There was a predictable electricity in the air when the Champions League balls threw up what could potentially be an explosive match up between teams that are trained to go for the jugular from the word go. Barcelona v Liverpool. It would be a bit unsophisticated, and incorrect, to characterize this as possession versus counterattacking football. Under Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona have come a long way from when they used to depend wholly on domination of the ball and control of the midfield. While domination of the ball is still paramount and the edifice on which the game is played, this team has more varied ways to attack, and there is no hesitation to go compact and choke the other team into giving up possession while hitting them on the counter. Liverpool, under Jurgen Klopp this season are not exactly the Liverpool who reached the Champions League finals last season before bowing out to Real Madrid, even if most of the personnel are the same. Klopp is wiser, Liverpool are smarter, and their board has spent well in the transfer window to plug obvious deficiencies.
Liverpool, for all of their attacking flair last season, were prone to defensive errors that made them play on the edge of games with little ‘control’ over the proceedings. While they were on the right side of results often, one could reasonably gauge from Klopp’s reactions on the touchline that the whole spectacle was ageing him faster that he wanted. This wasn’t entirely a fault of the system and had a lot to do with the nerviness of the players in crucial moments. Jurgen Klopp has tuned the finer bits of this Liverpool team since, making them less prone to defensive errors, and while the purchase of Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton and Allison Becker from Roma has strengthened the back line, a lot of it is down to the relative conservatism (emphasis on relative) that Klopp has tried to adopt in his more sterner tests, mostly against teams that have a lot of firepower upfront themselves. Games in the Premier League against Manchester United at Old Trafford, Tottenham Hotspurs at Wembley, and against Manchester City (both home and away) are a case in point. Liverpool were pressed back efficiently by all the teams and with their full backs pinned back in their own halves and forced to defend, the distribution to the forwards suffered and they suddenly looked flatter in attack. It must be noted that most of them were away games where Klopp was more concerned about not dropping points and losing ground to City in the race to the league title. One of the defining aspects of Klopp’s style is the insistence of winning back the ball and quickly turning over possession to the forward line. However, he prefers to have a more workmanlike midfield that can physically withstand pressing while pressing back harder. This particular midfield has a more straightforward mandate than most. Win the ball, pass the ball. They are not especially burdened with creating chances and they rarely move up the pitch which could lead to vacating crucial space in the middle. The task of creativity thus falls on the full backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold. It was this aspect that was stifled by some of the top teams who faced Liverpool this season and Valverde, that industrious student of the game, would have analysed that in much detail.
Barcelona arrive into this game on the back of almost having sewn up their league title and in those limited terms, they do have a notional advantage over Liverpool who have to keep one eye on City; the team that is forever in their slipstream in the pursuit of the Premier League title. Ernesto Valverde has brought a sense of calm over Barcelona, and considering the turmoil (some manufactured, some real) the club found itself in during the departure of Neymar, he has done exceptionally well by having a near unbeaten domestic season last year that culminated in him winning the domestic double. Domestically, Barcelona are their usual self. The Champions League is where it unraveled for Valverde and the club last season in that most uninspiring of defeats against Roma that saw them eliminated at this stage of the competition. Carrying a 4-1 lead from the first leg, they had no business losing the tie but Champions League is known to throw up surprises like that. That result owed much to Valverde’s lack of initiative away from home, something for which he was crucified in the Spanish press for months following the defeat. There was more to it though. At crucial times in the tie when Roma were dominating the ball and the spaces, Valverde stuck by his initial game plan of playing narrow and didn’t make any substitutions which could have changed the flow of the match, for instance by putting wide players on who could stretch Roma. The refusal to react was not taken kindly by most Barcelona fans and there was a collective clamor for his removal, as outrageous as it may sound for a manager who had lead the same group of players to an almost unbeaten season in Spain.
Fortunately, Ernesto Valverde is a monk. It’s fascinating watching him on the touchline. Rarely does he appear flummoxed by anything that goes on around him, like a chess player poring over the board and his pieces, his expression rarely giving away the internal thought processes. It would be wrong to say that he has not learnt from that debacle at Roma. Numerous times over the course of the season he has shown the willingness to experiment if something isn’t working, and he has ably used the players at his disposal to give the team an edge if the original plan appears blunted. Ousmane Dembele, Carles Alena, Arturo Vidal, Nelson Semedo, Sergi Roberto, Philippe Coutinho, and Malcom have all been thrust into games at different times to change its landscape and more often than not, they have. He has managed to carve Barcelona as a team in his own image, a team that does not easily panic when there is a loss of control, and a team that is not afraid to soak up pressure if the game demands it. That will hold them in good stead considering the quality of the opponent they face.
Jurgen Klopp, in stark contrast, is an affable energizer bunny on steroids. He is as expressive, emotional, and buoyant as they come and this is what he seeks to transmit to this Liverpool team. Over the course of this season, Klopp has actively chosen to temper that side of his team. The attacking flair has been compromised to a certain extent, but he is more concerned with regulating chaos now. Liverpool thrived under chaos last season but there were instances when it consumed them too, and left them vulnerable in the defensive phases of the game. Klopp knows that apart from the inherent risk of that system in the biggest of stages, its also a physically consuming system for his players. When the team is geared to go deep into competitions, this physical toll can build up and by the time the team is contesting crucial games towards the end of the season, it can leave players running on empty. That could partially explain his team becoming more adept at keeping the ball and letting the opposition run for it. This version of Liverpool are not shy of keeping possession, circulating it, and have brought in players this past transfer window with an eye on moving away from a strict workmanlike midfield. The purchases of Fabinho and Naby Keita are in this particular direction.
The question is, how does he approach the Barcelona tie? Liverpool play the first leg away from home. While Liverpool are an offensive team themselves, capable of hurting the opposition through quick stabs when they aren’t prepared, things have a way of quickly unraveling when you’re playing at the Nou Camp in front of 100,000 fans baying for blood, with the prospect of dealing with Lionel Messi on his turf. Keeping that in mind, its likely that he sets up with one eye on taking a safe result back home. The front three and the back line are areas where Klopp hasn’t shown a tendency to experiment. Joe Gomez had settled in quite well alongside Virgil Van Dijk in the beginning of the season, but an injury to Gomez has led to Joel Matip partnering Van Dijk. Gomez seems to be back to match fitness, so its likely that he finds a place on the bench at Nou Camp, if not in the line up. It’s the midfield that looks like the variable. Klopp has relied on Jordan Henderson this past few months to shepherd his midfield and keep things running, so his presence at the base of midfield might not be a surprise. Henderson is an enigma. There are days when he can look like a world class player, all action and supplying the necessary penetration from midfield, but there are times when he looks like a fully armor clad medieval knight who is forced to perform a complex set of maneuvers underneath all that heavy metal, hands flailing and feet off balance. Klopp must really hope that it is the former version that shows up. Giorginio Wijnaldum is an able operator from the right and his relative conservatism will help Henderson deal with the Barcelona midfield. Wijnaldum is a neat balance between an all action midfielder and someone who is comfortable on the ball, so his presence could be vital. The third midfield spot is a toss up between James Milner and Fabinho. Milner is a shoe in if Klopp reverts to type when it comes to his approach in the big games this season. Fabinho is a fine midfielder with a range of passing and distribution that’s in short supply in the middle, but he has not looked consistently comfortable in the Liverpool line up for him to be trusted in the biggest of games. The manager prefers robustness and mobility and Fabinho is cut from a different cloth. It might be too soon for him.
There is also a more pertinent reason why Klopp might prefer steel to creativity in the middle. Midfielders like Milner and Henderson have the ability to hold their position and act as insurance policies for their full backs when caught out of position. This could be handy when dealing with the pace and attacking instincts of Barcelona’s full backs and wingers.
Ernesto Valverde might have a little more to ponder over his team selection. The center backs Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet pick themselves, and so does Jordi Alba. Marc Andre ter Stegen is a constant. Busquets and Rakitic are vital cogs in midfield, and so are Messi and Suarez in attack. Everything else is up for grabs. Who to play at the right back position is a crucial decision for Valverde because he has traditionally preferred the pace and recovery prowess of Semedo when faced with teams that have fast, menacing wingers who need to be kept under control, but he has work to do when it comes to linking up in the final third. This is where Sergi Roberto excels, largely due to his reading of the game and familiarity with the overall system. The third midfield spot could be occupied by either Arthur Melo or Arturo Vidal. Arthur is Xavi-esque in his movements, especially when he gets out of the press with quick, sharp turns and connects with the attack, but he still hasn’t fine tuned his ability to deliver that final ball as Xavi used to. That is, of course, not to be held against the youngster as he has quickly made a place for himself in the team and looks set for the long haul despite this being his first season with the club. Vidal is an all action, warrior of a player who is as good on the ball as he is off it. He could be particularly handy in subduing Liverpool’s press as the aggression and tenacity he brings to the middle can be handy if the match descends into a scrap, because he is most suited to emerge out of that with his hands clean, while bruising a few Liverpool players on the way. Its just what he does. The left side of the attack is a bone of contention between Coutinho and Dembele. There are strong reasons to prefer Dembele in a match of this nature given that Liverpool might leave spaces to exploit at the back, but Coutinho has been performing better and while there are strong opinions all over the Spanish press over his general suitability to the team, his recent performances just might edge him into the line up. This is a tricky one.
For the last three years Barcelona have exited at this stage of the competition, and Real Madrid winning three in a row around the same time is not lost on anyone who has anything to do with Barcelona. In the last decade or so, Barcelona and Real Madrid have won the Champions League four times each but domestically, Barcelona have exerted complete dominance over their rivals. There is a feeling that this needs to extend to Europe as well. Liverpool haven’t got their hands on this trophy since 2005, and while they might have to contend with the machine like consistency of Manchester City in the league, the Champions League just might be their best chance of winning something this season to show for all the excellent work behind the scenes. A certain Lionel Messi shaped obstacle might have something to say about that first.