Barcelona have only ever lost at the Camp Nou to one English side in their history, Liverpool. Once to Bob Paisley’s side in the 1976 UEFA Cup but also to Rafael Benítez’ side in 2007. The match in 2007 was the 2005 winners against the holders in Barcelona who beat Arsenal in the final a year before.
This was one of Benítez’ finest performance on the route to the final in Athens. Not only did he have to cope with one of the greatest in the 2000s, Ronaldinho, they also had a bright young Argentine youngster called Lionel Messi. In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Rafa’s Reds conquered in Catalan.
Both sides set up in a 4-4-2. Frank Rijkaard played a back two of Barcelona legends Carles Puyol and Rafael Márquez. Either side of the midfield was Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho with Deco and Xavi in central midfield. After a training ground bust-up in which Craig Bellamy hit John Arne Riise with a golf club, both were included. With Riise being pushed up to left midfield with Alvaro Arbeloa playing left back. Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso made up the central midfield who were in their prime.
How Rafa set the Reds up
Benítez knew that Barcelona were one of the most attacking teams in the world at that time. He knew that going all out attack would leave gaps in the defence which Barcelona could break down. So he set up a half-way line press. Anything beyond the halfway line Liverpool will sit back in their own half. But when they did enter the Liverpool half they will try and win the ball back.
So when Liverpool do receive the ball Liverpool could then go and attack the empty space in behind the Barcelona defence which they had forced to come forward. Hence this Liverpool were very direct when they received the ball. They often looked to play straight into the attacking third and commit players to try and complete an overload, this is shown as below. From being in a compact defensive shape behind the halfway line, Liverpool were now attacking with six. This led to Riise’s goal which we will touch on later.
How Barcelona took the lead
However, it was Barcelona who took the lead and it was their use of width which provided the goal. This game was played over a year before Pep Guardiola came to the Barcelona dugout.
However, Barcelona played in a style in which we would be used to seeing City play today. The width of Messi and Gianluca Zambrotta provided Barcelona space in the tight Liverpool defence. This created gaps, which can be seen below, for Ronaldinho to cut inside and cause trouble for the Liverpool defensive line.
The below image shows Messi on the right-wing for Barcelona. What is noticeable is the space he has created for himself. This caused a dilemma for the Liverpool right-back Alvaro Arbeloa, he could either go and press Messi which would create space which is now known as the ‘half-space’ or stay compact. The problem with staying compact is having a player with the dribbling ability of Messi could really damage a full back if not enough pressure on the ball.
Also when Liverpool did win possession back, the press from Barcelona was superb and cut off all the passing options. If you look below, Arbeloa has possession of the ball, but he will struggle to play the ball forwards as the Barcelona press has prevented him from finding a pass to play short. So, Arbeloa has to either clip the ball in behind to Dirk Kuyt or set back.
The intense pressure allowed Barcelona to have many chances on goal during the first half and they finally got their opener through a header by Deco. The pattern of play leading to the goal was similar to what we have seen above as Barcelona used width to try and get a free opportunity at goal.
Deco pulls wide of the Liverpool defence, which is pulled more compactly due to a decoy run from Javier Saviola. This creates the space for Deco to have a free header in the box which he finished in the bottom right-hand corner.
The Liverpool reply
As shown before after gaining the ball in their own half, Liverpool will try and move into the final third as quickly as possible and this is what happened for Bellamy’s equaliser. After stepping off Barcelona in their own half, Steve Finnan has possession of the ball in the final third for Liverpool with options to play to.
One of these options was Bellamy whose movement was vital in both games in order to create space and break down the Spaniards. His movement swivels him away from the compact Barca back four and he has a free header, similar to Deco. Despite Valdes catching the ball he could not prevent it from going over the line and Liverpool had equalised.
In the second half, it was Bellamy’s movement again which created space for the goal. What is also notable, in the lead up to this goal, is the width that Riise provides Liverpool. But it was the wide run of Bellamy which produced a huge gap in the middle of the Barcelona defensive line which created space for Kuyt to exploit so the ball could be played into him to create a one v one opportunity for him.
However, the shot was saved, but what is key is the movement of Bellamy and Kuyt in the lead up to the goal. They do not chase the ball but instead wait for the ball to come to them. This creates more space for them as the Barcelona players are rushing back to the goal line to get behind the ball. When he receives the ball and he squares it along to Riise who puts it in the net for the winner in a famous Liverpool European night.
12 years later and no English football team has achieved the same feat. Teams have tried and failed but on Wednesday night Liverpool could repeat history as they will try to make their fourth Champions League final in 14 years. Only time can tell if Klopp can repeat the magic of Benítez and send Liverpool to Madrid.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the April issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.