Liverpool – Atlético Madrid: Reds Record Routine Win To Cruise Into The Last Sixteen (2-0)

A two goal lead and a red card did not signal comfort for Liverpool in Spain, but with the backing of the Anfield crowd, this contest turned out to be one-sided. On a nigh-on perfect night for the hosts, they coasted into the Round of 16, leaving their guests in a heap of trouble.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Liverpool are flying high on multiple fronts, sitting second in the league table and five points clear at the top of their Champions League group. Yet, though a fierce trident upfront can impale any outfit, a more delicate base has given rivals a blind spot to target. Probing a depleted midfield department two weeks ago, the visitors could repeat the trick on the road, but they have issues of their own to ponder.

Atlético Madrid have stuttered through the last month, illustrating their contrasting fortunes at either end of the pitch. On the one hand, a 3-0 win over Real Betis marked the sixth game in a row in which they had chalked up at least two goals. On the other hand, their defensive aura has come under siege, keeping two clean sheets in that same run. So was another eventful contest at Anfield in the making?

Jürgen Klopp’s men lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation. Off the back of a 2-2 draw with Brighton, he made five changes to the starting eleven he picked on the weekend. Joël Matip and Konstantinos Tsimikas came into the fold at the back, while Diogo Jota came in for Roberto Firmino in the front three. But above all, the return of Fabinho at the base of the midfield was a timely boost for the hosts.

Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone picked the same 5-3-2 shape he used in the reverse fixture. Only two tweaks took place to his lineup. Stefan Savić fulfilled the last of his four game European ban, leaving Felipe to feature in the back five. The other alteration was in the attack where Antoine Griezmann’s ban from the previous clash saw him miss out, handing João Félix a chance to impress.

Simeone switches up the midfield

The use of a 5-3-2 system suggested Atlético’s instinct to suffer would see them sit in from the off as was the case two weeks ago. But, maybe given their tricky predicament, they were more enterprising at the start of this game. This lineup gave rise to an asymmetry in midfield if the visitors had the ball.

As a rule of thumb, Ángel Correa operated much higher in the right halfspace than Koke and Rodrigo de Paul. Hence, their setup would draw parallels to the 5-2-3 shape from the Betis match, where three forwards worked in tandem ahead of the same double pivot. In conjunction with switches to Carrasco on the left flank, the visitors made several entries into the final third.

11th minute: Felipe switches the play out to Carrasco high and wide on the flank. Note the narrow midfield in Liverpool’s 4-5-1 block, where Fabinho pushes through to support the wide triangle on the right wing, while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah double up on the wing-back.

Facing a compact 4-3-3 layout where even the frontline retreated into their third, Atlético could seldom test Alisson between the posts. On the other hand, they had a solid base in transition, giving away nothing on the break. They strived to match this level of stinginess in an organized deep block.

Liverpool rise to a familiar challenge

The opening stages of the match pointed to Klopp’s men facing a deep 5-3-2 block. They looked to use similar solutions from the first game but made a few adjustments this time around.

On the right, Mohamed Salah continued to hold the width while Jordan Henderson stayed higher than Wijnaldum. From here, the captain would make several vertical runs as Jota roamed backward. The striker fulfilled a similar role to Firmino, dropping between the lines, often doubling up on Koke. Over time, he tended to drift to the right halfspace, creating overloads with Henderson off the back of de Paul, stopping him from stepping out to press as Thomas Lemar had done in the reverse fixture.

Liverpool’s offensive structure with rotations on the flanks and Jota roaming between the lines

The home team had raced into a two goal lead after fifteen minutes at the Wanda, and a similar timeframe saw them break the deadlock on this occasion. Henderson and Salah linked up on the flank, teeing up Alexander-Arnold on the edge of the box. The fullback whipped a first time delivery into the penalty area, where Jota steered a header past Jan Oblak into the back of the net. Thirteen minutes after kickoff, the right side of Liverpool’s attack had proved to be fruitful once again.

A mere eight minutes later, Liverpool had doubled their lead. Mané shrugged off Koke and de Paul from a throw in, barreling towards the center of the pitch. The play worked its way to Henderson, who found Alexander-Arnold surging into a familiar assist zone. The right back drilled the ball along the turf, setting up a tap-in for Mané over Oblak’s sprawling body. And worse was to come for Simeone.

Felipe sees red

Tempers have a tendency to flare in this matchup, and this game soon conformed to type. In the 36th minute, Mané looked to lead a counterattack, drawing a cynical foul from Felipe, whose boot scythed down the back of the winger’s leg. The defender’s apparent refusal to comply with the referee did not help his cause, but in any case, the Dutch official gave him a red card. Atlético were down to ten men once more for a lengthy stretch of this duel, making their prospects of getting any points even bleaker.

Simeone resisted the urge to bring men off the bench, reorganizing the troops that were already on the field. Off the ball, the guests operated in a 5-3-1 formation, where Correa had dropped off to the right wing-back slot, pushing Trippier inward to fill the hole Felipe had left. Félix then moved back onto the left of the midfield while Koke and de Paul slid along to the right, leaving Suárez to play on his own upfront. Atlético held out until the break, but signs of another comeback were fleeting at best.

One way traffic

Looking to avoid a red card for Mané, Klopp made his first substitution ahead of the second half. The winger switched places with Firmino, shifting Jota out to the left of the front three. Sharp movement between the pair opened up room for Matip to slip Jota into a one on one situation with Oblak. The winger doubled his tally on the night, only for VAR to rule out the effort since he was offside. Though a half volley from Suárez would have halved the deficit were it not for VAR, the 5-3-1 block was little to no problem for Liverpool to break down.

So just before the hour mark, Simeone seemed to finally give up all hope of his men getting back into the game. To this end, the manager took off Félix and Suárez, deploying Correa as a striker in place of the latter. Hector Herrera filled in at the base of the midfield while Renan Lodi displaced Carrasco at left wing-back, sending the Belgian over to the right flank on the outside of Trippier.

Klopp made more changes too. Takumi Minamino came on for Oxlade-Chamberlain, giving him rest, while Thiago made a return to action, taking the place of Fabinho. A hamstring injury for Firmino was a blot on the evening, but Liverpool ran down the clock, keeping up their flawless winning record in the Champions League. At the final whistle, a place in the knockout stages was theirs.


The addition of Firmino to the injury list is a stinging blow to take ahead of a trip to West Ham United in the league. Yet, all in all, the outcome fulfilled Liverpool’s objectives. Not only booking their berth in the Round of 16 but also laying claim to the top spot in the group, the final two matchdays can be whatever Klopp makes of them. Most of all, he will look to avoid pitfalls of last season that hurt the squad and manage his players appropriately as fixtures approach thick and fast in the winter period.

In stark contrast, the fate of Atlético Madrid is all on the line. A direct shootout with Porto for the other qualifying spot next month seems to be likely, forcing Simeone’s men to ask themselves how they have ended up in this position. For all their structure, ill discipline did not help their cause, and now a crucial encounter with Milan awaits.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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