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Tactical Review: Real Madrid 3 - Liverpool 1; 2018 Champions League Final

How Zidane beat the press, Casemiro’s tactical nous, & Madrid’s in-game adaptability

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

A dynasty has been cemented. Cry as they may, no one can take this from Real Madrid. What is it that makes this team so special? Maybe it’s the fact that you cannot pin it down to one individual, one tactic, or one philosophy. The road to the 13th European title encapsulated this best; Madrid adapted to every challenge, every European heavyweight, and every phase of each game. If they had to press high, they pressed. If they had to sit deep and weather an offensive onslaught, they withstood. If they had to control the tempo, then they dictated it. If they had to counter, then they made sure to capitalize. Liverpool, as expected, came out guns blazing. They locked Madrid within their own half and produced nine shots within the opening thirty minutes. Sergio Ramos and Mohammed Salah arms tangled after a 50/50 challenge and the Egyptian came off far the worse. With the early departure of Salah, Liverpool lost their confidence. Despite playing the same starting XI as in Cardiff one year ago, the team played mostly in a 4-3-3 rather than the diamond formation. The center core—Ramos, Varane, Kroos, Modric, and Benzema had to demonstrate their immense ball carrying and possession based skills in order to break Liverpool’s defensive structure. Madrid took the lead early in the second half after a howler from Loris Karius gifted Karim Benzema a goal. Liverpool responded quickly through Mane. With the game level, Gareth Bale entered the match and his individual quality stole the show. With the lead in hand, Madrid sat deeper and invited Liverpool’s attacking threat. This gave the team the opportunity to morph into a counter-attack scheme and find a fresh Bale on the flank. As they’ve done all throughout the tournament, Madrid managed the game and adapted to the circumstances. Liverpool could not find a way through and Madrid captured an historic 13th title, four in five years, and the third consecutive!

11Tegen with data by Opta

Madrid Weather Liverpool’s Initial Onslaught:

The whistle blew and before Madrid knew it, Mane was nearly through on goal. The boys in red huffed and puffed, looking to rattle a seemingly unshakeable Madrid side. Right from the onset, Liverpool’s press was organized. It’s not as hectic and crazy as some pundits make it out to be—Liverpool pick their moments and when they go, they all go. They set-up and lurk in a 4-3-3:

As soon as there is an opportunity—be it a wayward pass or indecisiveness—they pounce. It was wave and wave of attack from Klopp’s men in the opening twenty minutes:

Contrast Liverpool’s approach after the Salah injury and it was a night and day difference. They produced nine shots with him on the field and zero without him in the first half. There was a clear psychological impact and Madrid, ruthless as they are, made sure to capitalize.

Left-Sided Trio Break the Press

Madrid were on their heels, but the team never lost their composure. Zidane’s men are ice cold in their pursuit for solutions. And you can see it, the team clearly probed for solutions to the defensive structure Liverpool set-up. This ability to navigate a match and find answers on the fly, it’s an underrated factor—the collective intelligence this group possesses. What seemed to be a clear tactic from Zidane was the use of off the ball triangles, particularly on the left side, with Ramos, Kroos, and Marcelo:

Time and time again, it was a small chipped or “dinked” pass over the initial press that broke Liverpool’s structure and set Madrid on the front foot. Notice in the video above, as soon as Ramos passes it, he drops deeper and moves to create more space for the next pass. These subtle off the ball movements are the difference between good and great teams. Ramos, Kroos, and Marcelo are able to create space via their movement and their high technical ability, and they do so when there seems like there is no space available.

Casmeiro’s Impeccable Positional Sense & Madrid’s Structure:

Zidane trusted in the same eleven men that started against Juventus in last year’s UCL final to take on Liverpool. Though, the formation would not be the same. Many fans feared the diamond, but Zidane rolled out a 4-3-3. Isco still had the ability to roam, but more often then not he kept to the flanks. More importantly, his defensive duties were clear. He was to tuck into midfield and form a solid three as Casemiro dropped deep to nullify the threat of Roberto Firmino:

It cannot be understated how strong Casemiro’s defensive positional awareness is, especially in a tactically tense affair like the final. When Casemiro is switched on, he masks the flaws of Marcelo and Ramos. In the video below, Casemiro drops deep to occupy the center-back role, so Madrid keep their shape and cover for Ramos as he covers for Marcelo:

Casemiro continually puts himself in the right spot to thwart danger and cut off Liverpool’s passing lanes. He may be a black hole offensively and in possesion, but his tactical nous in terms of defensive positioning may well be unmatched in world football.

Karim Benzema and Luka Modric Give Control:

There were so many good performances on the night, but Luka Modric and Karim Benzema’s technical superiority were a joy to behold. The ability to wiggle out of any press and put the team on the front foot is an invaluable commodity. When the game got tough, these two wanted the ball, and most importantly, kept the ball. Benzema did a tremendous job in holding the ball up and connecting with teammates:

Luka Modric’s stats speak for themselves:

Final Phase: Madrid Counter as Liverpool Search for a Goal

What can’t this team do? They morph within games. Whatever the circumstances dictate, they can adapt. In the final fifteen minutes, Liverpool were desperate to find a goal. Madrid surrendered their controlled approach and sat deeper, inviting the Liverpool attack. In doing so, they prepared their final tactic—the counter attack. Cristiano stayed high and the rest of the team formed a defensive block of eight. Bale, with his blazing speed and fresh legs, put in a shift on both ends. Forming the left side of the block of eight and then bursting into attack:

Despite Liverpool’s desire, there were more chances for Madrid to score in the final minutes courtesy to their in-game shift of tactics.


Despite the intense lows of this season, Madrid ended on a radical high. They can now go down as one of the greatest teams in the history of football. As demonstrated against Liverpool, and the whole of the Champions League campaign, Madrid can beat you in any style: on the counter, in possession, low tight defensive block, or high pressure. Liverpool came out with an organized and well-timed press, but Madrid found solutions with a small chip over the top of the first phase of the press. Throughout the match Casemiro demonstrated his defensive tactical nous, and Madrid’s superior technical ability—specifically the play of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Karim Benzema took hold. The magnitude of what Zidane and this team have done will go down in history—books will be written and movies will be made—Hala Madrid!

Real Madrid Celebrate After Victory In The Champions League Final Against Liverpool Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

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