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Real Madrid’s European DNA Is Special

It’s not about luck. ‘Luck’ is a lazy argument to discredit an historic team

Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

KO — By Finn

When the Champions League final had concluded, Liverpool head coach Jurgen Klopp discussed the dramatic drop-off from his team when Mohamed Salah left the pitch injured, saying, “The shock of the boys was obvious, we dropped a little bit deep and Real tried to use that for positive momentum, until we settled a little bit.” Some dismissed it, pointing to the fact that Salah could do little do prevent what Karius gaffed — but the psychological and tactical blow was huge. “Congratulations to Real Madrid, [it’s] not to forget they won the Champions League,” Klopp said. “Of course it was a big moment in the game.”

By the time Milorad Mažić blew his final whistle in Kiev, Real Madrid had wrapped up their inevitable European title with comfort. They responded to Liverpool’s initial efficient high-press, worked their way up into the final third, imposed their authority on the game, and put in a performance to erase any doubt of who the deserved winners were. But before Salah got injured, it was a more difficult match, and there’s no denying what the Egyptian brought to Liverpool’s defensive shape, and ability to help the team retain possession with their counter-press. Poor Klopp could do nothing about Salah’s injury or Karius’s mistakes. His game-plan was correct — he focused on the strengths of his scheme that had gotten him to the final. When Salah left the pitch, Liverpool took a psychological blow, and their tactics crumbled. Klopp was unable to steer his men in the right direction, and if he could, Real Madrid may have run away with it anyway — they’re just that good at this level.

“It was quite difficult but 0-0 at half-time, we could adjust a few things – defending half-spaces, which we did before that really well, and then playing more football,” Klopp said about his in-game adjustments. Those adjustments did not move the needle in a positive direction for Liverpool, and that’s not anyone’s fault on the coaching staff. The squad was thin to begin with — even moreso with Salah and Oxlade-Camberlin out of the equation. Coutinho would’ve been the versatile guy to keep the offense flowing — as much as you possibly can when losing a top-five player in Salah — but Adam Lallana is not that dude. Klopp’s answer to Salah’s injury was to peel the width and slide Lallana deeper. Sadio Mane went over to the right side of Firimno, but still hedged centrally into a more narrow attacking structure. That allowed both Carvajal — eventually Nacho — and Marcelo to breathe.

There is a reason why there was a collective sigh of relief from Madridistas when Salah got injured, as inhumane as that sounds. There was a pep in Madrid’s step. Alexander-Arnold and Roberston, both of whom defended brilliantly all game, were starting to get tested defensively on the flanks and wouldn’t dare venture forward. The midfield trio of Henderson, Wijnaldum, and Milner — all of whom did so well to support the front three during the press — withdrew into a cave and dropped deeper. Tremendous credit goes to Zidane amid all this — he’s done well with in-game adjustments. He punished Emery’s high line and right-flank gambles in the first leg, got it right with his width in the second leg, blitzed Juve to build a three-goal lead while, again, increasing his width and unclogging the middle of the field by making a double-substitution at half-time in the second leg, and immediately smelt blood against Klopp’s wounded team. Throughout, he’s made mistakes and adjusted. He has won everything possible on the continental sphere. No one can take that away from him, not even the ever-critical and sodium-induced brigade of ‘Real Madrid plays ugly, lucky football’, and certainly not myself, who has been critical of the diamond.

Maybe Real Madrid win more comfortably if the scheme to start was different. Maybe the margin-of-error, little as it is at this elite level, swings disastrously in Bayern’s favour with some better luck for Heynckes. Maybe Salah puts one away during Liverpool’s surge (call it tame possession all you want, but the xG until Salah got injured was absurdly in favour of Liverpool, compared to Real Madrid’s 0.1) if he stays on the pitch. Maybe things would’ve been different if Liverpool had Coutinho to push higher without dissolving the front-three. Maybe that’s what triggered Liverpool to immediately take action in the transfer window, and maybe that’s why they’re so determined to add Nabil Fekir. Lallana was never going to be an answer, but Klopp had limited options — if any.

Take your ‘maybes’ and eat them. Eat them this year. Eat them last year. Eat them 11 more times. This is the greatest club that has ever existed. They deserve every bit of success they’ve achieved.

I’ve mentioned it on both this week’s Churros y Tácticas and Managing Madrid Podcasts, and I’ll say it again here: my favourite quote from Diego Simeone came after the Champions League final in 2016, when he said “There is no such thing as justice in football. Whoever wins deserves to win. There are no excuses,” I believe that to be true all-around. There is no champion that doesn’t endure some luck. Barcelona slept-walk through a bunch of games in La Liga this season while someone voodooed opposing players to miss a countless amount of chances. Even Pep’s Barca suffered without losing. They deserve everything they got. When teams go up against these great sides, there is always a psychological barrier. Don’t think for a second that Real Madrid’s European DNA and augmented-gear in the Champions League isn’t real. That stuff gives teams anxiety — it causes teams to make mistakes. That panic that Real evoke — it shouldn’t be taken away from their success.

Everyone does their part in this remarkable team — a band of superstars, workhorses, young blood, and hungry-fringe assets — and everyone wears the crest on their sleeves. Tactical chaos or otherwise, everyone shows up in big moments. It’s beautiful. It could even be better, though — and it would be naive to think Zidane can’t improve on certain aspects of his coaching. Consistency domestically, for one (even if none of us would trade those Champions League titles for La Liga silverware), would be appreciated. Other difficulties — tactical astuteness, motivating the team, keeping every player happy in such a deep squad, etc, will almost always exist.

There wasn’t really ever a doubt, was there? You just know what you’re going to get with Zidane’s Madrid in Europe — an alert performance from a team that knows it can’t lose.

They just don’t care if other teams punch them in the face — their response is to shake off the dust, laugh, absorb the energy, and uppercut their opponents into space. Kroos said it best before Real Madrid’s win in Munich: “Many of our players played big games so we know how to stay calm in difficult situations because we know we can beat everyone. Even when we’re not winning we can change the game. We’ve experienced all kinds of situations so we don’t feel anxious.”

The team did not get unnerved when Liverpool pressed them for the opening half hour (or after Mane equalized and Liverpool’s press spiked into aggression again), for that matter. They did give the ball away a lot, but they never lost themselves. They took note, surveyed the pitch, and slung back. Ronaldo was not his efficient self in the final third, but he helped by dropping back to win possession. He did so right before Benzema scored — and in a moment where the team needed a goal amid Ronaldo’s lack of goals in Kiev — the French striker scored a goal he still doesn’t get enough credit for. That throw from Karius hits its target if it’s thrown around most other strikers. Not Big Benz. He was sticking his leg out in anticipation. That’s his goal — not just in the literal sense, but in every sense. He earned it.

In the strangest way possible, the domestic dud this season may have blessed, or at least fuelled, this Champions League title. Failure wasn’t an option — it would seal an irrefutably disastrous season. Winning would mask a lot. Klopp and his band of promising players, unfortunately for the German coach, were going up against an experienced team that had no option but to win. “I don’t know how hungry they are,” Zidane said prior to the match, “but we definitely want more and nobody can say they’re hungrier than us.”

“It’s fabulous. You can only admire what he’s doing,” French national team coach Didier Deschamps told Telefoot after the game.

”He was an extraordinary player and he’s already an extraordinary coach.”

Zidane will have to deal with the Bale headache (if it even is one, internally); but as much criticism we give him for not starting ‘The Alpha-Bale‘ (my favourite nickname I coined for the Bale that enters the pitch with full-confidence, looking to do crazy, athletic feats like he should be doing regularly), but Zidane has earned the right to do what he thinks is best for the team, while blocking the noise from outside.

“It’s complicated but everyone looks at themselves. I get it,” Zidane said. ”This is a squad and it’s not going to change.

”I try to do what’s best for the team and every once in a while it’s true that he deserves to play more.

”I understand who wants more minutes, Bale has made the difference. It’s normal to want more regularity, I understand.”

But it’s easy, in hindsight, to say Zidane’s subs were brilliant. There is good reason to feel Bale should’ve been in the team in the first place to prevent a rocky start, when we knew how much emphasis Liverpool would have on the flanks with four highly capable players — Mane, Salah, Alexander-Arnold, Robertson — working in sync. Right-back Modric was in full effect. Marcelo was over-hedging (almost identically to the Clasico at Camp Nou, before Sergi Roberto got sent off and Barcelona lost their right flank in similar fashion) which we knew would happen. The outlets were laborious to find. It took a defanged-press in the form of a Salah injury for Real Madrid to gain entry higher up the pitch.

When success comes pouring in, it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling everything is perfect. In reality, things can always improve. Liverpool didn’t just lose their defensive shape and gegenpress, they lost their most threatening counter-attacking weapon — the player who would stay as a high outlet to keep Marcelo honest. It was as big of a blow, both mentally and tactically, that Klopp and his players could’ve suffered. They did everything they were supposed to do until that point.

There is perhaps no team on earth better than Real Madrid at building play. They struggled in the first 30 minutes penetrating the final third. That’s fine. Football is a game of 90 minutes, and it’s an entire rollercoaster of emotions, adjustments, and momentum swings. No team is flawless. Heynckes threw a fantastic press at Zidane and Real Madrid lost control — but they were great enough to have a few amazing build-up sequences to break Bayern and that was enough. Klopp’s press was even better, and Real Madrid eventually cracked it, even if the Salah injury was a massive turning point.

The above video-sequence is telling, and not unique to what was happening in the first half-hour. Liverpool defend narrow when the central defenders have the ball, and they coaxed Real Madrid into coughing up possession while being in good positions to counter. Salah, Firmino, and Mane shift and rotate constantly. Once the ball goes out wide, Klopp’s scheme expands. The narrow-expand cycle continues as Real Madrid recycle possession, and when they try to get out of their half, Liverpool are ready to pounce.

There were times where Ramos had to act as the ball-carrier — Chiellini-style in times when Allegri would get stuck — to try something different. Liverpool read it all:

Again, the scheme compresses when the central defenders get the ball. Rather than recycling possession between Marcelo (and back), seeking out Benzema as a long-range target was sought out:

Uncharacteristically, you could start seeing some genuine mistakes in the heat of Liverpool’s surge. As stated above, this team is not mentally frail — far from it. They do not get rattled in big moments. But they did misplace some routine passes when cross-field switches shouldn’t have been a problem to pick out:

Real Madrid are elite at getting out of the back. So are Manchester City, who Liverpool rattled twice this season. Amid all of Klopp’s hounding, no one felt the heat more than Casemiro:

Ronaldo, who was generally not at his best offensively, dropped back more than once to help provide some numbers for Real Madrid. He did it well, but getting out of the back was complicated still, and Livepool’s midfield trio deserved just as much as credit as the front three in ensuring the lines didn’t break. It required a ton of cohesiveness and energy.

Amid all this, the team kept calm and eventually grew into the game. One of the brilliant details: Sergio Ramos, who put in one of his best performances in a Real Madrid shirt ever. He was spread thin, yet excelled as he always does when the stakes are high. His radar to track Salah as a threat on the counter was always on:

As Klopp pointed out, there was a natural mental (and thus tactical) regression after the injury. Mane hedged centrally or to the right, and Liverpool’s attacking trident essentially morphed into two centralized forwards. Their attack narrowed. Carvajal and Nacho were relieved of Mane, while Real Madrid’s left-heavy scheme where Isco, Marcelo, Kroos, Ronaldo, and Benzema roamed, became more dominant without having to worry about Salah as an outlet on the right flank:

It wasn’t until Sadio Mane scored Liverpool’s equalizer that Liverpool re-found some mental fortitude and reignited their press, going back to what gave them some good spells to start the match:

No harm done. Real Madrid were in full-gear by then, and no press was going to stifle them. The game was level, but Zidane’s men were completely confident. Bale’s goal shortly after his entrance into the match broke the opposition, and his presence in balancing the team on both ends of the field effectively killed the tie.

“It’s something unbelievable, it’s something historic,” Modric told BT Sport. “I don’t know if anyone will repeat this in the future. It will be very difficult

”Twice was something amazing but this is heroics. We watched a movie yesterday about basketball teams like Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.

”When they won it three times in a row and they called it a dynasty. I think this it is a dynasty in football

”We are champions and we need to enjoy this.”

Champions of Europe again. Relish it.

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