Liverpool are in a Champions League semi-final for a second consecutive season. While the Reds were considerable favourites heading into last year’s tie against Roma, they might just be narrow underdogs in 2019 as they face off against fellow European royalty, Barcelona, and football king, Lionel Messi.
Alongside the consensus greatest player of all time, Jürgen Klopp’s men will clash with a pair of familiar faces, as both Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho are expected to feature. This will not be an easy pair of matches for anybody involved, and so it seems worth taking a closer look at exactly how the two sides match up and which factors could end up being decisive in the end.
We start by focusing on Barcelona.
Style of Play
With very few exceptions, Barcelona will line up in their traditional 4-3-3, Luis Suarez flanked by Lionel Messi and one of Ousmane Dembélé or Philippe Coutinho, while a single pivot defensive midfielder is assisted by two runners. Width is provided by the fullbacks, both of whom will bomb forward into the final third at every opportunity.
The blaugranes typically defend in three distinct phases. The first — and what has been their primary mode of defense for well over a decade, largely responsible both for their impressive possession stats and their defensive success — is the counter press. As soon as possession is lost, Ernesto Valverde’s men will swarm, with five or six players attempting to converge on the ball as quickly as possible, either to launch another attack or recycle possession.
Liverpool fans will be intimately familiar with the method and its potentially devastating outcomes, as Jürgen Klopp’s own preferred first line of defense is based on a similar methodology.
The Catalans’ secondary defensive mode occurs when the opposition attempts to build from the back. Sitting in a relatively wide formation, putting only nominal pressure on the ball carrier, Barcelona will seem open, with room seemingly available through the centre. This is a trap. Should the opposition venture into that space, the attack and midfield lines will quickly compress the vertical space in an attempt to turn the ball over and rapidly transition into offense against an imbalanced opponent.
The third and final defensive approach employed by Valverde takes place when the opposition has made it into the Barcelona half. Players will close off the centre of the pitch, forcing the ball to the flanks. Once play has been pushed towards the sidelines, the Barcelona players will shift towards the ball side and look to force a mistake.
While Barcelona are often held up as prioritising offense at all costs, under Erneste Valverde they have been a notably well-balanced side.
Spreading their players out during build-up, as a central midfielder splits the centre-backs, the Catalans are remarkably press resistant, with every player on the pitch comfortable in possession and able to accurately lift the ball over any opponents attempting to block off the passing lanes.
In the final third, they will rely on the supreme quality of their frontline rather than sheer numbers, trusting in the precise passing and movement of their three attackers to work enough space for the finish. The midfielders rarely follow through into the box to provide support, preferring instead to sit outside the area, picking up clearances or harrying their opponents if the ball is turned over and they are attempting to break out into open space.
When attacking in transition, Barca are ruthless opportunists, driving towards the goal at pace, the attackers exceptional at locating both open space and their team-mates.
Barcelona’s attacking threats are myriad, but we will attempt to take a closer look at three of them. Let’s be honest, though, in the end, it’s largely about Lionel Messi.
Countless pages have been written about the greatness of the diminutive Argentinian, and yet his importance to this Barcelona side still cannot possibly be overstated. The 31-year old is having a monster season, even by his standards, contributing 60 goals and assists in the Champions League and La Liga. Beyond individual production, though, Messi is responsible for taking or setting up 45% of his team’s total shots and scoring or assisting 55% of their goals. It’s the sort of reliance on an individual that could see Barcelona seriously hobbled should Messi have a rare off day.
Those are few and far between, though, and the combination of close control, passing accuracy, long range shooting and ability to make the right call at the right moment makes the 31- year old the indisputable greatest ever to play the game. Often stationary or barely moving off the ball, Messi does nothing without intent, and is excellent at finding pockets of space from which he will spring to life when the opportunity arrives. There has yet to arise a consensus on the best way to stop the Argentinian, but Jürgen Klopp will have to find some amount of success in doing so if his side is to advance to the final.
Although most of Barcelona’s attacking roads lead to Lionel Messi, he is not their sole provider of attacking impetus. While Liverpool are one of Europe’s premier shot suppression teams — bested only by Manchester City and Barcelona — their defensive strategy largely revolves around denying the opposition quality shots from the center of their own area. This has often left the space outside the Reds’ box more open, and although most teams are incapable of converting from this zone with much regularity, Barcelona are not most teams.
With 20 goals from outside the area, the Catalans are Europe’s long shot champions, and allowing the likes of Messi and Coutinho to line one up from 20-odd yards — either by set piece or open play — could prove fatal to Liverpool’s hopes.
Finally, there is the matter of the counter press. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool have been rock solid defensively this season, but occasionally seem to operate on preconceived notions of how the opponent will play. When expected to defend, the Reds are excellent at it. When teams surprise them with aggression, however, Klopp’s men can get caught off guard and take too long to adjust, finding themselves under pressure or a goal down.
Barcelona aggressively pressing the ball should not come as a surprise to anyone, least of all Klopp and his charges, but the quality and consistent intensity of that press just might. The Catalans are at their very best when they can force wave after wave of transitions on their opponents, and their quality means they can often put the game out of a reach quickly and with just a handful of opportunities.