Champions League finals bring in a lot of sweet memories for Madridistas. This time of year, we get to reflect on many past triumphs, and soon, we may be able to talk about yet another historic night.
On May 28th, Real Madrid are up against familiar foe Liverpool, in an epic battle for their 14th UCL trophy. The game is being seen as the rematch of the 2018 final between when Madrid won its third consecutive European title under Zinedine Zidane thanks to wonder goals from Gareth Bale.
Things have changed since then. Karim Benzema now shoulders the attack alongside a 21-year-old, Vinicius Jr, who is having a breakout season. The midfield trio has aged, although they are still very much functional and clutch. Arguably the biggest change of all has come in defense, with a completely refreshed center-back partnership, with David Alaba and Eder Militao replacing the former duo of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos.
Both teams are looking for an epic conclusion to what has been a successful season for both. In this article we will take a look at the strengths, and some potential weaknesses, in this Liverpool side ahead of the final.
Liverpool boast one of the most potent attacks in world football, with the trio of Diogo Jota, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah scoring 75 goals between them this season in all competitions. The front four of Salah, Mane, Jota, along with new recruit Luiz Diaz, are capable of scoring from a variety of situations and posing various threats.
With Mane now playing in a false 9 role since the turn of the year, he has added another dimension to their attack. Him dropping off to receive can wreck Madrid’s already poor defensive organization. Luiz Diaz, signed from Porto in January, has slotted in seamlessly into the lineup. He has worked as an excellent outlet on the flank, stretching the field horizontally and taking on players in 1v1 situations. His presence will have to be dealt with well by Carvajal and whoever starts on the right for Madrid. Salah, although experiencing slight dip recently, is capable of doing damage with his pace, close control and left foot.
We can note from the heatmap above that most of the threat creation is concentrated in that right half-space. Liverpool concentrate their chance creation from the wide areas, and utilize the attacking prowess of their fullbacks.
Liverpool generate a lot of threat from the right flank. This is down to Trent Alexander-Arnold and the right sided rotations between the RCM-RW-RB. The rotations allow fluidity and cause opposition problems by creating overloads on the flanks. The RCM (usually Henderson) makes excellent decoy runs on the outside to pull opposition players. This in turn allows Trent Alexander-Arnold to operate from half-spaces.
These right sided rotations can be seen in action when looking at the zones TAA puts his crosses from. Only 10% of his crosses have come from the byline, as he isn’t usually the one making the overlapping run. The positional rotations see him drift inside and operate from those half-spaces or from deeper areas. This is by design, as it opens up better angles for crossing while allowing for late runs at the far post.
Liverpool rely a lot on crosses, having attempted 554 crosses this season in the Premier League, only behind Manchester City. Both TAA and Robertson rank inside the top 10 players for crosses attempted in the Premier League this season, with TAA posting a league high number of 127.
Apart from having a deadly forward line, Liverpool rely heavily on their fullbacks for chance creation. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have garnered a reputation for being among the best attacking fullback pairs in the world.
TAA has accumulated an xT (expected threat) of 12.74 over the course of the season with Robertson coming in 2nd place (6.7). Both players rank in the top 2 based on xT accumulated per 90 via their actions.
TAA is one of the best crossers and distributors on the ball. He has the vision to pick out passes in behind and the range to switch the point of attack with ease. Liverpool rely on his crossing / passing ability as their primary mode of chance creation. He plays in a system that looks to maximize his strengths while masking out his deficiencies defensively.
Another interesting bit of observation is Matip ranking inside the top 6 for xT per 90 in the season. This is largely down to his adventurous ball carries from deeper areas. The Cameroonian is an adept ball carrier, who frequently ventures forward, carrying the ball deep into opposition half breaking their first line if not closed down quickly. He helps gain territory in one swift action and move the possession into dangerous areas.
Based on how Klopp approaches this game, he might opt for a CB partnership of Konate and Van Dijk, which gives them recovery pace to deal with the runs of Vinicius.
Corners & Set-piece prowess
Liverpool have been one of the world’s most potent sides from dead ball situations. They have got players who can dish it on a plate from set pieces. Both Robertson and TAA have excellent deliveries from dead-ball situations, capable of delivering it in the danger zones.
Corners have been a cornerstone in their attacking strategy with aerially dominant players like Matip and Van Dijk. This coupled with Real Madrid’s deficiencies on defending set-pieces and the lack of aerial prowess among CBs bodes well for Liverpool’s prospects.
On top of this, Liverpool utilize outswinging deliveries from their corners, which is unlike most clubs in the top five European leagues. 72.9% of their corner deliveries have been outswingers – the highest percentage in Europe. This is part of a larger set-piece routine that has yielded success for them. Real Madrid will have to be wary of this going into the game.
Klopp’s side have been famously renowned for their counter-press and this side is no different. Liverpool’s front 4 are capable of executing well coordinated counter press to suffocate opponents in their own defensive third.
Their pressing is intense, recording a PPDA (passes per defensive action) of 9.9, lowest in the league. Their pressing is effective too, resulting in 432 high turnovers. Their efficiency is seen in converting these turnovers into shots. They have recorded 69 shots from high turnovers, 14 more than any other Premier League side, and scored seven goals from those actions.
Liverpool’s attacker work incredibly hard to make this work. Only four teams average more pressures in the final third per 90 than Klopp’s Liverpool (43.3). Jota, Luiz Diaz, Mane and Salah all put in a shift from the front. Jota leads the pack with 22.4 pressures per 90. Madrid will face a fierce test playing out of opposition pressure.
What can Madrid do?
Teams have looked to exploit the space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold. While he potentially has one of the best deliveries from crosses and dead-ball situations, defensively he can leave a little to be desired.
In their recent match-up against Manchester City, Guardiola’s side consistently looked to utilize the long diagonals to Liverpool’s right and overloaded that side to cause a lot of problems for the Englishman. A similar strategy could work for Madrid who have Vinicius on the left as an outlet. Ancelotti’s side could look to overload that side with a combination of Kroos, Vinicius and Mendy.
Real Madrid managed to beat Liverpool last season in the UCL. Two goals came from Liverpool’s right side, and one was a direct error from TAA. Madrid scored the third on the break via Asensio and utilizing that strategy could be useful here.
Liverpool play with a high line and consistently look to suffocate opponents inside their own half. They are also exceptional at using this as an offside trap to catch the opposition out. No team has caught their opponents offside as frequently as Liverpool in the top fi ve European leagues this season (144). So while Madrid has the pace on the break to hurt Liverpool, it’ll have to be executed with perfection.
Real Madrid can utilize a build-up structure similar to that of Tottenham’s against Liverpool. A 4-2-4 structure with CBs wide apart and inviting pressure to then have someone from the frontline, drop off as an option for a diagonal pass. Conte’s side managed to enter the final third a couple of times by creating depth with their CBs deep and wide and utilizing the FBs to bait the opposition fullback and midfielder pulling his counterpart, creating an opening diagonally for a forward on one side.
Bottom line is Madrid do have the tools to pull it off but the execution will have to be top notch.