In some ways, Liverpool’s task on Wednesday while facing Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal is simple. All the Reds likely have to do to reach a second consecutive European final is contain Lionel Messi, the greatest soccer player of all time.
In past seasons, such a description might have been oversimplifying. Back when Xavi and Andres Iniesta roamed midfield for Barcelona, the pair’s game control and precision passing could dominate matches. More recently, when Neymar and a younger Luis Suarez joined Messi in the forward line, the interchanging of this three-headed monster was the core problem for opponents to solve. Today, the superstar supporting cast at Camp Nou is largely gone or aged out of its prime. But the astounding thing about Messi is that at age 31, he is still good enough to carry a team on his back very nearly to the top of the Soccer Power Index rankings, not to mention to an easy league title and a Copa del Rey final. Now he has the chance to bring the club a sixth Champions League title.
From 2010-11 through 2013-14, when Barcelona was either managed by Pep Guardiola or still functioning mostly in his systems, Messi was a forward. He operated in the “false nine” role he made famous and ran up incredible goal-scoring and assist production, while ball progression responsibilities fell as much to him as to great midfielders like Xavi and Iniesta. The team changed in 2014-15, when Luis Enrique took over, Suarez arrived as an elite center forward and Xavi fell out of the rotation. Messi switched to a role on the right and became the team’s primary ball progressor, while Suarez and Neymar helped share the goal-scoring load.
Today, increasingly, Messi just does it all. He is the lone true ball progression engine, and he’s creating an even higher percentage of his team’s goals and chances than he did at his peak, according to data from analytics firm Opta Sports.
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The main reason that Barcelona is increasingly a one-man team is that the other players are not as great anymore. Luis Suarez at 32 isn’t the dynamic center forward he used to be. Neymar, Xavi and Iniesta are gone. Sergio Busquets, 30, and Ivan Rakitic, 31, cannot cover ground in midfield like they used to. The result is a team that is less able to supplement the attack either with forward runs or with an aggressive high press to cause turnovers because the midfield needs to be more stable and defensive. Early in the season, Barcelona was playing more aggressive midfield tactics and was rewarded with a string of goals conceded. Manager Ernesto Valverde has since pulled back the press, which prevented a disaster but has left Messi carrying the team.
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These personnel issues show up clearly in the stat sheet. Where once Barcelona was among the highest-pressing teams in the world, now the Blaugrana don’t force turnovers up the field at the same rate. Barcelona’s defensive numbers have still declined as its midfielders have lost range — and the team’s more conservative approach could only slow the decline, not prevent it entirely.
This defensive weakness offers Liverpool its primary tactical opportunity. If Jurgen Klopp’s side can pull Barcelona into a transition game and open up midfield, there will be advantageous matchups to exploit. If Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane can find themselves running in space, Rakitic and Busquets are unlikely to slow them down.
But such a transition game has a downside for Liverpool. And that’s Messi. If Liverpool seeks to exploit the weaknesses of Barcelona’s defense and create transition opportunities, that will give Messi room to operate. As he has shifted from a right-sided forward to a pure central playmaker, Messi has had to work in tighter spaces, often deeper on the pitch.
Messi receives the ball more often now in the back half of the pitch and the center. These are areas that normally Liverpool would expect to have at least two if not all three of its central midfielders covering. In a transition game, however, Messi might have more space to work and find passes either to Suarez or perhaps an onrushing fullback.1
The other option for Liverpool, if that seems too much of a risk, would be not to open up the throttle and play in transition but to sit deeper and look for less frequent counterattacking opportunities. This would deny Messi space to find passes. Of course, this would be nothing new. Barcelona has often faced opponents who sat deep and denied space. What has changed, however, is Barcelona’s approach. Where once Barca would patiently hold the ball forever until it unlocked an opponent, now Messi has started gunning. In the past two seasons, Messi has attempted 121 open-play shots from outside the box as well as 108 direct free kicks. In the two seasons prior, 2015-16 and 2016-17, he attempted just 83 open-play shots from outside the box and 87 direct free kicks. Messi has increased his production outside the penalty area from eight goals per season to 10.5 per season.
This increase in production counts, but it is not spectacular. Messi has managed to be just as dangerous a ball progressor while letting it fly more frequently. But the risk Messi poses against a set defense, firing from long range, is probably one that an opponent can accept. While Messi is more dangerous shooting the ball than just about anyone else in soccer, his increased distance shooting has led to only a couple more goals over a long season. This isn’t a strategy to beat Messi — such a thing does not exist. But on balance, the statistical record suggests that even the greatest of all time has not turned gunning from 20 yards into a killer attacking plan.
Barcelona is Lionel Messi at this point, and game-planning to stop Barcelona is now as simple as figuring out how to stop Messi. Which has, of course, never been simple. But with less expansive passers behind him and less explosive forwards ahead, he has never had fewer weapons among his teammates. Liverpool can either play a more risky strategy of exploiting Barcelona’s now-shaky defense or a more conservative strategy that looks to force Messi into shooting from range. Both strategies could easily be defeated by Messi finding space in transition or driving home a great shot from distance. But on balance, Liverpool is probably better off with the latter risk than letting Messi get free on the break.
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