While there’s plenty of blame to go around in Barcelona for Liverpool’s hurricane-force comeback yesterday in the Champions League semifinal, there is no end to the credit and praise the Pool Boys deserve for a game perfectly planned for by Jürgen Klopp, and proficiently executed by his players. Liverpool’s monumental comeback was only possible if all parties involved achieved perfection, and perfection is what they got, flipping a 3-0 away loss into a 4-3 aggregate win that will go down in history as one of the greatest feats in Liverpool history.
From the first whistle, with a three-goal deficit to claw back from, Liverpool harassed and pressed Barcelona into submission, turning some of the best players in the world into headless chickens. On the other end of the pitch, Liverpool weren’t particularly amazing, but between Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum, they capitalized on every Barça mistake, demoralizing the Catalans in the process.
The early first goal set the tone for what was to come. Thanks to the relentless Liverpool press, a distressed Jordi Alba sent an ill-advised header back towards his goal and right into the path of Sadio Mané, who laid it off to Jordan Henderson. Marc-André ter Stegen did well to save it, but no one tracked Big Goal Origi in the box. Suddenly, hope had come flying out of Pandora’s box, and it would soon suffuse the entire stadium.
Wijnaldum’s first goal was more of the same. Liverpool closed down on Alba again, leaving the best left back in the world no way of bypassing the pressure, and allowing Trent Alexander-Arnold to steal the ball and deliver a rifle ground cross to Wijnaldum, who blasted a shot home.
Eventually, Liverpool would land the instantly iconic death blow, masterminded and executed with ingenious perfection by Alexander-Arnold and finished by Origi.
The most impressive thing about Klopp’s tactics on Tuesday is how little he needed to change things up. Klopp was missing Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Naby Keïta—three of Liverpool’s best orchestrators of mayhem—from the attack, as well Andrew Robertson in defense after he came off injured at halftime. Klopp was forced to implement an all-out attacking style in order to secure the necessary blowout, which was bound to leave space for Barça’s formidable cadre of forwards. In response to that challenge, Klopp simply plugged a few rotation players into the starting lineup, tweaked the team’s regular big-game playing style only by ratcheting up the aggression a level or two, and watched as his team crushed their opponents for the majority of the 90 minutes.
As soccer writer Ryan O’Hanlon pointed out in his newsletter, a high-chances, high-variance game was Liverpool’s only hope to get the three goals they needed to put the game in extra time. The side effect of that strategy was that it would open them up to dangerous counters in the other direction, of which Barcelona had many in the first half. Virgil van Dijk and especially Joel Matip were phenomenal at making life difficult for the Barça attack even while being outnumbered. To those same ends, Liverpool goalie Alisson Becker deserves special mention for saving the comeback on multiple occasions with a variety of acrobatic saves on chances that could’ve been fatal.
Everything comes back to Klopp, though. The first thing the gregarious German said when he was appointed manager of Liverpool was simple: “We have to change from doubters to believers.” At the time, in October of 2015, Liverpool were in a state of flux. Having blown the Premier League title in the last weeks of the 2013-2014 season, the leash had tightened on former manager Brendan Rodgers. After a rocky start to the 2015-2016 season, the club relieved Rodgers of his duties (giving us this wonderful Jamie Carragher-Thierry Henry moment in the process). In came Klopp and his “heavy metal football,” and Liverpool have (objectively, statistically) never been better in the Premier League era.
Since Klopp took over, Liverpool have never lost a two-legged European tie. In his first season, the Reds turned away Augsburg, Manchester United, and Borussia Dortmund (in another wild Anfield comeback) on the way to a Europa League final in which they would lose after a collapse of their own to the Europa League kings of Sevilla. Last year, Liverpool blew away Porto, Manchester City, and Roma to reach the Champions League final, where Sergio Ramos happened and Loris Karius’s concussed brain did what concussed brains do when left on the field.
Tuesday is Klopp’s crowning achievement, though. It is hard to envision Liverpool being capable of climbing this mountain under any manager other than Klopp. The pressing, the countering, and the heavy metal intensity of Klopp’s playing style all terrified Barcelona, baiting them into costly mistakes and timid possession. Stepping away from the tactics board, it was Klopp’s famous ability to inspire devotion and belief in his players that emboldened them to have faith that a comeback was even possible. A team’s belief is intangible, but no one who witnessed Liverpool’s worry-free confidence when running over Barça yesterday, and the joy and camaraderie they displayed afterwards, could deny how real and important the team’s and the crowd’s belief was to the final result. Take it from someone who would know:
After the game, Klopp and his band of “fucking giants” stood by the famed Anfield Kop end and took in a “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for the ages.
With just two games left this season (one in the Premier League and the Champions League final), Liverpool have never been as good and as together in the pursuit for trophies. They pursued some of that glory on Tuesday by sticking to their plans, turned up to 11, and were rewarded with another legendary Anfield night under the European lights. Klopp believed in Liverpool when he took the job, quickly got Liverpool to believe in him, and for everyone whose heart beats Liverpool Red, the payoff of that shared faith must be ineffably sweet.