UEFA Champions League semi final second leg, May 7 2019
Origi (7, 79)
Wijnaldum (54, 56)
Two years on from Liverpool's stirring comeback from a 3-0 defeat in the first leg of their Champions League semi final against Barcelona, observers continue to admire the remarkably impressive performance produced by Jürgen Klopp’s team against the competition favourites. In the absence of both the influential Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah, Divock Origi gave Liverpool the lead in the seventh minute when he finished from close range after Marc-André ter Stegen could only parry a shot from Jordan Henderson. At half-time, however, their elimination remained likely. Two goals in quick succession from Georginio Wijnaldum, who was asked to replace the injured Andy Robertson, then brought the hosts level and set up the memorable conclusion – and goal – that was to follow. Trent Alexander-Arnold delivered the cutest of early balls from a corner to find Origi blissfully unmarked at the near post. The Belgian produced an impressively composed finish, and Liverpool progressed to take their place in the final before becoming European champions for a sixth time.
11 / 7
SHOTS / ON TARGET
8 / 5
Passes / Accurate
12 / 2 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
9 / 3 / 0
Jürgen Klopp organised Liverpool into a 4-3-3 formation in which Fabinho, James Milner and Jordan Henderson formed their three-strong midfield behind the unfamiliar front three of Xherdan Shaqiri, Divock Origi and Sadio Mané. As circumstances demanded, they attacked from kick-off, and sought to stretch Barcelona by sending long balls from deep areas towards Mané and into the channel between Gerard Piqué and Sergi Roberto. Andy Robertson would support those efforts from left-back, and Origi, Shaqiri and Henderson would advance towards the penalty area in anticipation of a cross into it.
During their attempts to build-up play, Liverpool advanced in wide areas through rotations and overloads against Barça’s 4-4-2. Milner and Henderson would withdraw into false full-back positions, and central defenders Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk exchanged possession, inviting Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to advance further, triggering Mané and Shaqiri drifting inside. Liverpool's success came when Arturo Vidal and Philippe Coutinho pressed those false full-backs, leaving Barça's full-backs isolated against the relevant Liverpool full-back and wide forward.
The hosts also, on multiple occasions, played through Fabinho when neither Lionel Messi nor Luis Suárez contributed significantly to Barça’s attempts to defend. When drawing the visitors' block to one side of the pitch, another approach involved using long diagonal passes towards either Shaqiri and Alexander-Arnold, or Mané and Robertson, when they were in advanced positions.
In the second half Milner moved to left-back to replace the injured Robertson, and Georginio Wijnaldum replaced him in midfield and adopted the role of running into the area as possession travelled out wide. With Barça struggling to defend that area, Liverpool continued to attempt to attack out wide; their three second-half goals came directly from wide play.
When they were without possession Liverpool attempted to remain in their favoured 4-3-3, and applied a very high and aggressive press when Barça attempted to play out. Mané and Shaqiri largely sought to press central defenders Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet, leaving Barça's full-backs as a consistent option, but they were also pressed by whoever was closest. If Mané and Shaqiri had been beaten then Henderson or Milner could move to engage and attempt to screen the opponent they had just left; they preferred to send the relevant full-backs out to press, however, and their central defenders tucked round to cover Messi or Coutinho, depending on where Barça were attacking. That approach, incidentally, relied on Alexander-Arnold and Robertson being on the front foot to quickly close down their opposing full-backs.
On the occasions Liverpool had started deeper or simply needed to rest from their high-intensity press they formed a 4-5-1 mid-block that involved Mané and Shaqiri tucking in alongside Henderson, Fabinho and Milner. During that phase Liverpool encouraged Piqué and Lenglet to have possession, but they would also attempt to screen their full-backs to force play inside to where they had numbers and would be able to initiate their energetic press.
During transitions Klopp's team attempted to initiate an immediate counter-press by surrounding the in-possession player. This strategy led to the turnover on Liverpool’s right, and therefore the attack for their second goal. The hosts also sought to surround Messi; there were several occasions when the Argentinian tried to run directly towards goal but was crowded out and ultimately struggled to create. Liverpool also demonstrated a level of experience that meant that they were happy to concede the occasional foul if they felt threatened.
Ernesto Valverde set Barcelona up in a 4-3-3 formation led by the front line of Lionel Messi and two former Liverpool players in Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suárez. The visitors had difficulty playing through their opponents due to the intensity of the press they applied, and were regularly rushed into playing inaccurate passes that encouraged further pressure.
They instead had to look to switches of play to attempt to create spaces through which they could progress, but the ball speed was too often too slow and Liverpool were able to adjust. Messi began to withdraw into deeper positions in midfield, both to create overloads and to facilitate switches of play, and he did so without being tracked because full-backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto advanced to operate as wingers. Coutinho and Suárez also drifted to play like centre-forwards, which occupied Liverpool's back four and created space for Messi in midfield, where he contributed to creating a four-on-three against Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and James Milner.
If this shortened the passing distance during switches, it also allowed the ball to be moved with greater speed. A short sideways pass in central areas triggered a penetrative run from one of Barça's full-backs – most commonly Alba – into spaces behind Liverpool's defence, but that defence detected the danger that that represented, and would therefore withdraw accordingly.
Valverde's team prioritised the wide areas because of the limited spaces in central territory, and they consistently sought the spaces behind Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. They attempted to create those spaces by drawing Liverpool's full-backs into a press and then using rotations to advance into the spaces vacated. Suárez, for example, drifted wide on the left and received a pass from Alba, encouraging Alexander-Arnold to press him while Henderson moved to press Alba; this, in turn, led to a blindside run from Ivan Rakitic, who could then receive and look to deliver a cross. Liverpool's central defenders were regardless dominant in the air in their defensive third.
When they were without possession Barça adopted a 4-4-2 that involved Coutinho withdrawing to the left side of their midfield, and Arturo Vidal moving to the right. They largely operated in a mid-block but didn’t particularly disrupt Liverpool’s build, and they applied minimal pressure from the front, which meant Fabinho receiving facing forwards on numerous occasions. If that meant one player moving to press Fabinho, the space vacated became one for Liverpool to play through.
The only time the visitors attempted to aggressively press Liverpool was from goal-kicks, where they would form a 4-3-3. Messi, Suárez and Coutinho would target Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip and Alisson while screening balls into the hosts' full-backs, which often forced Alisson into clipping long passes forwards.
They struggled defending wide areas in the early phases of Liverpool’s build-up, because of the rotation between their midfielders, full-backs and wide attackers. They also struggled to defend the penalty area from crosses, and were guilty of watching the ball and not the individual. Liverpool therefore found spaces to attack the ball, and ultimately to score.
Author: Tony Hodson