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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.
The beauty of two-legged ties has always been, at least for me anyway, the over-arching chess match that unfolds between great teams, players, and managers. The tactical adjustments — the momentum shifts, the comebacks — that are made over the course of 180 minutes, truly mesmerize.
In a one-off final in a neutral venue, things can get more cagey, more stressful, more conservative. Sometimes tactics matter less than mentality, a lucky bounce, and star power; other times, structure and discipline trumps all. Liverpool and Real Madrid will play one game, with only 90 minutes or so to make in game adjustments; though, to be sure, these two teams have known each other well for decades, as it’s their third rendezvous in a European Cup Final, and ninth showdown in Europe overall.
Things have changed, of course, for both teams since their last final melee in 2018. Liverpool now have Luis Diaz and Thiago. Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, and Raphael Varane are long gone. Marcelo, Isco, and Gareth Bale — key contributors in 2018 — will not be influencers. Karim Benzema is a better player. Mohamed Salah has been discussing getting revenge, adamant that he ‘wants it more’. Vinicius Jr, the best winger in the Champions League this season, cares little for any of that, and wasn’t around for that final to be avenged. Does Real Madrid’s depth play a part once again? Can they survive the counter-pressing machine that Jurgen Klopp deploys?
Real Madrid’s path to the final was more difficult, so anyone labelling them as ‘underdogs’ should think hard about what they’re implying. Carlo Ancelotti’s men don’t back down from anyone, and relish throwing uppercuts to teams they’re not supposed to beat. In the round-of-16, they had just a 4% chance of winning the Champions League according to FiveThirtyEight’s model. I wrote about why that didn’t matter, all the way back in January. If you think the team that has the Champions League’s best goalkeeper, striker, and winger — along with a feisty and deadly bench mob and savvy, prolific winners and veterans — aren’t on an equal playing field in a game like this, you should re-consider where you’re putting your money.
Liverpool may not be facing Cristiano Ronaldo this time, but they will have to deal with Vinicius Jr — a breakout, fearless player who has dominated every single offensive metric in the competition apart from scoring, which Benzema has politely taken care of. Trent Alexander-Arnold, an absolute offensive weapon, leaves space behind him if Liverpool’s counter-press breaks. In the final against Vinicius, he’ll be facing his biggest test from a defensive standpoint. Vinicius will be the best dribbler and creative force Trent has faced in this tournament yet. Can the Brazilian test the English right-back at a high enough clip to keep him in check?
The wings, overall, provide us with four key match-ups right off the bat. Ahead of Trent is Mohamed Salah, who has been one of the best players in the wold this season, even despite a slight scoring dip since the African Cup of Nations. Ferland Mendy will have to be playing at 100% health and focus — bringing out his A-game defensively to contribute to a potentially historic night. If he can prevent Salah’s cut-ins and force him backwards, it will give Real Madrid more time to set their defense and keep out entries into the penalty area.
Where I’m even more optimistic now on Real Madrid than I was when I wrote the aforementioned article back in January is the improved depth chart. The squad is the same as it was, but there are more contributors now than there were in January. Ancelotti has increased his trust in more players, and most have raised the call. Even on the fringes of the bench players, someone like Dani Ceballos has provided great two-way energy in Champions League knockout cameos.
I would argue this is a classic Real Madrid season where the team hibernates for a few months before blossoming in the spring time. What makes this season stand out in particular, though, is the unique harmony and brotherhood — as well as, dare I say in the most cliche way possible, seemingly ‘new’ signings who have been entrusted by Ancelotti, in particular: Eduardo Camavinga, Rodrygo Goes, Dani Ceballos. The production boost Ancelotti got from simply demoting Asensio’s role in favour of more playing time for Rodrygo was huge in getting Real Madrid this far.
Jurgen Klopp will look to inflict pain from the start through an aggressive press. Liverpool allow just 8.07 passes per defensive action — the least of any team in the Premier League. No team in the Champions League has attempted more pressures in the final third (629) than Liverpool. Will Klopp dial it back more conservatively in the final? Unlikely. Liverpool pressed aggressively early in the 2018 final vs Real Madrid, and Zidane’s men weathered the storm.
But that Real Madrid team was press-resistant. Despite Liverpool’s best efforts, Keylor Navas faced just two shots on target all game and Zidane’s men ultimately dominated possession and created more (and better) chances. This current version of Real Madrid will likely struggle more coming out of the back. Getting into Liverpool’s third may be more challenging this year than it was four years ago, and just like the semi-finals vs Manchester City, it will be the initial one or two passes coming out of the back that will be crucial in advancing the ball. How quickly (and calmly) will the backline and deep-lying midfielders react to getting swarmed? It was a struggle against PSG, Chelsea, and Manchester City. There aren’t 180 minutes and a raucous Bernabeu to fuel a remontada. Digging a deep hole will be problematic, regardless of how much Champions League DNA exists.
Liverpool will swarm, hound, and hunt as soon as they lose the ball. They have a unique ability to create more danger when they lose the ball than they do when passing it around. If they get caught, Fabinho — their Casemiro — has been key in covering, and is positionally-sound enough to sprint back and stop counters. If Real Madrid are to win their 14th Champions League title, the speed and efficiency to pass their way out and get the ball moving in transition will be just as key as the individual brilliance in attack.
In big games recently, both Tottenham and Chelsea clogged space between the lines against Liverpool and exploited the space behind Klopp’s high line. Liverpool deploy a 4-3-3, but it’s a scheme that often morphs into a 2-4-3-1 with the wing-backs in the final third. from that position, they will either: A) rabidly win the ball back quickly once they lose it; B) rely on Fabinho and the center-backs to stop the counter; or C) get ripped:
Chelsea worked hard for that attack, but the reward is beautiful. Sadio Mane doesn’t track Marco Alonso’s run into the box. TAA has no positional awareness of where Christian Pulisic is, and allows the American a free, unmarked shot in the box.
As always, Real Madrid’s offense will be dependant on how they configure themselves defensively. The contrast between Tottenham and Chelsea was interesting. Tottenham hedged deep and barely escaped their half, created far fewer opportunities, but the little they did create, was quality. Chelsea, in comparison, held a higher line, pressed, and tried to keep more of the ball in Liverpool’s half. Luis Diaz caught them on a few occassions as a result. Both models worked. Which will Real Madrid choose? Often they take middle ground, which has many perils.
If I had to guess, Ancelotti takes more from Antonio Conte’s blueprint. Real Madrid average 51.8% possession in the Champions League this season — lower than 11 other teams. By comparison, Liverpool are second (63.2%), and Chelsea are fourth (61.3%). Chelsea unnerved Liverpool with their press and snuffed out outlets, but also made themselves vulnerable. Based on everything we’ve seen from the Champions League this season, Ancelotti won’t press high until he brings in the bench mob in the second half and the energy gets dialled up a notch.
Keep an eye on Liverpool’s funnel: their entire right side. Only five players — Rodri Hernandez, Joao Cancelo, Antonio Rudiger, Luka Modric, Benjamin Pavard — have had more touches this season in the Champions League than TAA. By extension, no player has received more progressive passes (114) than Mo Salah. Liverpool look for the Egyptian on nearly every sequence, and TAA (first in the Premier League in key passes, crosses into the penalty area, progressive passes, through balls, shot-creating actions, and passes into penalty area) will back him with a loaded gun full of offense.
That’s why the wing matchup — particular the Vinicius - Mendy vs TAA - Salah duel — will be so critical. Vinicius will have to find the delicate balance of helping Mendy while exploiting the space behind TAA. Vinicius also likely won’t get much offensive help from Mendy.
My guess is that this game will be more open than many think, with waves of momentum swinging in both directions. If Liverpool start this final as aggressive as they started the 2018 one, Vinicius will have plenty of opportunities to get behind TAA and isolate Virgil van Dijk to his side while Benzema drags defenders around with an off-ball run into the box like he did against Chelsea.
With Liverpool’s tracking being so hit-or-miss, runs from Benzema, or even Rodrygo Goes who is an expert at cutting across the box for goals, there shouldn’t be a shortage of chances even if Liverpool dominate the ball. These are the types of opportunities Liverpool’s defense allows if they’re not winning the ball high up the pitch:
Notice, again, that TAA is completely lost in the above sequence. Though he’s there to defend physically, he’s spiritually in the final third and completely befuddled on how to cut off the pass to an on-rushing Marcos Alonso.
Mendy likely won’t be making those same runs Alonso made given the threat the team faces the other way if he’s caught, so onus will be on Fede Valverde to soar in off the ball as he did so well against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Liverpool don’t like escaping their comfort zone: The final third. They keep the ball there and win it there. Not testing their backline at a high clip like Chelsea did would be a travesty. Sitting too deep runs you the risk of playing into Klopp’s hands. We saw how difficult it was for Real Madrid in Paris against PSG in the first leg of the round-of-16. Like sitting ducks, if you’re liable on the ball deep against a team that’s positionally superior, only one team will ever get momentum.
Pressing Liverpool is not that crazy, either. Chelsea dared to press high and made it difficult for Liverpool to find outlets. Edouard Mendy was quick off his line on a couple occassions where their high line got caught. In the semi-finals of the Champions League at Ceramica, Villarreal pressed Liverpool for large stretches in the first half and completely threw Klopp’s men off their game and knocked them off their horse. Unai Emery’s men allowed just 6.41 passes per defensive action — a staggeringly impressive number.
Klopp adjusted at half-time, pushing TAA and Keita into more advance positions. Villarreal ran out of gas. The unsustainable nature of pressing that much, for that long, is why I’d guess Ancelotti opts not to do it until the bench mob enters the field in the second half — which may align just in time for Liverpool’s energy levels to diminish from their own pressing effort.
As always, simplifying the defensive structure makes the most sense. Too often during this Champions League run, Real Madrid have bizarrely chosen the middle ground — half caught between pressing and sitting deep. Through several sequences, each distinctive player has had conflicting ideas in mind. Some press, some don’t. Disaster. The backline is typically hedged deep in these situations while the front three attempt a press. In those scenarios, Liverpool will have numerical superiority in Real Madrid’s half.
Liverpool will exploit space between the lines without hesitation, much like Chelsea did when the opportunities arose:
The defense was even worse at the Etihad against Manchester City before Ancelotti zipped it up in the second leg. The chaos Real Madrid thrive off of only works if they’re inflicting pain — defensive imbalance will only suit Liverpool.
Liverpool are favourites according the bookies. I’d put this about even based on what we’ve seen from both teams in the run up to this final — with a slight edge towards Liverpool. One mustn’t forget that Liverpool aren’t exactly devoid of European DNA either. They’ve already beaten Real Madrid in the final once, and have one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history in their back pocket.
But these discussions of Liverpool ‘wanting it more’ are silly. Both of these teams have elite mentality. I’ll leave you with a great quote from Zinedine Zidane when asked about Liverpool ‘wanting it more’ prior to the 2018 Champions League final:
“I don’t know how hungry they are,” Zidane said. “But we definitely want it more and nobody can say they’re hungrier than us.”