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Barcelona-Liverpool Tactical Preview (UEFA Champions League Semis, 2nd leg)

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The return of the 4-4-2?

Barcelona v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Barcelona go into the second leg of their UEFA Champions League semifinal with a big advantage but an extremely tough challenge left against Liverpool at Anfield. Barça have every reason to be confident, but given last season’s failure against AS Roma, it’s clear they also can’t be overconfident.

Fitness and form

Liverpool come into the second leg bruised and battered while Barcelona are well-rested. It was an obvious contrast. The Reds had to fight tooth and nail to keep their league title hopes alive, with a late 3-2 win over Newcastle United. Meanwhile, Ernesto Valverde rotated his entire starting XI as Barça had already sealed La Liga, and few cared that they lost 2-0 to Celta Vigo.

Both teams did pick up injuries though. Mohamed Salah is out having suffered a concussion against Newcastle, while Ousmane Dembélé had to be brought off because of a hamstring injury.

Roberto Firmino’s injury has not gotten better it seems, and after a substitute appearance in the first leg, he will be out for the return. Naby Keïta will also miss this match as he was injured in the first leg. Adam Lallana is another injury doubt, but seems out of the planning for the match anyway. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has returned from injury but he may not be sharp enough to start yet.

For Barcelona, Rafinha remains out through injury, but that has been the case for a while and won’t affect Valverde’s planning.

While Barcelona’s long unbeaten streak was technically broken by Celta, we are still talking about a juggernaut in terms of recent results, not least of which includes a 3-0 win over Liverpool.

For Liverpool, though they had to labor to defeat Newcastle, they are still 11 wins from the past 12. The only exception, of course, is Barça.

Team selection

Valverde really only has one question in his starting XI, and that’s whether to play Sergi Roberto, Nélson Semedo, or both. One of them will play right-back, while Roberto can also play in midfield. Philippe Coutinho could get the nod if one of Roberto or Semedo is not on the team sheet.

Marc-André ter Stegen, Jordi Alba, Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet, Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez are automatic, and then I would probably add Arturo Vidal to that list, as well.

Roberto did reasonably well in the first leg, but he struggled to keep up with Andy Robertson and Sadio Mané when he was deployed at right-back. With the introduction of Semedo and a switch to 4-4-2, Barcelona looked more solid. Given the 3-0 lead, Valverde may start this way and sacrifice Coutinho from the starting lineup.

Dembélé was unlikely to start, but surely Valverde misses having him as a bench option due to his pace and skill. Malcom is the closest there is in the team, so perhaps he could get some time off the bench, but he’s not at the same level, and Valverde has shown reluctance to use him.

There are shouts for Arthur or Carles Aleñá but they seem to me much more likely to feature off the bench.

Klopp has a few more questions on his team sheet because of the absence of two of his star attackers and Keïta. Alisson, Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Fabinho, James Milner, and Mané are likely to retain their places in the first leg. Georginio Wijnaldum might return to the starting XI as well but not in the same role.

Joe Gomez at right-back was not the most successful gamble for Klopp, so we can expect Trent Alexander-Arnold this time in that position. Doubly so because Liverpool are trailing and Alexander-Arnold adds more attacking thrust.

Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi are the two attackers most likely to replace Salah and Firmino, although Daniel Sturridge is an option at centerforward.

Klopp could retain his 4-3-3 shape with Origi in the center and Shaqiri on the opposite flank to Mané. There’s room for creativity for Klopp, who surprised us with his selection of Wijnaldum in the false 9 position in the first leg. There are some ideas out there but they can be hard to predict, perhaps putting in more midfielders or playing with Shaqiri as an attacking mid and not as a winger? What about playing 3-5-2 with Gomes in defense? Still, what’s expected most is that 4-3-3.

Matchups

Barcelona showed their gameplan in the first match - defend, play out from the back but hit it long when needed, and Messi. It worked, of course, although with some caveat. In truth, Valverde’s men were lucky to keep a clean sheet. On the other hand, I think to say Liverpool deserved to win is an exaggeration. Barcelona created chances of their own too, and while you can imagine that game ending 2-2, for example, you can also imagine it ending 5-0.

I think Valverde will keep the same strategy and most of the same team, and particularly that’s why he might go with the 4-4-2. This is a team that can play it short and try to escape the press, but also is willing to match fire with fire in midfield and go long if necessary. It’s not the Barcelona of old, but it’s effective.

Vidal is a key cog in this, both because he adds steel and energy in the midfield and also because he can win aerial duels.

In La Liga, Vidal wins 1 aerial duel per game and Arthur 0.1. That’s a big difference, and it’s not just how often he wins headers, it’s that he can at least challenge for them, which leads to contested second balls. With Rakitić and Busquets in addition to Vidal, Barcelona have decent height in midfield then. Even Roberto is not the smallest player.

For Liverpool, they’ll be without two-thirds of their usual front three but they do have in Origi a threat in the air and on set pieces that will offer something different than what Wijnaldum offered. Mané is also dangerous in the air, and with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, they can get good service. Lenglet and Piqué will once again need to be at their best. If there’s one area where Ter Stegen is not quite as good, it’s claiming or punching crosses. Perhaps something to look out for.

Alba will be key once again, particularly if Alexander-Arnold starts and stays higher up the pitch. That means both that Alba will have to cover more but also that he’ll have more space to exploit. It’s a risky proposition, but it’s one Alba tends to win.

Valverde was already kind of playing with a 4-4-2 from the start in the first leg, with Coutinho instructed to join the midfield in defensive phases. But with Roberto out there in midfield instead, there’s a more obvious tendency to keep the four in midfield and not join the attack. Still, as Barcelona showed last season, it can be dangerous to defend a lead. That’s why Barcelona will have to pick their spots, particularly if they can play through the press and get past the first wave of players, you can get Messi on the ball with some space to work with, which is extremely dangerous. One goal for Barcelona really changes things, Liverpool go from needing three goals to needing five.