BARCELONA, Spain — Jürgen Klopp had asked his Liverpool players to be brave. For the plan to work — for the plan to have any hope of working — they had to have courage, he told them. The courage to attack Barcelona, to make their illustrious opponent run. The courage, on occasion, to risk looking ridiculous.
Klopp, as always, had done his homework. He had Barcelona’s last few games pored over, analyzed, picked apart for any sign of weakness, any glimmer of hope. He noted what Real Sociedad had done, and Levante, too, in recent weeks. Neither had won their games, of course. Analyzing Barcelona means trying to pick pearls from a lot of defeats.
Together with his coaching staff, he formulated a plan for Wednesday’s first leg of Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal. Klopp knew full well that having a plan is no guarantee of anything at Camp Nou, of course — “so many people come to Barcelona with a plan and then get a proper knock,” he had said on the eve of the game — but he knew even more certainly that not having a plan very much is.
So in what little time he had available to him in these most frantic weeks of his team’s season, he briefed his players, tailoring training sessions to help familiarize them with the quirks, the changes, the details.
With doubts over the fitness of Roberto Firmino, the lodestar of his attack, he prepared to deploy the midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum in an unfamiliar, advanced role: not so much a false 9 but a defensive 10, there to replicate Firmino’s work rate more than his precision.
He drafted in Joe Gomez as a right back, a more cautious option than the usual occupant of that position, Trent Alexander-Arnold; Jordi Alba, Barcelona’s bounding, racing left back, needed careful, dutiful handling. To ensure Liverpool did not lose too much of its characteristic dynamism — did not allow its opponent’s identity to swamp its own — Klopp prepared Andy Robertson, his own left back, to raid forward as much as play would allow, to exploit the spaces he knew would be left vacant by the wandering Lionel Messi.
His ideas stretched beyond the lineup, too. Wijnaldum’s first task was to disrupt Sergio Busquets, Barcelona’s elegant, deep-lying conductor. Fabinho, Liverpool’s midfield anchor, was supposed to stay close to Messi when he drifted into the center. James Milner and Naby Keita, stationed either side of Fabinho, were instructed to come to his aid as quickly as possible, to cut off the world’s best player’s escape routes.
Messi’s second goal against Liverpool was his 600th for Barcelona. It came 14 years to the day after his first.CreditCatherine Ivill/Getty Images
For all the special measures, though, Klopp told his Liverpool team not to offer Barcelona so much as a glimpse of the respect being afforded. He wanted his team to be “ready to look ridiculous, to get nutmegged, but always to be there, to take that last step.” Liverpool’s central defenders, Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip, had been told to be ready to be left exposed in “one-on-one situations,” the former said. Klopp had told them to be — that word again — “brave” enough to trust themselves, even against these opponents. Only if they did that could Liverpool, as Klopp wanted them to, “start to play football.”
That side of the game, the side where Liverpool had the ball, had been no less assiduously planned. Klopp wanted his team to play through Barcelona’s press, to “break the lines,” to create chances, ask questions, cause problems. He wanted to isolate Alba against Mohamed Salah, and Sergi Roberto against Sadio Mané.
He wanted to turn Barcelona’s fullbacks, to get its back line running. He asked his defense and midfield to look for long passes to switch play: to drag Barcelona to one side of the field and then try to drop the ball over the fullbacks’ shoulders for Mané and Salah to run onto. He wanted them to create “moments” to make Barcelona think, to make Barcelona worry.
After all that work, all that effort, all that time, it would have been easy to listen to Klopp reflect on how it all panned out — insisting that he was “really pleased” with how his team had played, that his squad had produced the finest away performance of his tenure, that he can “really work” with what he had seen, that he had “so much fun” — and suspect he was doing nothing more than trying to whitewash Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat on Wednesday.
This was, surely, just a fairly transparent ploy to detract from the cold, hard fact that Liverpool has now, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated from the Champions League. Or, at best, it was a manager hovering somewhere between unflinching belief in his players and outright delusion, seeing things that were not really there.
Klopp, though, was sincere in his praise. More pertinently, it did not feel as if he was wrong. Liverpool had been brave. His defenders had been prepared to find themselves isolated against Barcelona’s shimmering, stellar attack. His midfield had barely given Messi a moment’s peace. His forwards had created chances, had caused problems. They had stood up to Barcelona. They had carried out the plan. They had, as their manager said, “done everything right.”
That it had all been for nothing, that Liverpool had only disappointment and regret to show for it was not because Klopp, as he briefly alluded, “got everything wrong.” Liverpool had not lost because of some fatal flaw, some glaring error, some terrible oversight.
It lost because no matter how well a team plays, or how well a coach prepares, Barcelona finds a way through, as it did with its first goal, created by a pass that could not exist — but that was played anyway by Jordi Alba — and finished off by Luis Suárez.
It lost because sometimes the ball runs one way and not the other — to Suárez’s feet, to shoot against the bar, and from there straight to Messi to tap in the rebound — rather than, well, anywhere else.
And it lost because Messi can, with quite extraordinary frequency, place a free kick into the top corner, even when he is too far out to do so, even when he does not appear to strike the ball desperately hard, even when you are sure he cannot do it again.
Klopp could not help but smile, a rueful, disbelieving smile, when he saw that shot — Messi’s 600th goal for his club — sail past Alisson Becker, and effectively end this semifinal as a contest. Van Dijk, reminded of it a few minutes after, could not stop himself, either. “What a free kick,” he said, with a grin.
They had worked as hard as they could to keep Barcelona at bay. They had run as hard as they could to push them back, to cause them problems. They had been brave. And none of it had mattered, not a jot, because no matter how hard you work or how much you run, there is no way to plan for Barcelona. There is no plan that contains Messi. There is no plan that stops him. Sometimes, there is only acquiescence.