Liverpool – Real Madrid: Monumental Defensive Efforts Crown Madrid Once Again (0-1)
When Real Madrid is crowned Champions of Europe, their offensive work is often at the forefront. This was a very different story. Huge defensive interventions and a towering keeper between the posts rose to the occasion to blunt the greatest of Liverpool attacks, to honour Real Madrid for the fourteenth time.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Football’s version of classic opera versus death metal is a lot less extreme than the final witnessed four years ago. Real Madrid is less about the new superstar signing, now flourishing under the old guard and the young talent nurtured by it. Liverpool is no longer the plucky underdog, winning the competition a year later, the Premier League soon after and a domestic cup double this campaign.
Coaches have struggled to outlast Liverpool control, but Carlo Ancelotti has always had a trick up his sleeve. His beloved 4-4-2 formation evolves into a 5-3-2 shape, with the right-winger dropping into the backline whilst Klopp’s team take the ball. Napoli and Everton reaped rewards, but this is a Liverpool team which is a lot more adaptable when the game slows down and a different beast when compared to those matchups.
Klopp made three changes to the team that beat Wolves last weekend. Despite injury concerns, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Thiago Alcântara were all able to overcome their injuries to make the starting eleven, whilst Mohamed Salah also returned to the front three.
Ancelotti made just two changes, to the team that drew to Real Betis. David Alaba came back into the center-back position, ahead of Nacho, whilst Federico Valverde started on the right wing, ahead of Rodrygo.
Real forced to adjust early
It will come as no surprise that in the big games, it is Liverpool flying out the blocks with their pressing structure. This was no different, Real Madrid no longer has the press resistance it had four years ago and Liverpool was able to put the fullbacks into uncomfortable situations early on.
In the 4-3-3 formation, Madrid’s asymmetric midfield made things a little awkward when the ball filtered out wide. This involved Toni Kroos coming towards the center-backs, even between them at times, whilst Luka Modrić was positioned behind Thiago. As play moved towards Ferland Mendy or Dani Carvajal, support for the fullbacks was either suppressed by a Liverpool triangle or not within distance and Madrid conceded the ball in dangerous areas, within the first few phases.
1st minute: Example of classic Liverpool counterpressure, able to shut off support for Dani Carvajal, who is forced to dribble the ball back inside, following pressure from Díaz. Liverpool wins a free-kick through this phase.
The positioning of the midfielders was tweaked to assist the fullbacks. Modrić and Kroos formed a double pivot, with Casemiro just ahead of them in support. With the extra midfielder at the back, Liverpool spent more time in their staggered 4-3-3 high block, rather than being able to trigger an aggressive counterpress.
This formed the basis of a pretty even possession game. The presence of Modrić and Kroos formed the safety net, in front of the opposition forwards, whilst Federico Valverde or Carvajal could move into a more central position, just behind Liverpool’s midfielders, to support the circuit.
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Real Madrid now had security in possession, whilst on the offense, this was an attack geared to finding Vinícius Júnior behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, with Karim Benzema’s support just inside. As a result, Madrid’s routes towards him often involved them going long towards this channel, or constructing shorter passing play to eventually face the right-back one-versus-one. Madrid moved the ball, but where unable to unlock the final third for now.
Liverpool picking their way through
Real Madrid’s adaptability comes from their players’ own modifications, whilst Liverpool’s stems from prearranged patterns, especially on the right side of the attack. It’s these changes that were able to get the ball through the deeper block, and after fifteen minutes, the shots started to reign in.
With Jordan Henderson holding the width outside, it enabled Liverpool’s biggest offensive weapons to come inside and their first attempt came from this dynamic. The long ball to Henderson gave Alexander-Arnold the space to receive on the knockdown, his driven ball flicked on by Salah at the front post, but great reactions from Thibaut Courtois denied the Egyptian.
Liverpool began to build the attempts at goal in quick succession. Madrid mixed their defensive shape between a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations, which depended on the positioning of Modrić, either next to Benzema or still in the midfield. Regardless of the shape, a half-baked press lead to constant space between the lines for Liverpool to play through and their control, both in and out of possession, started to craft the chances together.
Such spaces, left in Madrid’s center, was the perfect area for Sadio Mané to roam across and connect. His danger was felt at the twenty-minute mark, as Madrid where stuck in a position, whether to step up and press the pivot of Fabinho and Thiago or allow them to dictate. Modrić came out of the midfield to press Thiago, and his disguised pass slipped Mané through, between the lines. He slalomed past Casemiro and Éder Militão, his shot saved onto the post.
20th minute: Buildup to Mané chance. The lack of compaction between defensive and midfield lines was perfect for Mané to slide into. Thiago’s disguised pass took out Casemiro, whilst Modrić opted to press the midfielder.
Though Klopp’s team didn’t dominate the possession, this was a match that they certainly had control over. Their opponents’ passing game was efficient in safety but produced little creatively, whilst Liverpool had the mechanisms to build onto the right and move the ball back into space, before delivering a cross into the danger zone.
That being said, the defensive heroics from Madrid were truly kneecapping Liverpool’s elite attack, after a flurry of attempts. All of the backline played their part, but important interventions from David Alaba were able to blunt Liverpool’s connectivity on the right, most notably between Salah and Mané. Luis Díaz cutting inside has opened so much of the pitch for Liverpool attacks over recent months, but Dani Carvajal was able to suppress the forward from effecting play in the final third. Madrid finished the half with the ball in the net, but Benzema’s goal was ruled out subject to a lengthy VAR review for offside. Liverpool ended the half ten shots to one against their opponents but was not able to truly flex their offensive skill.
Júnior becomes the boss
Liverpool may have had the dominant shot count, but the game state wasn’t a disadvantage for Madrid. The safety net of Real possession was still in place, whilst the defense was managing Liverpool attacks well. The second half started in a very similar fashion to the majority of the first, this balance between the two was a platform for Ancelotti to raise his sacred eyebrow.
In possession play, openings can always occur and Madrid started to see success come from Valverde on the right side and Casemiro as the third man through the center. This pattern combined twice, one which saw a neat build breakdown six minutes into the second half, once Madrid had the ball in the final third.
The second saw Madrid take a crucial lead, from an excellent pattern. Up to this point, Ancelotti’s team hadn’t utilized the flexibility on the right side, between Carvajal and Modrić. Modrić’s carryback drew Liverpool’s block towards the ball, but pressure from Fabinho and Henderson was not engaged on potential receivers. This meant Carvajal could move the ball to Casemiro, who fed the ball to Valverde on the right. His driven pass, from just inside the box, carved through the Liverpool backline, perfect for Vinícius at the back post, left free by Alexander-Arnold. A 1-0 lead with half-hour still left.
58th minute: Buildup to Real Madrid goal. Modrić carry encourages press, but Liverpool midfielders don’t squeeze the space on potential receivers. Carvajal moves the ball back to Casemiro, who was able to spread the ball out wide to Valverde.
Walls crack but Thibaut is the gatekeeper
An evenly balanced possession game turned into Liverpool control and Klopp needed alterations to create better openings. Díaz was replaced by Diogo Jota on the left side, someone who offers more aerial threat, a better presence in the box and more central interaction with Mané. This came into effect, in the first of Liverpool’s great chances towards the end of the game. Henderson’s cross was met by Jota, whose high header found Salah just yards from goal at an acute angle, but Courtois was there to block at the back post.
Klopp’s changes helped spark late creativity. Henderson was replaced by Naby Keïta, whilst Thiago came off for Roberto Firmino. Both these changes were geared toward adding numbers between the lines, but Firmino’s movement was able to leave him free continuously around the edge of the box, especially on the left side of the field.
Liverpool continued to create chances from dynamics seen earlier, from opening up the right side to providing a cross, but these were much more dangerous. A combination from Salah and Firmino drastically opened the edge of the box, whilst Jota hit the box with an excellent third man run. He connected, but not strong enough to provide a fast shot into the corner and Courtois was there to punch the ball around the post.
Their best chance came in one of the more rare scenarios in the game. A long switch from Fabinho put Salah one-versus-one with Ferland Mendy. A sharp change of pace created separation, and in a position that Salah so often bags, Courtois’ speedy reaction was able to deny the forward from close range.
Great Liverpool chances towards the end, but Courtois stood in the way.
Liverpool generated great attempts but was running out of solutions as a monumental effort from Madrid defenders kept the reds away. Ancelotti used all three of his substitutions towards the end, and it was Madrid that had the better of the openings in the last ten minutes of the game, which included a three-versus-two counterattack breaking down towards the box and substitute Dani Ceballos through on goal, thanks to Benzema’s pass and the offside positioning of Vinícius throwing the defense off. But Ceballos was unable to pull the trigger.
Madrid couldn’t find the killer blow, but it wasn’t needed. The game drew its conclusion in the most telling of fashions, with the ball in the safe hands of Thibaut Courtois and the two-meter keeper collapsing to his knees to protect it.
Yet another historic night for Real Madrid. From a neutral perspective, this is one of the more satisfying Madrid teams, which feels so united and sparked by the hard graft of young individuals, added to the old guard. Facing three finalists, within the space of a few seasons, in the race to this final is no easy feat, let alone the incredible comebacks produced by Ancelotti’s team in all of these games.
It feels weird to say that Klopp’s best version of Liverpool failed to pick up a Premier or Champions League trophy in the process. It’s a team whose threat is not understated, a team who scored ninety-four goals and lost twice in the league, yet failed to score in all three of their finals that they played. Nonetheless, Liverpool remains a juggernaut and building on its dominance is certainly within its limits.
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