It’s the how that really stings. That Barcelona, a very good team that nonetheless suffers from several glaring deficiencies, lost in the Champions League semifinals to Liverpool, one of only two truly great teams in Europe this season and probably the one best equipped to solve the particular problems this devilishly complicated tournament poses, isn’t itself worth rending too many Barça jerseys over. But how Barcelona lost, throwing away a 3-0 lead in the first leg with a 4-0 capitulation in the away match, wasting a golden opportunity to fully capitalize on one of Lionel Messi’s few remaining years near his peak, makes Tuesday’s defeat one of the most painful losses this generation of Barça players and fans have likely ever experienced.
That Liverpool are the stronger team of the two seems, in retrospect, obvious. On paper, the two teams’ rosters are fairly even in overall talent, and you could make the case for either team enjoying a slight edge. In context, though, Liverpool, along every line and in conjunction with each other, had a significant advantage over Barcelona. This is mostly a reflection of the heroic work manager Jürgen Klopp has done to shape the Reds squad into the Kloppian ideal.
Liverpool made up for their arguable lack of clearly superior players in comparison with Barcelona’s—and missing two crucial cogs in Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino in the semifinal’s second leg—with a playing style that fits the available talents perfectly, and is particularly potent in tournament play. As Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid demonstrated in recent seasons, and further evidenced in last summer’s World Cup, knockout soccer today is dominated by those who dominate transitions and who can stifle possession teams with physically intense pressure. Liverpool are godly in transition, and love nothing more than to send waves of wrecking balls to demolish the pretty possession castles their opponents seek to build. Barcelona are the opposite.
If Liverpool are a true team, where the sum is greater than its parts, then Barcelona are an ill-fitting collection of individuals whose individual talents, shortcomings, and preferences make it incredibly difficult to get the best out of all of them at the same time—especially against the kinds of teams that usually make deep runs in the Champions League. Liverpool’s greatest strengths are precisely Barcelona’s biggest weaknesses: the Reds’ searingly fast forwards against the Blaugrana’s slow and isolated defense; the Pool Boys’ army of pressers against Barça’s pressure-susceptible possession players; Liverpool’s strong and speedy defending against Barça’s old and slow attackers. That is why Liverpool are the better team, why they easily outplayed Barcelona over the two legs, and why Liverpool’s passage into the Champions League final shouldn’t, on paper, have surprised anyone.
But again, it’s the how that is most distressing, and there are no easy answers for that.
The first impulse after taking a historic L the size Liverpool just handed Barcelona is to go around apportioning blame. But looking for someone(s) to blame is a poor way of understanding what happened on Tuesday and, more importantly, what has been happening at Barcelona to have made the loss possible.
There are, of course, specific reasons why Barcelona failed to protect their 3-0 lead. The easiest person to blame is manager Ernesto Valverde. Barça could’ve chosen one of two paths to success on Tuesday: 1) attack Liverpool in search of the likely tie-killing away goal, or 2) play a defensive game in hopes of preventing the Reds from scoring three times. Valverde didn’t fully commit to either.
By starting Philippe Coutinho and Sergi Roberto, Valverde put out a lineup featuring two defensive liabilities, both of whom were regularly scorched in the first leg, whose presence would imply an intent to attack. But in keeping midfielder Arthur on the bench to start the match, and especially in making the Nélson Semedo-for-Coutinho swap as the first substitution when Barça were already down three goals and waiting to bring on Malcom until after Liverpool had already scored the fourth, Valverde clearly prioritized defense over attack at precisely the worst moments. For a manager whose long been dogged by accusations of fear-based conservatism, coming off a season in which Barça’s Champions League hopes ended in similarly humiliating, conservative fashion, Valverde’s errors were damning.
Nevertheless, it feels wrong to say Barcelona’s Champions League exit was really Valverde’s fault. As strong as Liverpool looked early on, the first 45 minutes of the second leg went more or less exactly to Barça’s plan. Liverpool went into the break with only one goal scored, and had conceded a handful of chances that, had great players like Messi or Suárez or Coutinho finished even one of them, would’ve entirely changed the tenor of the match.
Barcelona were never good on Tuesday, and Liverpool completely dictated the match’s terms from the first minute to the last, but Barcelona were still only a friendly bounce or two from being good enough to advance to the final. To erase all the great work Valverde has done over the past two seasons to fit this awkward squad into one that cruised to two La Liga titles and came within a whisker of a treble smacks of blinkered, result-based thinking, even if, in light of this week’s loss and the Roma one, it might be better for all involved if Valverde stepped down at the end of the season.
Regardless of Valverde’s debatable culpability for the Liverpool loss and the even more inexplicable Roma one that preceded it last year, the real reasons Barcelona failed to win the Champions League this season and the four seasons since their last success in the tournament are more fundamental. Barcelona simply lack the quality and coherence in their squad for success in the Champions League to be treated as obligatory. It’s no accident that the first truly great team Barcelona played this season exposed every one of their flaws. It’s no accident that Barcelona have been on the wrong end of several away blowouts recently, including a 4-0 loss to PSG, a 3-0 loss to Juventus, a 3-0 loss to Roma, and the 4-0 at Anfield. In Barça’s last seven UCL knockout round away matches going back to the round of 16 in the 2016-17 season, Barcelona have conceded 15 times, scored twice, and accumulated a record of four losses, two draws, and just one win.
This defensive frailty and attacking impotence away from home cannot be the case for a team that expects to win the Champions League, and those deficiencies are much deeper than any single lineup decision. The core of this Barcelona team is still the same as the one that lifted the European Cup in 2015. The pieces Barça lost since that success—Xavi, Iniesta, Neymar, Dani Alves—have been replaced by roundly inferior players. Most of the pieces that remain—Messi, Piqué, Suárez, Busquets, Alba, Marc-André ter Stegen, Roberto—have grown older, slower, less dynamic, less able to cope with the specifics of late-stage Champions League play.
The best Barcelonas of the Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique eras had true, match-winning difference makers at nearly every single position on the pitch, guys of such dread-inducing skill that opponents didn’t know who would kill them nor how to stop it. Barcelona in the post-Neymar era rely almost exclusively on Messi, counting on him to bail the team out of every predicament while also failing to consistently present him with the platform he needs in order to work his still-powerful magic to its full, sun-blotting extent.
So yes, Valverde probably should’ve started Semedo over Coutinho, and he definitely should’ve brought Malcom on sooner, and the threat of a sprier Suárez (who has scored just two(!!) UCL goals over the past two seasons and hasn’t scored away from home in four years) sprinting behind Liverpool’s defenders would’ve almost certainly generated too many chances for Liverpool to keep Barcelona off the scoresheet for 90 minutes, and Jordi Alba should’ve been smarter than to give the ball away at the worst possible moments to set up those two crucial Liverpool goals. But faulting Valverde for bad substitute choices, or Suárez for not being as athletic at 32 as he was at 29, or Alba for crumbling under pressure when his teammates offered him no release valve, is missing the forest for the trees.
No manager could’ve taken the Barcelona roster as currently constituted and turned them into a team that rightfully could’ve considered this season European Cup-or-bust. No possible starting lineup of available Barça players would’ve made this Barça better than Liverpool as a team. No amount of sensible decision making on the part of every Barcelona player would’ve changed the fact that they were outmatched against Liverpool, and suffered the fair and just result when they lost.
Put another way, the solution to Barcelona’s problems doesn’t lie entirely or even mostly in firing Valverde and bringing in a savvier, braver, “more Cruyffist” manager. Unless Barcelona are willing to make some hard decisions to move on from some of the aging legends who orchestrated their biggest recent successes—an incredibly difficult proposition, especially in the aftermath of yet more Messi-powered La Liga success—the team will only grow increasingly vulnerable in the biggest games against the best teams, will only continue to watch more and more of its previously unrivaled reserves of world-elite talent slip down the hourglass, will only endure more heartbreak in their ill-fated attempts to once again capture the one trophy they are most desperate to raise.