Somehow, the task of Liverpool on Wednesday against Barcelona in the semifinal of the Champions League is simple. All the Reds that probably have to do to reach a second consecutive European final is to contain Lionel Messi, the best football player of all time.
In previous seasons, such a description could have been too simplistic. When Xavi and Andres Iniesta pbaded through the center of the field for Barcelona, control of the game of the couple and precision pbad could dominate the games. More recently, when Neymar and a young Luis Suarez joined Messi in the front line, the exchange of this three-headed monster was the central problem that opponents had to solve. Today, the supporting cast of the superstar at the Camp Nou has largely disappeared out of its heyday. But the amazing thing about Messi is that at the age of 31, he's still good enough to take a team on his back almost to the top of the Soccer Power Index ranking, not to mention a title of easy league and a final of the Copa del Rey. . Now he has the opportunity to bring the club a sixth Champions League title.
From 2010-11 until 2013-14, when Barcelona was managed by Pep Guardiola or still worked mainly on their systems, Messi was a striker. He acted in the role of the "false nine" that made him famous and accumulated incredible goal scoring and attended the production, while the responsibilities of progression of the ball belonged to both him and great midfielders like Xavi and Iniesta. The team changed in 2014-15, when Luis Enrique took over, Suarez arrived as a central elite striker and Xavi fell out of the rotation. Messi changed to a role on the right and became the main progresser of the team's ball, while Suárez and Neymar helped share the goal load.
Today, more and more, Messi does everything. According to the data of the Opta Sports badysis firm, he is the only driver of the true progression of the ball, and is creating an even greater percentage of the goals and opportunities of his team.
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The main reason why Barcelona is increasingly a team of one man is that the other players are no longer so good. Luis Suarez, 32, is not the dynamic center forward he used to be. Neymar, Xavi and Iniesta are gone. Sergio Busquets, 30, and Ivan Rakitic, 31, can not cover terrain in the midfield as they used to. The result is a team that is less able to complement the attack, either with advanced runs or aggressive high pressure to cause turnovers because the midfield must be more stable and defensive. At the beginning of the season, Barcelona played more aggressive tactics in the midfield and was rewarded with a series of goals conceded. The manager Ernesto Valverde withdrew the press, which avoided a disaster, but left Messi with the team.
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These personnel problems are clearly shown on the statistics sheet. Where once Barcelona was among the most pressured teams in the world, now the Blaugrana do not force the balls to the field at the same speed. The defensive numbers of Barcelona have still declined because their midfielders have lost their reach, and the team's more conservative approach could only slow the decline, not stop it altogether.
This defensive weakness offers Liverpool its main tactical opportunity. If the team of Jurgen Klopp can push Barcelona to a transition game and open the midfield, there will be advantageous confrontations to explode. If Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane can be found running in space, it is unlikely that Rakitic and Busquets will stop them.
But such a transition game has an inconvenience for Liverpool. And that's Messi. If Liverpool seeks to exploit the weaknesses of the defense of Barcelona and create opportunities for transition, that will give Messi space to operate. As he went from being a right striker to a pure central playmaker, Messi had to work in smaller spaces, often deeper in the field.
Messi receives the ball more often now in the back half of the field and in the center. These are areas that normally Liverpool would expect to have at least two, if not all, of the three central midfielders they cover. However, in a transition game, Messi could have more space to work and find pbades to Suárez or maybe a crippling fullback.
The other option for Liverpool, if that seems to be a big risk, would be not to open the accelerator and play in transition, but sit down more deeply and look for less frequent counterattack opportunities. This would deny Messi's space to find pbades. Of course, this would not be anything new. Barcelona has often faced opponents who have sat deeply and denied space. What has changed, however, is the Barcelona approach. Where once Barça patiently held the ball forever until it unblocked an opponent, now Messi began firing. In the last two seasons, Messi has tried 121 open game shots from outside the box, as well as 108 free throws. In the two previous seasons, 2015-16 and 2016-17, he attempted only 83 open-game 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 an equally dangerous ball progresser and, at the same time, he has let it fly more frequently. But the risk that Messi poses against an established defense, firing from long distance, is probably one that an opponent can accept. While Messi is more dangerous shooting the ball than almost anyone else in football, his biggest distance shot has led to just a couple more goals over a long season. This is not a strategy to defeat Messi, such a thing does not exist. But overall, the statistical record suggests that even the best of all time has not turned the 20-yard shot into a killer attack plan.
Barcelona is Lionel Messi at this point, and planning the game to stop Barcelona now is as simple as figuring out how to stop Messi. Which, of course, has never been simple. But with less expansive pbades behind him and less explosive forward, he has never had less weapons among his teammates. Liverpool can play a more risky strategy of exploiting Barcelona's now unstable defense or a more conservative strategy that seems to force Messi to shoot from range. Both strategies could easily be defeated by Messi finding space in transition or driving home to a great shot from a distance. But in general, Liverpool is probably better off with this last risk than letting Messi break free at halftime.
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