In the most anticipated game of the season, Barcelona battled their way to a 3-0 victory against Liverpool in the opening leg of the Champions League semi-final. The contest that pitted the newly-crowned La Liga champions against one of the best attacking English teams of this decade lived up to the hype. For two teams that have been accustomed to tearing apart their opponents this season, they each were tested throughout in what turned out to be a tactical chess match coupled with brilliant displays of world-class play.
Jurgen Klopp’s side played in a 4-3-3 formation that also alternated with a 4-3-1-2 set up. With the exclusion of Roberto Firmino from the starting lineup, this meant that Liverpool’s attack would rely even more on the play of their wingers. As Liverpool are a specialist in orchestrating threatening counter-attacks, they would be counting on their midfield trio to control pace of play and push upfield when the opportunity presented itself. The only notable inclusion on defense came at the right-back position where Joe Gomez was selected, which meant that he would have to contain Jordi Alba and Philippe Coutinho on the left flank.
As expected, Ernesto Valverde elected for a 4-3-3 formation for Barca that switched to a 4-4-2 set up when defending. His decision to start Arturo Vidal over Arthur came as a minor surprise but with Vidal’s play as of late coupled with his defensive prowess, this decision was a low-risk, high-reward move.
The main talking point heading into the matchup revolved around Liverpool’s relentless pressing setup. Liverpool are arguably one of the most efficient pressing teams in Europe as their ability to contain space on the pitch and win the ball back has set up countless of counter-attacks that have resulted in game-changing goals. And of course, all eyes were on Virgil van Dijk and how he would lead Liverpool’s backline.
Early on, it was evident that Klopp was going to stick with the identity of his team and maintain a high pressing system. His main goal for this match centered around two tasks: trap and congest. For a possession-based team like Barca, the last thing that Liverpool would want to do is let them play how they are best suited to do under their system.
See here how Liverpool set up when defending in Barca’s own half.
Under this compact high line, Liverpool looked to shorten the space available on the pitch for Barca. Liverpool’s backline rarely moved out of position as they relied on the front lines to press and win the ball back with ease. Once Liverpool win possession, they can push upfield on a quick counter-attack in the attacking third. With this set up, Klopp was adamant that Barca were not going to dominate possession and complete well over 700 passes as has been the norm.
As shown here, both Jordan Henderson and Fabinho come off their lines in anticipation of Busquets receiving a pass from Pique. This was the theme early on as Liverpool’s midfield had a high work rate due to their constant pressing and goal of cutting off passing lanes.
Barca are not new at all to facing teams that employ a pressing system. Throughout this season, teams such as Real Madrid, Sevilla, and most notably Real Betis have used a variance of a pressing system to disrupt Barca’s possession-based style. In those games, Barca relied on counter-attacks and the exploitation of space in between the lines to open up the game and get into promising positions in the attacking third.
As shown here, Barca exemplified one way in countering a high press. With Jordi Alba pinned in his own half against Liverpool, he is able to find Suarez in open space for a quick build-up.
This early sequence in the opening seconds of the game turned out to be an anomaly for Barca throughout the first half. Barca were never comfortable in possession due to Liverpool’s pressing tactical setup. Liverpool’s constant movement on the pitch and their task of cutting down passing lanes to Barca’s front three helped to contain their attacking game plan.
Barca were more conservative in their attacking approach during the first half. Messi, Suarez and Coutinho did not drop deep as much to support the midfield in countering Liverpool’s press. Instead, Barca relied heavily on Messi’s dribbling upfield and Alba’s overlap runs to bring the ball out of their own defensive half. Even after the opening goal from Suarez, Barca still kept their 4-3-3 shape but lacked constant off-ball movement to open up space on the pitch.
On the other hand, Barca were zoned in on containing Liverpool’s attack. Barca also employed a high line at times throughout the game but relied much more on Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic to mark and press. The key for Barca was evidently their backline, which has been amongst their biggest strengths as of late.
The inclusion of Georginio Wijnaldum over Roberto Firmino was a significant factor in the game. With this in mind, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet focused more on containing the space of Liverpool’s wingers. They knew that Wijnaldum was not going to play as a traditional striker even though he was positioned as their centre forward. So if Barca were able to halt traffic on the flanks, they would essentially force Liverpool into being a one-dimensional attacking unit.
An example of this came in the first half as Wijnaldum drops deep out of his forward line and plays the false nine role.
See here how Pique notices this and instructs Roberto to cover Wijnaldum. As a result, Pique shifts out wide to closely mark Sadio Mane similarly to how he defended Vinicius Junior earlier this season in El Clasico fixtures. As Barca begin to overload out wide, Pique instructs Roberto to move back and cover Mane while Pique marks the space inside.
Communication was key for Barca’s backline as with their high line, they needed to keep a close eye on Liverpool’s off-ball movement and their positioning up front. While Liverpool were able to get in behind Barca’s backline a couple of times, Pique and company were for the most part able to contain any available space in their defensive third.
In the second half, Liverpool stuck with their 4-3-3 pressing setup and remained aggressive in winning the ball back. In contrast, Valverde made a tactical change to switch to a 4-4-2 formation with Nelson Semedo coming in for Philippe Coutinho. The move was made in consideration to Coutinho’s lack of presence while in possession and also with Liverpool continuing to be more involved in attacking through the flanks.
Still, Liverpool continued to clog up potential passing lanes inside. See here how Fabinho and Henderson move in to press Busquets and contain space up front.
But later in the second half, Barca began to be more aggressive in finding passing lanes to Messi and Suarez up front. In the 4-4-2 setup, Barca looked to be more advantageous on the counter. More importantly, they looked to control the tempo of the game and break in between Liverpool’s midfield lines. Barca showed signs of stretching Liverpool’s backline by getting Alba and Semedo involved out wide but they continued to focus on building up play from inside.
This is exemplified in Messi’s goal as the play was set up thanks to Busquets finding Messi behind Liverpool’s midfield line with open space available to push up front.
The second goal for Barca finally opened up the game for the Blaugrana. Liverpool were keen on preserving this score but once Messi scored an ethereal free-kick goal, they went all in attempting to score a crucial away goal.
In the end, Liverpool put up a good fight but Barca were well deserving of the 3-0 victory. Valverde’s set-up emphasized on being patient when in possession in order to pounce on the right opportunity to attack on a quick build-up or counter. Defensively, Barca were superb as Pique and Lenglet combined for 21 clearances and three interceptions while Vidal was all over the pitch looking to disrupt Liverpool’s pace of play.
With the second leg coming up next week, Valverde will have an intriguing decision of opting for a 4-3-3 formation with Ousmane Dembele as the starting left winger or a 4-4-2 set up with both Vidal and Arthur starting. Regardless of the formation, Barca will need to up the intensity at Anfield because Liverpool will be pressing from the start with an eye on jumpstarting promising counter-attack opportunities.