We started out by taking a closer look at the threat Barcelona post to Liverpool as the two sides prepare for the first leg of their 2019 Champions League semi-final on Wednesday at the Camp Nou. Now, we turn back to Liverpool and to how the two sides match up.
An attack comprised of Lionel Messi, Luis Saurez, and at least one of Ousmane Dembele or Philippe Coutinho and a squad that appear solid at almost every position will make for a difficult task for Jürgen Klopp’s Reds, but it certainly isn’t an insurmountable one. What, then, must Liverpool do to give themselves their best chance of advancing past Barcelona and on to the final for the second year in a row?
These, then, are likely to be Liverpool’s keys to victory.
Keys to Victory
If Liverpool can begin the match on Wednesday with a gameplan that serves to prevent the kind of early defensive collapse Barcelona’s fast paced transition game — outlined in part one — is built to cause, the Reds will almost certainly then go forth and attempt to win the first leg, even if it’s at the Camp Nou. Here are a few of the potential weaknesses they could look to exploit.
Despite wrapping up their eighth La Liga title in 11 years with three games to go on the strength of their daunting attack, the 2019 edition of Barcelona is not an unassailable defensive outfit. Conceding 40 expected goals against in 35 games in what has essentially been a one-team league this season is particularly unimpressive, and the Catalans have had to rely on Marc-André ter Stegen a lot more than one imagines Valverde would have preferred.
Their defensive frailty comes down to a couple of things. First off, the majority of Barcelona’s talent is attacking in nature. It may seem obvious, but in truth, only three of their outfield players at any given time excel at the defensive part of the game, and that’s a recipe that will almost always lead to imbalance in a team — any team. While their squad makeup means all of their players are largely capable of comfortably playing their way out of a press, it also means that when put on the back foot without the ball they can be made uncomfortable and, once they become unsettled, they have shown that they can forced into bad decisions or caught attempting to transition into offense too early when they do win the ball back.
Their squad balance issues are typified by the midfield trio’s consistent tendency not to track runners or collapse into their own area when under pressure, leading to situations in which the defenders are outnumbered by the opposition. Overlapping fullbacks driving towards the frame of the goal or penetrating runs from midfield can leave the blaugranes defenders overloaded.
There is a tactical gambit at play here, of course: this sort of imbalance will see Barcelona on the front foot when the ball moves the other way, but against good attacking teams, the risk/reward ratio shifts considerably. Tottenham put this on full display when the two sides met at the Camp Nou, and if not for a spectacular ter Stegen performance, Valverde’s men could have easily conceded four or five. The lesson will surely not have been lost on Klopp, whose fullbacks are the top creative defenders in Europe this season.
This folds into another issue: competition. Barcelona’s domestic dominance certainly promotes confidence, but with La Liga not looking as strong as it has in recent years, the ease with which they have handled their domestic business also has the potential to dull the players, making the adjustment from easy wins against overmatched opposition to facing equally talented and confident sides an abrupt one, and there is a chance Valverde’s men could get caught out by just how gifted this Liverpool side is. Attempting to impose their will on Barca and converting early could give the Reds an upper hand in the tie.
Similar to Bayern Munich — another long-time European giant — this Barcelona are an aging side. Six of their ten assumed outfield starters on Wednesday will be on the wrong side of 30, and those same six are all past 3500 minutes played this season. By contrast, Liverpool are unlikely to start a single player over 30, and while Barcelona have been on the forefront of physical development in European football for the past two decades, there is every chance the younger side with the fresher legs — a side notoriously dangerous in the final 15 minutes because of their high energy levels — will be able to outlast the other in what is likely to be a high-intensity affair.
Further, and as is true of all aggressive pressing teams, when shifting to the ball side, Barcelona are vulnerable to the crossfield switch. Although their opposite fullback will typically maintain some width to combat this, he is always open for a double-team, and if Liverpool are able to maintain composure under fire and find the long ball to the other side, they could open their opponents up with a single pass.
Finally, Barcelona are not a big side, and Liverpool are one of Europe’s top set piece teams, scoring 20 goals from free kicks and corners. Gerard Piqué notwithstanding, the Catalans lack height, and when Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip and Roberto Firmino get to run onto a whipped Trent Alexander-Arnold delivery, they could be in trouble. Making the most out of their set piece advantage could be enough to put the Reds through to the final.
There are countless other factors that can end up making the decisive impact, of course: the battle between some of Europe’s very best fullbacks; which of the two outstanding goalkeepers has the better day; whether the sight of a Liverpool shirt will cause Luis Suarez to relapse and take chunks out of somebody’s shoulder.
As for Barcelona’s likeliest threats, though, and the ways in which this particular Liverpool side could be set up to beat them, these are the strengths and weaknesses we can expect the two sides will be dealing with starting on Wednesday night at the Camp Nou
For Liverpool, if they get their game plan right and are at their best, a second consecutive Champions League final could well be on offer, and either way the winner of this tie will be listed as favourites to lift their sixth European cup. Hopefully, whoever does come out on top, the two games will be illustrative of the history and quality of the two sides and remembered as such.