Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Clubs will scout forthcoming opponents by examining past results, probing tactical approaches that have proved successful in order to determine an advantageous game plan.
Barcelona welcome Liverpool to the Camp Nou on Wednesday, and for the recently crowned La Liga champions, a glance at the Reds’ failings this season could provide the framework for progressing to the Champions League final; according to reports, Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde is thinking just that.
The problem is that Liverpool have been near-infallible domestically, losing just once in 36 league matches as they chase a first top-flight title in 29 years. Only one team has managed to stifle Jurgen Klopp’s charges, and that’s Manchester City.
Valverde could do worse than replicate the efforts of former Barcelona player and manager Pep Guardiola, who presided over a scoreless stalemate at Anfield in October and City’s 2-1 home victory in January.
Suppress full-back contributions
Liverpool are almost certain to field a 4-3-3 formation at the Camp Nou. Klopp opted for his preferred formation in both league matches against City, and the lineups were virtually carbon copies. In the first meeting against City, Joe Gomez played at right-back, with recent PFA Team of the Year honoree Trent Alexander-Arnold starting in the reverse fixture.
Barring a last-minute injury, Alexander-Arnold will start at right-back in the Catalan capital, and Valverde would be wise to target him and fellow full-back Andrew Robertson. Domestically, Robertson leads all defenders with 11 assists – the joint-best record for a defender in the Premier League era – and Alexander-Arnold is second on nine.
In October, City visited Liverpool looking for a first league victory at Anfield in 15 years but instead came away with a goalless draw in a cagey match that Klopp labeled “intense.” Gomez, who deputized for Alexander-Arnold, was largely ineffective. Robertson’s attacking contributions were curbed by Riyad Mahrez’s aggressively high position on the right wing, with the Scotsman completing just one key pass over 90 minutes.
The second match between the two sides at the Etihad Stadium was a more explosive affair, with City reigniting the title chase with a 2-1 win that featured goals from Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane. Both Sane, who was out left, and Raheem Sterling, who played wide right, used their blinding pace to challenge Alexander-Arnold and Robertson while using the touchline as an extra defender. However, it takes more than simply pinning Liverpool’s two full-backs into deep positions to stop them; Roberto Firmino’s 64th-minute equalizer was a prime example as Alexander-Arnold fired a probing cross into the box from 30 yards that found Robertson’s incisive run before the former Hull City stud played the ball across the face of goal to the Brazilian No. 9.
Robertson is particularly dangerous when afforded space to deliver early crosses, and Alexander-Arnold is a threat both as a pinpoint passer and a swift player capable of making runs into the penalty area. Alexander-Arnold’s right-foot is also a menace on set-pieces.
Pinning Robertson and Alexander-Arnold into deeper positions with wide attacks would also be wise for Barcelona considering PFA Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk has not been successfully dribbled past once this season in the Premier League. Yes, Lionel Messi could dribble through a grain harvester unscathed, but why go through the middle and make life hard on yourself?
Beat the press
Jurgen Klopp is rightly credited with making the gegenpress chic again, and it’s served Liverpool well in part because the roster is littered with high-energy individuals capable of playing the German’s brand of “heavy metal football.”
At the Camp Nou, Liverpool’s front-three is certain to employ some variance of a press, and considering Valverde’s aversion to playing long balls over the top is linear with Guardiola’s preference for orchestrating attacks from the back, City’s two performances versus the Reds could provide a blueprint on how to break Klopp’s press.
Of course, executing effectively is easier said than done, but Barcelona are at least aware of the threat. “Liverpool apply very high pressure in the form of six or even seven players,” a Barcelona club source told ESPN FC. “They want to make you uncomfortable and, if possible, they want to rob the ball back.
“Our intention is to play as we always do. We want to get the ball at the back and play through their press. But we haven’t ruled out going long if we have to,” the source added.
During the 0-0 draw at Anfield, City found moderate success breaking the press by moving the ball quickly via David Silva and Fernandinho. Slick-passing center-back pairing Aymeric Laporte and John Stones frequently found Fernandinho on the half-turn, and he’d then look for wide outlets as City profited from Guardiola’s inclination to overload one side of the pitch. It negated Liverpool’s approach while putting heaps of pressure on the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson to win back possession.
For City’s 2-1 victory in January, Fernandinho prospered again, but instead of a 4-2-3-1 with him and Silva at the base, the angular Brazilian was tasked with a deep-lying central role in a 4-3-3, a formation Valverde has employed to great success. Fernandinho controlled the midfield and was a composed source of rigidity as Liverpool applied pressure after the hour mark.
Sergio Busquets is the ideal candidate to play the Fernandinho role on Wednesday at the Camp Nou, flanked by Arthur and Ivan Rakitic. The lanky Spaniard’s tranquil skills in tight confines and ability to control cadence will be on full display. It doesn’t hurt that he rarely loses possession, either. If Barcelona decide to beat the press by playing the occasional long ball, should Robertson and Alexander-Arnold find themselves too high up the pitch, a penetrating and pacey wide player like Ousmane Dembele could provide a perfect target.
Manchester City have provided the blueprint on how to stop Liverpool. Whether Barcelona adopt it, and whether it works or not, remains to be seen.