Wijnaldum’s failure, Valverde’s genius moves: A tactical run-down of how Barcelona decimated Liverpool 3-0

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Barcelona 3-0 Liverpool: Talking Points and Tactical Analysis

Liverpool suffered a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Barcelona at Camp Nou in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final on Wednesday night.

The Reds came into the game on the back of 10 wins in a row in all competitions and showed plenty of resilience and character away from home but it wasn’t enough to outshine the La Liga champions on a night where Lionel Messi’s brilliance once again reigned supreme.

The 3-0 defeat has left the Reds with a mountain to climb in the second leg scheduled to be held at Anfield on the 8th of May. Jurgen Klopp’s side hardly has any time to cry over the debacle at Camp Nou, with an all-important away game coming up against Newcastle United in the Premier League on Saturday.

Barcelona were expected to take the tie by the scruff of the neck on their home turf and it was Ernesto Valverde’s men who started off as the brighter of the two teams. Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic combined brilliantly to create an early chance, which was eventually dealt with perfection by Joel Matip.

The hosts finally got the breakthrough as a reward for their sustained pressure when Jordi Alba’s perfectly weighted pass from the left set up Luis Suarez, who applied the finishing touch to make it 1-0.

Liverpool tried their level best to draw level in the second half and came close on a number of occasions but it was the magician, Lionel Messi, who scored a brace to put the visitors to the sword.

The Reds, though, have plenty of positives to take from the 3-0 defeat, which looks pretty humiliating on paper but does not do any kind of justice to the lion-hearted effort that Liverpool put in away from home.

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Here are a few talking points and tactical tweaks from Liverpool’s sorry night at the Camp Nou.

1. Gini Wijnaldum failed to fill in Roberto Firmino’s boots

Roberto Firmino may not have scored as many goals as Sadio Mane or Mo Salah but the Brazilian has been a hugely influential figure in the attacking third for Liverpool, operating as the false nine in Klopp’s 4-3-3 system.

Liverpool were always going to find it hard to cope without his services and one would have expected Klopp to come up with a change of formation but the manager took everyone by surprise with his decision to field Georginio Wijnaldum in a false nine role.

This move from Klopp was an extremely unorthodox one, and although it didn’t look like the worst in the opening stages of the game, it became more and more apparent as the game wore on that the Dutchman was a glaring misfit in Liverpool’s front trio.

He lacked the natural attacking instincts and the intelligent movement of someone like Firmino to trouble the Barcelona defence and barely got a shot away on goal.

With all due respect to Wijnaldum’s versatility, Klopp was asking a bit too much of him, really, to fill in Firmino’s boots in a false nine role.

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2. Naby Keita’s injury and Trent Alexander- Arnold’s absence

Klopp embarked on the game with Fabinho in the No.6 role in his midfield trio, with James Milner on the right and Naby Keita on the left playing in No.8 roles.

The manager could have gone for a more reliable option in Jordan Henderson but he chose to field Keita, who was going through a purple patch, having scored thrice in his last 5 games.

And it looked like a good choice in the opening stages of the game, as the Guinean showed plenty of energy in the midfield and did a good job in closing Barcelona down effectively.

However, Keita’s night at Camp Nou didn’t last long and Liverpool eventually had to bring on Henderson very early into the game. It wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to Liverpool, as the Reds needed Keita’s electric presence in the midfield to press Barcelona off the ball and prevent them from playing it out from the back.

Another talking point would certainly be the inclusion of Joe Gomez in the starting eleven ahead of Alexander-Arnold. Klopp was wary of Trent’s struggles in dealing with the transitions in play and opted for a more natural and defensive right-back in Gomez but it was a move that didn’t pay off.

Gomez, who was making his first start in almost five months, was bamboozled by Arturo Vidal’s cross-field pass which eventually led to Suarez’s opener. He was caught out of position and Barcelona punished the visitors with their ruthlessness.

There was another instance when Gomez was caught napping by Messi’s brilliant switch of play from the right flank, as the Englishman allowed Alba and Coutinho to combine brilliantly, only for Fabinho to step in and prevent the team’s demise with a last-ditch challenge.

Moreover, Gomez lacked the natural attacking instincts of someone like Alexander-Arnold, who could have made a greater impact in such a high-octane clash.

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3. Liverpool’s high line

One would have expected Klopp to adopt a cautious approach away from home against Barcelona but what happened throughout the ninety minutes was exactly the opposite.

The Reds played a high defensive line and tried to press the opposition higher up the pitch, a ploy that often backfired, as the likes of Coutinho, Rakitic and Alba found a lot of room to run in behind the backline. Robertson and Matip did well on the night but Gomez found it difficult to cope with the pressure of having to play in a high line.

Liverpool did look good when they managed to press Barcelona off the ball due to their attacking approach but it was never going to be a wise idea to pin the lion back in its own backyard.

In fact, the Reds were lucky not to have conceded four or five on the night when they played an insanely attacking game in pursuit of that away goal during the dying stages of the game. They should thank the likes of Suarez and Ousmane Dembele for that.

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4. The result doesn’t do justice to Liverpool’s brave display

Barcelona dominated proceedings in the opening stages of the first half but Liverpool eventually settled down and had some clear-cut opportunities to find the net.

Moments after Suarez’s opener, Jordan Henderson’s remarkable long pass found Mane, who managed to get ahead of Pique and Lenglet but failed to apply the finishing touches. Liverpool, though, could have had a penalty when Mane muscled down by Pique inside the box, only for the referee to deem it as a rather soft challenge.

Liverpool came out with a point to prove in the second half and created plenty of chances but the Reds let themselves down with the quality of their finishing. Milner tested Marc-Andre Ter Stegen with a powerful shot from inside the box but it was his second effort that deserves plenty of criticism.

Klopp has often shown the inclination to trust Milner in big games due to his experience but the veteran let the Reds down with some generous finishing when Mo Salah presented him with a glorious opportunity to draw level.

If Milner’s miss wasn’t enough, Mo Salah’s dreadful finish certainly was. Firmino was brought on late in the game and the Brazilian had his shot cleared off the line by Rakitic but it was Salah who should have scored from the rebound.

On another day, Salah would probably have put that away in his sleep but he only managed to hit the post and squandered a golden chance.

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5. Valverde’s tactical switch and Messi’s brilliance

It was all one-way traffic in the second half, with Liverpool dominating the proceedings and outplaying the La Liga champions in their pursuit of an equaliser. Barcelona were getting pressed off the ball way too easily by an energetic Liverpool side

Very much vigilant to the tilt in the balance of play, Valverde substituted Coutinho and brought on Nelson Semedo to deal with the threat of Mane and Robertson down the left-hand side of the pitch. That ploy definitely worked to a certain extent and gave the home side some extra protection down the flanks.

However, it was Lionel Messi, who had the final say in the first leg. The Argentinian showcased an excellent presence of mind to put the ball into the net from the rebound after Suarez had his shot come back off the crossbar. Van Dijk was right there in the middle but he didn’t react quick enough to stop Messi from making it 2-0.

And it was the magician once again, who put the final nail in Liverpool’s coffin with just the perfect free-kick from about 30 yards, reminding the fans at Camp Nou why he is still the best footballer in the world.

Messi unleashed an inch-perfect strike with the right amount of swirl to curl it over the wall and into the top corner of Alisson’s net, capping off a wonderful individual performance.

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It could have got worse for Liverpool had Suarez or Dembele managed to score the fourth goal from a couple of brisk counter-attacks but the Reds managed to stay just afloat in the tie, though they would need to pull off arguably one of the greatest comebacks in their history at Anfield to reach the finals.