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The Champions League Final is nearly upon us and Klopp and Zidane have surely ironed out their final plans by now. Liverpool is expected to roll out their normal 4-3-3 with their intense pressing and transition-based style, while Zidane’s tactics and lineup selections remains a mystery. Nevertheless, there is enough sample size for Klopp to look at Madrid and identify strengths and weaknesses that have transcended Zizou’s systems. Zidane can surely do the same — though it might be a little easier for him to discover trends.
Liverpool’s Strengths & Weaknesses
From day one of Klopp’s arrival, Liverpool have been excellent at three things:
The German manager has always coached intense pressing teams, but pundits tend to overestimate Klopp’s commitment to his pedal-to-the-metal style of play. While his team presses every single game, he instructs his side to be more reserved and sneaky against quality passing teams. Against Manchester City in particular, Liverpool allowed/guided City to play the ball into certain areas of the pitch (and into certain people a.k.a. Fernandinho) before pressing rapidly from multiple angles. This caught City’s midfielders off guard and allowed Liverpool to trap the ball on the wings and use the touchline as an extra defender.
Klopp’s famous gegenpress entails a ball-oriented press immediately after the ball is lost. His players swarm the ball carrier from multiple angles and seek to win possession in order to create high-quality transition opportunities.
Thanks to the fearsome trio of Mané, Firmino, and Salah, Liverpool have become the best counter-attacking outfit in the world. Firmino - the fulcrum of the counter - positions himself in the center of the pitch in order to receive the ball, pivot, and create after possession is regained. Salah and Mané burst upfield on either side of him to provide immediate attacking options and to stretch the opponent’s defense. The trident’s pace, intelligence, dribbling, passing ability, and lethality, makes this counter-attacking scheme almost unstoppable.
However, there are ways to beat the Reds. Manchester United and Chelsea both secured victories against Liverpool in the league, and they did it by refusing to press and sitting in a medium-low defensive block. This severely limited Liverpool’s chance creation as it reduced the volume of their counter-attacking possessions and pressing opportunities. To beat the counterpress, Manchester United went route on - using Lukaku’s sturdy frame to flick passes onto Rashord, Mata, and Sánchez - while Chelsea leaned heavily on Hazard’s ridiculous dribbling ability to evade tacklers.
Real Madrid’s Strengths & Weaknesses
No matter the formation or personnel, Real Madrid nearly always excel at crossing the ball and beating opposition presses. Ronaldo’s ability in the air and intelligent movement is the perfect complement to Marcelo’s 1v1 trickery and inch-perfect deliveries, and the rest of the team builds around those two by overloading the flanks and piling into the box. Madrid’s spacing, in particular, causes nightmares for opposition defenses, as three to four attackers always burst into the penalty area from different angles in order to attack different zones of the box.
This makes Real a force to be reckoned with in the final third, which means that teams might be advised to stop the Whites in their own half. While this seems logical, Los Blancos have generally tore opposition presses to shreds thanks to the fluid movement of their midfielders and forwards and the individual press resistance qualities of nearly everyone involved. No matter how organized or intelligent the press is, there’s only so much you can do when the likes of Modric and Kroos can envision sequences three moves ahead of you and possess the ability to dribble and/or pass their way up the field with ease.
This isn’t to say pressing Madrid can’t work. Casemiro is notorious for being susceptible to pressure due to his lack of scanning before he receives the ball and his unreliable first touch. This has led for fans to call for his exclusion from the final eleven, but he garners a first team spot for a reason. Los Merengues have been incredibly poor at defending counter-attacks this season, as their haphazard possessional structure makes it hard to prepare for counterpressing actions. This means that Real’s fullbacks are often not given enough time to track back before the opposing team has zipped up the pitch and scored. As a response to this, Casemiro has long been Zidane’s safety valve; he’s tasked with covering huge swathes of the field thanks to his athleticism and high defensive IQ. This makes Zidane’s lineup selection trickier than at first sight, and will likely require Klopp to prepare for multiple scenarios.
But, while these questions will remained unanswered till kick-off, one thing is for sure right now — the 2018 Champions League Final will be a treat to watch (well, if you’re a neutral that is — and if you win I guess).