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Liverpool, Barcelona and the Need for Physique As Well As Technique

May 8th, 2019 · No Comments · Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Champions League, English Premier League, Football, soccer, Sports Journalism, The National, UAE

I have some history with Jonathan Wilson, going back to when I was in Abu Dhabi working for The National, the emirate’s English-language newspaper.

Wilson was one of our European soccer correspondents, contributing a couple of pieces per week. He often took on topics focusing on what he perceived to be significant trends in the game. Looking back, sometimes he was right. Sometimes he was premature. Sometimes he was wrong.

We parted ways with him, mostly amicably, during the Oil Price Collapse of 2014-2016, when the UAE’s most important commodity went from $115 per barrel to $35. We had to slash newsroom expenses and I, as sports editor, had to tell Wilson that we could no longer keep him as a contributor.

I would have preferred to keep him on the roster, but it wasn’t a heart-breaking event for either side; I felt as if Wilson gave us something less than his best effort. Which was found to be the case when he shrugged off our disassociation by remarking, “You pay me less than any paper I write for.”

I have continued to read him, however, at least when he appears in The Guardian, and this morning he seems to have come up with a fairly brilliant general theory that explains Liverpool’s stunning comeback last night from down 3-0 to Barcelona to a 4-3 victory on aggregate in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League.

And in short, this is it:

Barcelona represents a decadent proponent of modern soccer because 1) their forwards are not asked to play defense, and mostly do not, putting their outnumbered defenders in peril; 2) their passing style works best with small, agile players but Barca struggles against bigger, more physical teams; and 3) all things being equal, soccer has not changed as much as we might have thought because the more physically imposing team is likely to win.

In this case, Liverpool, in a night of strong emotion at Anfield.

It was coach Pep Guardiola, wielding the refined, pass-happy, tiki-taka style at Barcelona, who seemed to usher in a new age, a decade ago, turning most English clubs (by comparison) into clumsy, kick-and-rush units that could not keep up with Pep’s elegant sides.

It is sometimes not noticed, however, that Pep’s Barca won only two Champions League titles (2009, 2011) in his four years as coach, and his Bayern Munich failed to win any in the three years he was in charge there, and that he is 0-for-2 in Champions League competition since he arrived at Manchester City. (Some would suggest, too, that the 2019 Pep seems more interested in a few sturdy defenders than he was a few years ago.)

Also, perhaps not noticed often, outside of Catalonia, is that Barcelona has won the Champions League only once since 2011, in 2015.

Meanwhile, Barca’s arch-rivals at Real Madrid, who play a more conventional style, with full-size players, have won the Champions League four times in the past five seasons, while the rugged Cristiano Ronaldo was scoring gobs of goals for them.

Some could note that last night’s “shock” simply continued a pattern of Barcelona showing itself unable to hold a first-leg lead against sturdier opponents: In the 2016 quarterfinals Barca coughed up a 2-1 lead to lose 3-2, on aggregate, to Atletico Madrid; in the 2017 quarterfinals Messi & Co. failed to score a goal in 180 minutes versus Juventus’s stalwart defending, exiting 3-0; in 2018, they seized a 4-1 lead at Camp Nou only to cough it up in Rome and exit via the “away goals” rule, to Roma, 4-4 on aggregate.

And now, from 3-0 in the first leg to 4-0 Liverpool in the second.

Important to Wilson’s argument are the successes of Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool’s inspirational German coach, who was happy to pit his generally bigger and stronger players against Barcelona and Lionel Messi, and who was rewarded with four goals as Liverpool pushed around Barca.

Writes Wilson: “When all else is roughly equal, the more powerful team will usually win and the Premier League now is the home of power. It was apparent in Liverpool’s run to the final and at times as Tottenham bullied Juventus last season and it was apparent on Tuesday.”

He concludes: “The tyranny of the pass, inspired by Guardiola at Barca, is over and football has returned to a more hybrid form, one in which technique needs to be matched by physique; even Guardiola has adapted his approach to an extent. As he promised on his arrival, Klopp has returned English football to the English.”

The long-term meaning for this?

The English Premier League, regarded for a couple of decades now as the world’s most entertaining and most competitive, may be about to make a habit of winning club soccer’s most prized trophy, too.

A Tottenham victory tonight in the second leg of their semifinal with Ajax could deliver two English teams into the Champions League: Liverpool and Spurs.

So, Jonathan Wilson: Keep thinking those big thoughts.


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