Since the era of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, the Catalans have virtually swept English sides away. There is, however, one English team yet to have faced Barcelona and Lionel Messi since 2009, and that is Liverpool. The two last met in 2007 when the Reds prevailed courtesy of an heroic and famous win at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona will be keenly aware that, of the semi-final opponents remaining, they have it the hardest. Likewise, Liverpool are aware that there are times when no system can really account for Lionel Messi.
His presence is what tilts the odds narrowly towards Barcelona. But the sheer pace and imposing power of Liverpool coupled with strong defensive solidity and a high-pressing approach can unsettle Barça in ways they are not accustomed to.
So much focus this season has understandably orbited around winning the Premier League. But for Liverpool, their domestic push was never going to come at the expense of the Champions League. European exploits are too strongly ingrained in Liverpool’s rich history to ever become disregarded in the pursuit of a domestic title. Nonetheless, some of Liverpool’s most impressive performances this season are found in Europe. The marked improvement in recent European performances has allowed momentum to be built just in time for the titanic meeting with Barcelona.
Had these teams met last season, we might have seen a game of absurdly wonderful attacking football and porous defences. But Liverpool are now noted for a super defence, and a midfield charged with providing defensive steel.
The Reds have the best defensive record in the Premier League, and several factors have contributed to this.
The immense consistency of Virgil van Dijk. An adept goalkeeper in Alisson. Full-backs more cautious in their attacking forays. The emergence of Fabinho as arguably the best holding midfielder the club has had for years. Liverpool are now compact, aggressive, well-organised and much more difficult to break down.
Naby Keïta, Jordan Henderson and the changing of midfield dynamics
The forward line speaks for itself; selfless, relentless and very fast. They alone could possess enough to shred Barcelona apart. But what could really push the game towards Liverpool’s favour is the recent blossoming of Naby Keïta as a midfield controller lacking at Liverpool this season.
The Guinean has injected fluency and the ability to manipulate tempo into a midfield built for aggressive pressing and industry, but sometimes lacking sophistication on the ball.
Against Chelsea and Porto, Keïta was superb, dictating play with the ball; knowing when to accelerate and when to slow the game down.
There was a moment against Chelsea that summed this up. Following Salah’s superb goal, the game descended into an open and chaotic affair in which Chelsea could and should have scored. Keïta, upon receiving the ball, gestured for calmness and rather than initiating another counter-attack, simply sucked the sting out of the game and opted for calmness.
Liverpool players were really tensed cos of the pressure Chelsea was mounting but Keita decided to calm things down a bit.
Basic but genius pic.twitter.com/vygAceXe74
— Murphy Jesse 👑 (@Murphyjesse) April 15, 2019
The other boost for Liverpool is the option of unshackling Jordan Henderson from his role as a holding number 6, and allowing him to play as a more expressive box-to-box midfielder. A position in which he has often thrived.
Against Southampton he netted the decisive third and provided an assist for Mane’s header against Chelsea.
What may have gone unnoticed was how Salah’s thunderbolt was made possible by Henderson surging beyond the Egyptian. Not only did this create an opportunity for a pass in behind Emerson, it also pulled a Chelsea midfielder away from the zone in which Salah was about to enter and unleash a rocket into the top corner.
Against Porto, another good performance saw him contribute to Liverpool’s second goal by sliding a pass in to Trent Alexander-Arnold, before whipping in a superb delivery for Firmino to head-in during the return leg.
Jordan Henderson vs Porto
21 Minutes played
89% Pass accuracy
4 Key passes
1/1 Dribble complete
The Liverpool captain did benefit from a tiring, disorientated Porto but his creative capabilities in a more offensive role are clear to see. pic.twitter.com/XuK75hpLGF
— The Tactical Times (@Tactical_Times) April 18, 2019
This attacking liberation has helped Liverpool’s front line, lifting some of the pressure from them in terms of chance creation.
One possible reason for Mohamed Salah’s relative struggles this season could be a lack of passing lanes created by attacking midfielders. Without the constant overlapping runs of Alexander-Arnold or a burst from midfield, as he had last season with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Salah often finds himself doubled-up on and marked out of space and possession.
With Busquet’s physical decline, will he be able to track Henderson’s late run as an extra man for ninety minutes?
And what space will it create for Salah if he pulls markers with him when making those darting moves inside the left-back and centre-half?
The Role of Salah
Against Barcelona it’s likely, almost certain for the first leg, that Klopp will be far more cautious, and it’s interesting to see if two things happen:
- Does Henderson keep running forward, therefore providing more issues for Barcelona’s midfield but also leaving Fabinho exposed?
- Does Mohamed Salah track back or maintain an advanced starting position?
It would be an unnecessary gamble if both happened, given that Henderson plays on the right side of the midfield.
If Salah does not track back then Alexander-Arnold could find himself overwhelmed by Jordi Alba’s attacking runs. Likewise, Salah occupying space in the final third might make Alba think twice about so liberally pouring forward.
The left-back has been a key contributor to Barcelona’s attacks, but has not often faced an opponent like Salah with the sheer and raw speed to get beyond him.
The case may be that the dogged, workmanlike qualities of James Milner might be more suited to stopping Barcelona’s midfield.
The Catalans have lost their faith somewhat in Philippe Coutinho but he could find himself starting against a defensively minded Liverpool midfield set-up to control and contain.
If Liverpool are to dominate Barcelona’s midfield, it will be through physically imposing themselves on Sergio Busquets.
Since 2009, Busquets has been, arguably, one of the world’s best defensive midfielders. Superb in his positioning, recognition of a threat, utter calmness on the ball and wonderful technique.
However, it is possible to unsettle Barcelona by dominating their defensive midfielder; especially physically, as strength and pace aren’t among his many great attributes.
Barcelona often initiate their passing moves through Busquets. He is often the origin of their attacks.
The Spaniard has struggled significantly this season, often requiring another midfielder to sit beside him, unable to cover the pitch as he did before. It has greatly affected Barcelona’s play, disrupting their attacking rhythms and at times rendering them defensively vulnerable.
Against Manchester United, Busquets was often a spectator during the opening period when Barça found themselves dominated.
It’s important that Liverpool surround him and do not allow him to dictate play.
Last season in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City, Liverpool counteracted the midfield by having Firmino press Fernandinho, this allowed Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Milner to confront and hassle De Bruyne and Silva.
Ensuring the same happens with Busquets could be vital to defeating Barcelona.
Stopping Lionel Messi
It may be that no matter what Liverpool do, they might just be undone by Messi. He is the player for whom there is no system guaranteed to work in stopping him.
His tactical evolution over the past few years has seen him develop from winger to false nine and now a deeper, but just as dangerous, play-maker. He is, quite literally, the complete footballer; he can pass, dribble, shoot, use both feet and his head, all to an elite and consistent standard.
He can locate or tear holes through the middle or on the flanks. The Lionel Messi of today is arguably more dangerous than the Messi of 2009-2013, who was brilliant but generally easier to nullify.
Able to drop deep, Messi’s arching through balls have been a feature of Barcelona’s play, particularly with the manner he repeatedly brings Jordi Alba into dangerous advanced areas out wide.
When Messi drops deep, it isn’t always a sign of frustration, but demonstrates the variety in his play and his versatility, and usually points towards an imminent Alba run from a deep position.
Against Manchester United, Messi collected the ball in his own half and speared a stunning pass to Alba who flicked it back for Coutinho to bury past De Gea.
Coutinho,s goal pic.twitter.com/JyJtftvjWR
— Maxamed Cabdi Barre (@MaxamedCabdiBa8) April 21, 2019
A part of the Liverpool approach on the flanks will be about how to stop the attacking runs of Jordi Alba. It will necessitate their own wingers to track the wing-back and assist Alexander-Arnold, who could become easily overwhelmed.
But it will also be about stopping Messi from having enough time on the ball to pick out an option from deep, as he did so effectively against Manchester United.
So how can Liverpool stop the Argentine talisman?
The temptation will be to assign a player to individually man-mark Messi, though this would be a misunderstanding of Jürgen Klopp’s belief in the collective and the system employed.
It is important that Liverpool defend the zones in which Messi will drop into rather than manually track him everywhere.
It’s unlikely that there is anyone currently at Liverpool who can do this for ninety minutes. Messi will enjoy the compressed nature of Liverpool’s defence. It would be playing to his strengths.
For Liverpool, the key will be cutting off the space, laterally and vertically, to ensure that a red wall coalesces every time Messi finds the ball.
Will Barcelona start with Dembélé or Coutinho?
This team is determined to end their relative drought in Europe’s elite competition, and although they lack the presence of Neymar Jr., Iniesta and Xavi, there is now a sense of control and solidity within this Barça team.
They have conceded six goals in ten Champions League games, while Liverpool have conceded nine.
Against Liverpool, they will likely have more of the possession. The Reds will look to counter-attack.
For Barcelona, Arthur has begun to blossom this season as a potential heir to Xavi Hernández. He will be pivotal to pinning the Liverpool midfield, setting the tempo and controlling it.
Given Liverpool are likely to opt for a hard-working, industrious midfield, Barcelona will carry a lot of the threat with the ball. They can’t physically compete with Liverpool, but in Arthur they will have someone capable of turning and threading together moves in a flash to unlock a usually mean defence.
Much of the Barcelona team selects itself. A big question will be the inclusion of either Coutinho or Dembélé .
Although the Brazilian was impressive in spells against Manchester United, it does not mean that the doubts around his viability in the team have been answered.
Against Liverpool, Coutinho would be likely to cut inside, offering creativity and vision, but he might not be as willing to track back and he doesn’t possess the pace of Dembélé. He just doesn’t have the physicality to cope with a demanding high-press game.
It is clear that raw pace troubles Liverpool’s full-backs.
During their game in Paris, Liverpool were reeling from the speed of the PSG front-line. During the 2017/18 season, Marcus Rashford tormented Alexander-Arnold constantly at Old Trafford.
In Dembélé, Barcelona have enough speed to pose a major threat on the flanks in more direct way. A very different way to what Coutinho might provide.
If Coutinho is the magician able to conjure lightning bolts, Ousmane Dembélé is the lightning bolt.
Whether Dembélé or Coutinho plays might shape how Alba behaves too.
The full-back has thirteen assists this season in La Liga and the Champions League, a superb defender with terrific energy, speed and aggression.
He has been excellent this season, offering width to a Barcelona side that has often opted for an unorthodox 4-4-2 with the left wingers coming inside and Alba bombing forward. Dembélé is more comfortable staying out wide while Coutinho’s in-field surges generally invite Alba to run forward.
Rakitić and Busquets
The game might be settled in midfield. Barcelona could prevail through superior ball-playing midfielders in Coutinho, Rakitić, Arthur and Busquets, or they could become physically overwhelmed by a Liverpool midfield full of tenacity and guile.
What will be intriguing is how Ivan Rakitić plays.
Under Luis Enrique, the Croatian played a more direct role but it meant he wasn’t always positioned closely with Busquets. The Spanish veteran is now physically diminishing and often finds himself incapable of holding back opponents by himself, he needs an additional pivot.
Rakitić has been adequate in this role this season. He is a player that is very comfortable in different midfield roles, and he must continue this solidity when Liverpool move through their fast transitions.
Lionel Messi; the creator or the finisher?
Messi has the most goal contributions in all competitions across Europe this season. He is arguably the greatest footballer to have existed. And he might just decide this tie too.
Europe’s top-3 for goals & assists this season:
1. Messi – 66 (45 goals, 21 assists) G/A every 51.6 mins
2. Tadić – 52 (32 goals, 20 assists) G/A every 80.4 mins
3. Mbappé – 50 (33 goals, 17 assists) G/A every 62.3 mins pic.twitter.com/5EG3pVQa2W
— The Tactical Times (@Tactical_Times) April 19, 2019
Messi is the heartbeat of the team. He brings others into play with his movement and passing.
Liverpool will not be able to simply man mark him. It’s not in their nature to do that and can leave spaces in their midfield and defence. But with Suárez likely to push up and hassle the Liverpool centre-backs, Messi can float in between midfield and defence.
Liverpool will be keen to stop him from scoring but it might just be the Messi who picks out team mates that settles this tie.
It promises to be a terrific contest
Liverpool have the ability to press Barcelona into a state of extreme discomfort. But Barcelona have superior technicians in midfield. The key for them can be Messi.
This will be a tie of fine margins and yet both teams are capable of running away with the game if the other performs just a fraction below their usual standard.