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Behind Enemy Lines: Liverpool FC (2nd leg)

Liverpool’s problem in Madrid was not the game plan, but the execution.

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The Problem of the 1st leg: Planning vs Execution

Last Tuesday, I read a few comments that implied that Jürgen Klopp hadn’t done enough preparation ahead of this Real Madrid tie, but I don’t think that’s what happened. A manager can design a solid game plan, but then the players need to execute it. What we saw against Real Madrid was a team that had a plan but had failed completely in the execution.

Liverpool looked as if they forgot the basics: passing, ball control, intensity. Th whole team was switched off, with Gini Wijnaldum—a safe and conservative passer—missing easy 5-meter passes and even Thiago—a world-class playmaker—making mistakes on the ball. This is not normal for Liverpool, they are usually better than this at ball retention.

Things were not better off-ball and in defense, as Liverpool committed one of the cardinal sins of modern defending: holding a high defensive line without pressing from midfielders and forwards. The first goal, which came from an unpressured Kroos long ball, is an example of this problem.

Liverpool players and Klopp had likely prepared a game plan that took into account Real Madrid’s ability to play under pressure. This season, Real has thrived when opponents press high and concede spaces behind, so Liverpool opted to be less aggressive in pressing and thus not play into that dynamic. However, the Reds ended up with the opposite issue, being too passive and letting Modrić and Kroos make too many passes without pressure.

On the other side of the pitch, Real Madrid had a game plan that they executed well. They simplified their buildup mechanisms and instead of creating long and intricate passing sequences, they sought to complete simpler long balls towards Vinicius. The passmap below confirms the strategy, with Kroos completing the most progressive passing and Vinicius having received the most progressive passing.

Source: Between The Posts

Real also made frequent use of switches of play. On average, Real switch play once every 24 passes, but against Liverpool they did this 15% more frequently, every 20 passes. This helped create even more openings in Liverpool’s defensive line.

What can Liverpool change for the second leg?

Unlike Zidane, Klopp is a system-over-players manager: a coach who implements a specific, well-defined system of play that gets tweaked a bit depending on the specific opponent. This means that Liverpool will, for the most part, go into this second leg with a very similar game plan to the first leg: intense pressing and fast transitions.

While some fans and pundits have argued that Liverpool might have to drop the high line given their personnel injuries, Klopp will remain faithful to his tactical philosophy. He believes that the issue is not the high line itself but the lack of pressing from midfield and forward lines. “It’s not about the last line, it’s about what you do in front of that,” said Klopp right after the game in Madrid.

There will likely be 1 or 2 changes in personnel and Liverpool might attempt to press more aggressively than in the 1st leg since they have to chase the game, but that’s about it when it comes to changes. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that we won’t see Naby Keïta anytime soon. Keïta was substituted before the end of the 1st half in Madrid because he struggled even more than his teammates to follow the instructions.

Liverpool improved a bit during the weekend game vs Aston Villa, but it followed a similar script to most of their games this season: Liverpool outshot the opponent and had the better chances, but Villa scored first anyways due to defensive mishaps. Liverpool had to catch up during the second half and continue fighting all the way to injury time, when a Trent laser from outside the box clinched the win.

Diogo Jota and Mo Salah will likely start in this second leg since they are the most in-form forwards for Liverpool at the moment. Sadió Mané was rested against Villa so there is reason to think he will start, too. So once again we have the same debate as last week: Firmino or Wijnaldum? Will Klopp choose a 4-2-3-1 with Firmino + the three fast attackers, or will he choose to play Wijnaldum and go for the usual 4-3-3. With the 4-2-3-1 providing good results against Arsenal and Liverpool needing to chase the game in this 2nd leg, there is good reason to believe that Klopp could try out this strategy.

Replacing Lucas Vázquez

I’m always open for a Zidane surprise, but it’s unlikely that Real Madrid’s game plan will change drastically compared to the first leg. Zidane’s main issue will be replacing the injured Lucas Vázquez, who has been starting at right back for the last few months due to Dani Carvajal’s long term injury issues. The likely alternatives are the following:

  • Ferland Mendy as right back, Marcelo as left back: I see a lot of problems with this one. Mendy is less effective on the right, we don’t know if Marcelo can really handle a game of this intensity, and Zidane probably wants Mendy on the left defending against Salah, Liverpool’s most prolific dribbler.
  • Alvaro Odriozola as right back: Odriozola is the one healthy right-back in the squad and the one player who could allow Real and Zidane to play the 4-3-3 system and lineup of this past week with minimal adjustments. However, concerns remain about Odriozola’s defensive ability. I feel for Odriozola because Real Madrid is a tough environment that has not given him many chances to prove himself, but the harsh reality is that he has not shown the ability to play 90 minutes without a defensive mishap that could cost dearly in a game of this caliber. Against Barcelona, his mistake almost led to a penalty for Barcelona.
  • Back three with Fede Valverde as right wingback: In the Clásico, Fede was already playing right wingback through several segments of the game, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Zidane decides to do something similar against Liverpool. However, this might require Marcelo to play as left wingback, with all the pros and cons that entails.

I would expect the front three for this game to still be Vinicius - Benzema - Asensio, but if Odriozola starts, there might be an argument for starting Valverde as the right winger instead of Asensio to give additional defensive support.

Key Matchups

On the defensive end of the pitch for Real Madrid, the most impactful matchup is still likely to be Ferland Mendy against Mo Salah. Even with a decline in some of his numbers, Salah is still the most impactful attacker for Liverpool: not only does he get in the box and score, but his combination play with Alexander-Arnold also helps create chances. This time, however, he will face one of the best 1v1 defenders in the world, and if Mendy can win the duels against him, Liverpool’s attacking threat would decrease considerably.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Paul Ellis - Pool/Getty Images

This time around though, be on the lookout for Jota and Mané against Real’s right back. In the wake of Lucas Vazquez’s injury, Liverpool might target this area as a potential weakness just like Real did against them in the first leg. Jota is fast, smart and mobile, and his combination play with Mané and Robertson can lead to problems in this area of the pitch for Modrić, Casemiro, and whoever plays in the right back role. Lots of support from the right winger—likely Asensio—will be needed.

On the other end of the pitch, we’ll see if Vinicius can once again have an impact against Trent Alexander-Arnold and Nat Philips. Assuming Liverpool press more aggressively than last time, Vinicius will have fewer chances than in the first leg and he’ll have to make efficient use of them.

Finally, watch out for the battle of Kroos and Modric against Liverpool’s pressing system. Despite the high-line struggles, Liverpool are still one of the most aggressive and effective pressing systems in Europe. The main defensive objective of Liverpool’s midfield and forwards will be to prevent the ball from reaching Kroos and Modrić.

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