changes formation, but a stroke of genius decides the match
The third Liverpool goal had sent shockwaves through Anfield, and Valverde had to change something. He opted to try and establish control in the middle third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. of the pitch, altering the 4-4-2 shape that did so well at the Camp Nou for a 4-3-3 formation. In three stages Semedo replaced Coutinho, Arthur came on to replace Vidal, while Malcom came on for Ivan Rakitić. This changed the midfield trio to Arthur-Busquets-Sergi Roberto, bolstering their ball retention skills. It seemed like an intelligent switch from the pragmatic Valverde and Barcelona begun to fend off the waves of Liverpool attacks by retaining the ball. However, one moment four minutes after this change sent the already unsettled Barcelona team into complete disarray.
Alexander-Arnold strolled over to take a corner. Noticing the distracted Barcelona back line, the twenty-year old fullback quickly whipped a low bouncing cross into the alert Origi, whose composed finish found the top left corner. Barcelona were claiming for something which was not coming. In the final ten minutes, Liverpool kept Barcelona at bay to complete the greatest semi-final comeback the Champions League has seen.
Jürgen Klopp’s confidence in Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri paid off massively, with three of the four goals coming through them. It is good to see Liverpool’s squad players performing on the grandest of stages. Also, Klopp’s pragmatic tactical approach – altering the midfield roles – was once again a sign of great situational management and it only boosts his already grand reputation.
Barcelona have once again bottled the big occasion, in a match were they elected to sit deep and were locked up in their own half, unable to get out. This defeat at Anfield certainly differs from last season’s disappointment in Rome, in that this Barcelona team did have their chances in the first half, only to squander those opportunities.
This defeat makes it harder to issue a compelling statement on the Valverde appointment. A manager who so clearly deviates from Barcelona’s style of play will always need to convince with results on the biggest stage. And for the second year in a row, on the biggest stage possible, Barcelona disappointed.
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