Champions League 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Barcelona vs Liverpool
“The final before the final”, as most would call it, between Barcelona and Liverpool in the Champions League takes places tonight at the Camp Nou, in the heart of Catalunya. This tactical analysis preview will try to decipher how things could play out when these two giants of the footballing world meet, and make a bold prediction at the end.
Looking back a bit at the previous meetings between the two, neither team really has a clear advantage over the other. Back in the 70s, the tandem met twice, once in March and once in April of 1976 with the earlier encounter went into the Reds’ favour, and the latter ending in a 1-1 stalemate.
Stepping into the new century and into modern football, the Reds have accumulated two victories, one in 2001 in the UEFA Cup, and then one in 2007 in the Champions League at this very stadium.
Barcelona also have two to their name, and interestingly enough, both happened in the same years as Liverpool’s victories: one in 2001 and the other in 2007. The matches in 2002 and in April of 2001 ended as draws, one in the Champions League and one in the UEFA Cup. But this is not the only thing connecting these two teams.
Both are very dominant this season in their domestic campaigns as Barcelona have already clinched the La Liga title, and Liverpool are guaranteed to finish at least second but still have a very real chance of winning the Premier League themselves over Manchester City. The Champions League has been a very similar story with both teams arriving where they are now in a rather convincing manner.
Barcelona dispatched Manchester United with 4-0 on aggregate while Liverpool made quick work of Porto, smashing them 6-1 over two legs. Their form cannot be questioned as both teams arrive at the Champions League semi-finals with an almost flawless streak, Barcelona having won five out of their previous six games, only drawing one while Liverpool won all six to make it even more impressive.
But what might be the single most interesting thing in this tie is the style that both teams seem to share on the pitch. This tactical analysis preview will be aiming to look a bit deeper into the statistics and the tactics behind the masterminds that are Ernesto Valverde and Jürgen Klopp.
The Catalan squad is as ready as they can be for one of the most important clashes of their season. The only injury concern is the one of Rafinha Alcântara but the Brazilian was never really a big option for Ernesto Valverde. The rest of the team, however, is at his disposal as they have been both rested and kept safe throughout the last week.
All the big guns have been called up for the game and we can expect a full-power Barcelona to enter the pitch in front of their home crowd. The other good news is that the previously injured Ousmane Dembélé has had enough time to get back into the rhythm of things as has the reserve goalie, Jasper Cillessen, who, however, hasn’t seen any game time since Copa del Rey but is also not expected to feature.
Still, the most important pieces, especially Lionel Messi, have been well-preserved and will definitely be seen tonight at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona squad for Liverpool: Ter Stegen, N. Semedo, Piqué, I. Rakitić, Sergio, Coutinho, Arthur, Suárez, Messi, O. Dembélé, Cillessen, Malcom, Lenglet, Jordi Alba, S. Roberto, Vidal, Umtiti, Aleñá.
The away team was not as lucky in terms of neither having as much rest time nor having any luck with injuries. Even though Klopp did call up his gala squad to Catalunya, there are still questions that need answering regarding his lineup.
Two serious question marks are still looming above the German’s head: Roberto Firmino and Virgil van Dijk but both are almost guaranteed to at least participate in the clash. The forward might not start the match but is definitely in the run to do so, as Klopp has confirmed yesterday himself.
“It looked good so far,” he began. “But until tomorrow I have to make that decision – after lunchtime tomorrow. That’s what I will do.”
Now, we know for certain that Adam Lallana has a muscular problem that will see him sidelined but Fabinho, who suffered a head injury, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who returned after a year out, will indeed be ready and at Klopp’s disposal. The same can be said for van Dijk, who was reportedly having some knee problems but nothing serious enough to keep him away from Barcelona.
With all that in mind, we can expect that Liverpool will arrive at the Camp Nou with almost their full forces available and only some minor trouble along the way.
Liverpool squad for Barcelona: Fabinho, Van Dijk, Wijnaldum, Lovren, Milner, Keita, Firmino, Mané, Salah, Gomez, Alisson, Henderson, Sturridge, Moreno, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mignolet, Shaqiri, Brewster, Robertson, Origi, Matip, Kelleher, Alexander-Arnold.
Like looking in a mirror
What makes this clash of the titans even more interesting than it already is, is the fact that Barcelona and Liverpool do have a lot of things in common when it comes to their playing style and philosophy. Even though on the face of it, they are vastly different teams that draw their strengths from different sources, they do mirror each other in quite a few aspects.
Without a shadow of a doubt, this game will be either won or lost for both teams depending on how well they apply pressure and how well they cope with it. And this is primarily Barcelona’s axe to grind as the Catalans have probably not faced a press as intense and effective as that of Liverpool.
Notice in the image above how well-organised their troops are when pressing their opponent and how successful they are in pinning them down and stripping them off all options. Huddersfield are forced to pass back to their backline since all the close options and the forward ones are blocked and the channels closed.
What’s even more impressive is how this setup basically gives them options for a swift transition once the possession has been regained in a rather dangerous zone. Notice below how Mané is already closing down the only real option their opponents have and all three of their forwards work tremendously well to get to the ball.
Even before the possession has been regained, Liverpool are already poised to strike back with Salah who anticipates the ball in behind the defence and runs into open space. This could spell trouble for Barcelona who tend to leave their full-backs extremely high up the pitch and leave the defending to the relatively slow-paced centre-back pairing of Gerard Piqué and Clement Lenglet, with possibly Sergio Busquets sandwiched in-between.
Yes, sometimes, when there’s a set-piece or a good crossing situation, Barcelona will leave their shorter but pacier options such as Alba and Semedo in the back, but usually, both full-backs will have to sprint back to cover for the huge free space behind their backs, as can be seen below from the game against Levante.
With all three of Liverpool’s forwards being extremely mobile and extremely fast, playing such a high defensive line could be a deadly call for the Catalans. In this type of game, one mistake is all it takes, and Klopp’s machine will take no prisoners.
One other way Liverpool could disrupt Barcelona’s plans is the way where they (don’t) let them play their own game. Considering the venue and the style both teams practice, it is fairly safe to say that Barcelona will at least try to keep a hold of the ball for the majority of the time.
What usually happens is that teams turtle up and defend with a narrow and compact low-to-middle block to take advantage of Barcelona’s almost inexistent air threats. With such a defensive setup, the Catalans are forced wide and into crosses, which in turn, inevitably end up being cleared with ease. As much as this might be effective for Liverpool, they don’t always practice such a gameplan, even against the possession-based teams.
Our best bet is to take a look at how they approached the clash against their direct rivals in Manchester City. Pep Guardiola perfected Barcelona’s style and have brought a lot of it to Etihad with him. Still, when Liverpool’s press was bypassed by City’s intricate passing, Reds would not turtle up but would defend with numbers, overloading the flanks and forcing the opposition back.
Notice in the image above how all of their three lines of players work together to create a clear numerical advantage and cover the channels leading forward very well. Even if the advantage cannot be achieved immediately, Liverpool will look to even out the odds and then put multiple markers on other opposition’s players participating in the attack.
In the next example, neither team have the numerical superiority but Liverpool have City well pinned down as their options are all marked and mostly inaccessible. Usually, one of the forwards will drop to their respective side of the field, providing support to the midfielder and the full-back to collapse on the ball-carrier from all sides.
Barcelona have experienced something similar at Old Trafford against Manchester United but nowhere near the level of Liverpool. Even in the return leg at the Camp Nou, creating such overcrowding was key to United’s successful transitions as it made sure that Barcelona would pile men onto the flanks in an attempt to even out the playing field.
This would, in turn, leave their other side uncovered and a potential foot race and exploitation of free space was on the cards against the Catalans. Taking into consideration that they are a team that lacks the pace and the energy in defensive transitions, this could make or break the game for them.
Still, Barcelona are no strangers of the high press themselves. On the contrary, they execute it substantially well. Since they are not as energetic as Liverpool, they tend to completely shut down all the passing lanes of the opposition and match them in the number of troops, as can be seen in the image below.
The first part of the plan is to push their men into the face of the opponent and mirror them as they try to play the ball out from the back. In this scenario, they either force a blind clearance or a mistake and ideally a high recovery that can turn into a deadly transition.
When their opponent is pinned down, they instigate the second part of the tactic which is the collapse, which can be seen in the following example. At least three or four players will charge the ball, ridding the ball-carrier of all passing options and regaining possession in a dangerous area.
This could very well pose a problem for Liverpool since they have been known to make mistakes in the build-up phase when they were well-pressed with their backs against the wall. We return to their match against Manchester City, which was such an instance when they encountered a situation similar to the one that might await at the Camp Nou.
When Liverpool are forced to clear the ball or play it from the back, the chances of a mistake rise significantly, as is the case with most teams. Here, a clearance doesn’t go further than Sane, and since City also made sure to have multiple men higher up the pitch, the high press soon turns into a dangerous offensive move.
Apart from the aforementioned similarities, there is one more worth pointing out. Both teams rely on their full-backs when attacking and both like to have them positioned higher up the pitch.
This makes things really interesting as this could be both teams’ strength but could also end up being a liability since both Barcelona and Liverpool have the tools to take advantage of such a situation.
Taking into consideration all that has been said, both teams will have to bring their A game to the table if they want to exit the bout victorious. Battles across the pitch will have to be won both individually and collectively. Since we’ve discussed how both teams can harm one another as a collective, let’s see some of the crucial pieces from each of them.
With press being a focal point in the game, Barcelona’s midfield and especially Sergio Busquets and Arthur Melo will be heavily relied upon when dispersing Liverpool’s “heavy metal” pressure. Both players are known for their press resistance but it will be extremely interesting to see how they cope with the intensity of the Reds.
Usually, they will stretch the pitch and “make it bigger”, forcing the opposition to cover as much ground as possible when chasing the ball. Since one or two midfielders will drop to assist the backline in bypassing the press, they will have enough players to avoid the pressing squad from the other side, as can be seen above.
In that scenario, Barcelona invite pressure onto their defensive line in order to free up their flanks. Since their man between the sticks can play exceptionally well with his feet, if Liverpool don’t cover all the channels extremely well, Barcelona could have an easy way out of those seemingly sticky situations.
So the first key element lies in both teams’ skills in how they deal and apply pressure, and Barcelona’s backline and midfield reacting to the energetic style of Liverpool’s forwards and supporting midfielders.
The other key aspect is, of course, the way in which Liverpool handle Lionel Messi. The player with most take-ons completed this season vs potentially the best centre-back in the world, Virgil van Dijk, who still hasn’t been dribbled past throughout his whole campaign.
Stopping Messi is usually easier said than done but the best way might be to cut him off from the rest of his team and try to stop the ball from ever reaching the little Argentine wizard, rather than stripping it off of him.
And finally, the battle of the minds where Ernesto Valverde and Jürgen Klopp will go toe to toe in the dugout. Both coaches have shown that they are capable of outsmarting the opposition and preparing exceptionally well.
This might as well be the fight of their lives.
Possible lineups and score prediction
It’s difficult to say which team is considered to be the favourite in this epic clash. The safest bet is that the home team will hold a bit of an edge over their counterparts but even if that was the case, it would be a slight margin indeed.
As far as the predicted lineup goes, both teams should be able to deploy their best XI onto the pitch:
Starting XI: Ter Stegen – Sergi Roberto, Piqué, Lenglet, Alba – Rakitić, Busquets, Arthur – Messi, Suárez, Coutinho
Starting XI: Alisson – Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson – Fabinho, Henderson, Wijnaldum – Salah, Firmino, Mané
For Barcelona, it’s the usual suspects that are still under the question mark. Will Valverde use Roberto or Semedo, Vidal or Arthur and Coutinho or Dembélé? Since it’s a home game and Barcelona will want to be more offensive, I’d say Roberto starts over Semedo, and Arthur gets the nod in front of Vidal to provide that extra press resistance to the team.
Finally, Coutinho’s recent form edges out Dembélé ever so slightly, and even though the Frenchman might still be a better option since he would keep Liverpool’s defence a bit more chained down and alert, Valverde is somewhat more likely to turn to the ex-Liverpool man.
Stats do support this thesis as Coutinho has increased his average xG per 90 minutes in the last couple of months, jumping from 0.29 per 90 to 0.48. The Frenchman, on the other hand, has seen a decrease in his average xContribution (xA + xG) from 0.61 to 0.3 due to his injury.
Klopp won’t have any conundrums other than the question of Roberto Firmino and his fitness. If he decides that the Brazilian should not start the game, we might well see Origi take up that striker position. The rest of the squad practically picks itself.
And as for the score, which might be the most difficult part of this tactical analysis preview, I’ll go with 2:1 for the hosts as they should be able to claw their way to victory at their footballing temple of Camp Nou.
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