Liverpool flattened Barcelona with a full-scale emotional assault

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 8, 2019
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Trace Jurgen Klopp’s origins all the way back to the beginning, to his playing days at Mainz and the evangelism of Wolfgang Stark, and there’s a simple premise at that root. The football system in which he believes, the counter-press, is a means of reducing the impact of a technical disadvantage. Its wild rhythms and numerical overloads are intended to level the playing field and, clearly, there has been no greater evidence of its effect than Liverpool’s dismantling of Barcelona at Anfield.

Not literally, but certainly in the abstract. Of the four goals that Liverpool scored on Tuesday, only one of them could really be attributed to the gegenpress. Sadio Mane’s eager hounding in the sixth minute hassled a mistake from Jordi Alba, Jordan Henderson shuffled into the Barcelona box and shot, and Divock Origi was on-hand to gobble up the rebound.

There was the counter-press acting as the finest playmaker in the world. There, inevitably, was the spare man that the visitors had no hope of containing.

So far, so literal.

As time goes on, though, and Klopp’s body of work in England continues to reveal itself, the more it becomes obvious that his system’s greater impact is in the atmosphere it helps to create. According to Rafael Honigstein’s biography, Bring The Noise, during one of his first meetings with John W Henry, before the German had been appointed by Liverpool, he spoke of the need to ‘activate’ the Anfield crowd, and that’s very clearly what he’s succeeded in doing.

Rival supporters will roll their eyes: they’re tired of hearing about special European nights, how it matters more, and the rest. Regardless, Klopp has stirred the local mood. It’s not unique to Liverpool, because he did exactly the same at Borussia Dortmund, but the effect is the same: the perpetuation of a febrile, frenzied environment which helps to sustain the team’s high-energy style but also, crucially, weakens an opponent’s immune system and concusses their thought process.

That was vital last night. Logically, nothing which happened made  sense: a Liverpool side at a 3-0 deficit and without two of their most influential players should not have been able to make Barcelona uncomfortable. And yet they did. The greatest player in the game’s history was only able to have a flickering effect, veteran defenders made mistakes which belonged on school pitches, and – caught in Anfield’s glare – the great Barcelona looked like one of those Premier League also-rans who are invariably beaten before they leave the tunnel.

Truthfully, calling Barcelona ‘great’ is over-statement. The British press is guilty of working off historic assumptions about this team, of seeing the stripes on their shirts rather than the flaws in their game. They are still Messi, they are still Busquets, Suarez, Pique and ter Stegen, but they are not a great side in the way that their predecessors were. They’re gifted, they’re capable and they’re still champions of Spain, but 2018-19 is far from a vintage and an awkward transitional phase is starting to get big in the window.

But this was nevertheless a result which should never have occurred. That it did makes that compelling point about the virtues of Klopp’s system: the aesthetics are alluringly vibrant, but its deeper worth is in what it inspires from its surroundings and the consequential stress that it places on opponents. It’s a swirl of forces: the relentless, waspish press, the fear of making mistakes with that first pass out of defence, and then the gradual bleed of anxiety into almost every facet of the game.

A Champions League semi-final is a special occasion which inspires a particular type of atmosphere. But, domestically and in Europe, whenever Barcelona come to town it’s a big night and so, inevitably, their emotional response is trained to be harder. They’re used to being somebody else’s cup final and with dealing with all the issues which come with that. But this was a spectacular fracturing, beyond what occured in Rome almost a year ago.

That was a quarter-final rather than a semi, but the parallels are uncanny. Edin Dzeko scored within seven minutes after a defensive mistake, the Stadio Olimpico began to pulse with life, and Barcelona spent the rest of the night making uncharacteristic errors. The failure to track Kostas Manolas’ run to the near-post is the one which everyone remembers, but maybe that night’s ugly signature was Gerard Pique’s awkward drag on Dzeko which gave Roma their penalty and their second goal, and which poured petrol on the fire. Pique is a great player, truly a world-class centre-half, and who has also spent the last decade lining up, most often successfully, against the finest forwards of this generation. But in Rome, he was completely lost, his mind irreversibly spun by the flashing lights.

Tuesday was the greater achievement; Liverpool overcame more. The loss of Firmino and Salah, of course, but also the injury to Andrew Robertson. Those circumstances, combined with Barcelona’s stunning generosity, gave further clarity to what it is that makes Klopp successful. His style of play embellishes his own players, that’s certainly true, but the greater effect is seen in how it reduces the opposition. After all, the second, third and fourth goals weren’t mined from any counter-press, but relatively simple passages of play which depended instead on inexplicable mistakes.

It’s like a dizziness, as if the experience of playing Liverpool is the equivalent of being tumbled in a washer-dryer. Ten days ago, Huddersfield began a game at Anfield by passing the ball back from kick-off and then, essentially, booting it into their own net within seconds. Add that to the list of ‘uncharacterstic’ moments that different players have suffered there this season and chalk it up to this equilibrium-rattling force that Klopp has been able to generate. His football manufactures doubt, multiplying fear and inhibition in way which typically doesn’t happen at the highest level.

Even Barcelona aren’t immune, they were no smarter than Huddersfield. Georginio Wijnaldum’s run for his first goal should obviously have been tracked. In the moments before his second, he should surely not have been allowed to stand almost still on the edge of the six-yard box, waiting for Xherdan Shaqiri to find his forehead. And the third would have led to an inquest at Sunday League level, let alone at the professional game’s summit.

That’s not tactics. None of those goals had been cleverly designed on the training ground, neither did they owe anything to micro strategy. Instead, they represented the secondary benefits of what Jurgen Klopp believes in and, in effect, a reward for his body of work and the energy he has been successful in capturing.

At home and in that mood, Liverpool place an intolerable emotional strain on their opponents. It’s not about wanting it more or running harder and for longer. It’s not even just about how load the crowd sing or how many flags are in the ground. Instead, it’s everything. Even when Klopp is without Salah’s goals or Firmino’s vision, he still has a full-scale sensory attack in his armoury and, last night, it rendered Barcelona emotional and technically helpless. So Liverpool are through, back in the European Cup final again, and they’re there because, on certain nights, their head-coach is able to weaponise a fourth-dimension.

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Barcelona Jurgen Klopp Liverpool
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