By Darian Wilken

“Visca el Barça, visca Catalunya” – The Theory of Diagonality – Valverde the pragmatist

"Last season was really good as we did the double but we all felt bad about how it went in the Champions League," Messi said. "We promise that this season we will do all we can to bring that beautiful trophy back to the Camp Nou…"
– Lionel Messi 

Messi made this impactful statement as part of his first speech as Captain of Barcelona last year on the night before Barcelona's preseason Joan Gamper Trophy match against Boca Juniors.
After a spectacular failure in last seasons competition losing on aggregate 4-4 to AS ROMA in only the quarter finals the intent from this Barcelona team is clear.
Bring the beautiful trophy back to the Camp Nou.

Figure 1- Joan Gamper Trophy

Figure 1B- Joan Gamper Trophy

Jurgen Klopp’s men came into the game in fine form following their 5-0 thrashing of Huddersfield on the previous weekend. The availability of Roberto Firmino was the main talking point in the build-up to match with Jurgen saying “If ‘Bobby is 100 percent ready to play then will maybe play.” He explained.

Firmino’s pressing ability is his major strength for the team – StatsBomb.com covered some of his interesting pressure stats from last season (You can read more here - https://statsbomb.com/2018/05/champions-league-spotlight-how-roberto-firmino-and-mohamed-salah-propel-liverpool/)  and while Liverpool have changed slightly from the extreme high press from the previous year – you can clearly see that he initiates an amazing amount of pressure moments especially in the oppositions central pivoting area. 

Figure 2 - Roberto Firmino Defensive Actions

Firmino’s press initiates slightly deeper than last season. 

Figure 3- Roberto Firmino Defensive Activity

This weapon that could have been used to target Sergio Busquets influence on the game? Busquets finished the match with 100% take-ons successful 100% tackles won 91% pass accuracy.


Barcelona lined up in a fluid 1 – 4 – 3 – 3:
Build up mainly started with the CB’s dropping deep to the corners on the box, with proper dispersal of the rest of the team resulted in Liverpool’s pressing structure becoming more stretched to allow Ter Stegen a bigger number of passing options. 

Some movements to open space Barca would try was 
  • Busquets dropping in as a deep lying playmaker – in front of the first line of press. This allows the CB’s to go wider and push the fullbacks high (especially Alba).
  • Messi coming inside into a number #10 position to get more influence between the lines 
  • Roberto/Vidal creating a rotational eco-system to occupy the now vacant right side of the attack.

Liverpool lined up in a 1 – 4 – 3 – 3 False 9 / 1 – 4 – 4 – 2 Diamond:

Keita was substituted early in the 24th minute for Jordan Henderson after a challenge with Ivan Rakitic that ended with him injuring his left groin. The replacement Henderson didn’t change too much to the structure, shifting Milner from the RCM to LCM position. 

The three-man midfield always tries to give balance to the team by pivoting and allowing the ball side midfielder to take advanced position.

In an article from 2015 on Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich 3-0 vs AC Milan Tom Payne touched on the subject of Diagonality in Juego de Position (Positional Play). 

  1. The reason for its (Diagonality) general superiority over horizontal and vertical passes is for the effect each pass brings. Horizontal passes switch the play but create no increase in pressure on the goal – at the beginning and end of a horizontal pass from half-space to half-space, strategically the ball is in a very similar position. When compared to diagonal passes, it is clear to see the disadvantage as diagonal passes not only switch the play but gain space and increase the pressure on the opposition’s goal.

Tom then goes on to highlight this via the following two diagrams. 

Figure 5(a)- Theory of Diagonality - @TomPayne

The main product of diagonal passes that Guardiola was looking for was isolation. Mainly to get his qualitative superior winger (Douglas Costa) into 1v1 situations with the opposition fullback. 
Both Barcelona and Liverpool showed a similar evolution from this tactic in this match.
Barcelona mainly look to do this through:
  • Messi dropping into a central area, Alba/Suarez look to break the opposition defensive line and the ball is played diagonally in behind.

Whereas Liverpool mainly look to do this through a support from behind pattern in the final third. 
  • Winger dribbles at back four in wide area – the ball is passed backwards to an inverted fullback or midfielder (The backwards pass is to trigger the oppositions line to step up) the diagonal pass then targets two runners on the opposite side, inside and outside of the last man. 


Pragmatist - A person who is guided more by practical considerations than by ideals

One of the most interesting themes in this game was the game management from Ernesto Valverde. Barcelona were consistently happy to cede possession to Liverpool with the idea of counter attacking into the space provided by Liverpool’s possession creating a high line. This could also be seen through his first substitution in bringing Nelson Semedo for Philippe Coutinho and changing the possession centric FC Barcelona into a more Leicester City hybrid 1-4-4-2. 
Liverpool had marginally more ball possession than Barcelona, at the Camp Nou  47% - 53% something that might have been unimaginable to the Guardiola/Barcelona idealists. 

The risk from and something that Barca struggled with is that Liverpool are an elite counter pressing side and this helped them to stop Barcelona from escaping to counter.

Figure 6- Barcelona/Liverpool xG @CaleyGraphics
And while Barcelona (with the help of Lionel Messi) we’re well worth their 3 goals by creating their 12 shots – it was not without the risk of conceding an away goal something Liverpool can feel hard done by.
From this we look forward to second leg at Anfield where I’m sure we will see more Counter attacking – pressing and an even more pragmatic Ernesto Valverde. 
Darian Wilken is currently holding the position of 1st Team Performance Analyst at Orlando Pirates Football Club and previously was Head of Performance Analysis at AmaZulu FC. He is also a forward-thinking Coach with a passion for Tactics and developing people.


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