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Three Keys to Defending Liverpool

Guard the right side, avoid long possessions, and beware of crosses and set pieces.

Liverpool FC v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Leg Two Photo by Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

The biggest game of the season is coming and, as usual, the main way I can cope with it is by analyzing and thinking about the possibilities.

The Managing Madrid staff has already done a thorough and exhaustive preview analysis coverage throughout the week (here, here, and here, for example), so I'm just here to summarize and say some things that haven't been covered yet.

In many ways, playing against Liverpool is not that different from playing against Manchester City. Both Klopp and Guardiola have learned from each other and developed hybrid styles that are surprisingly similar to each other and focus heavily on pressing and keeping possession. There are two key differences between both sides:

  • Liverpool are more efficient in the boxes: Simply put, Liverpool players make fewer mistakes on either side of the pitch than City players. Alisson and Van Dijk are less likely to concede dumb goals than Ederson, Dias, and Laporte. Meanwhile, Salah, Mané, and Jota are more clinical than Mahrez, Jesus, or Foden.
  • Liverpool are more wing-focused: City likes to use players like De Bruyne, Silva, or Foden to break through the middle of the opponent's defensive scheme, while Liverpool prefers to progress on the flanks and then move into the box via crosses and cutbacks.

Liverpool's efficiency can punish Real Madrid's mistakes more heavily than City or Chelsea could, which means Los Blancos arguably have a smaller margin of error than in previous ties. To avoid this, let's review some keys to successfully defending Liverpool.

Reinforce the Right Side

For all the buzz caused by the threat of Vinicius on Trent Alexander-Arnold, I would argue Real Madrid's right side has an even bigger defensive problem in the duels of Luis Díaz and Sadio Mané against Carvajal and Militao.

Militao has enjoyed an outstanding season, but his last two months have been BAD. 2020 Militao bad. Injuries have affected his ability to win duels, and he's overcompensating for this issue by being more aggressive in the most mindless possible way. He's going out of position frequently to mark opponents and anticipate passes, but he loses the duels and creates an even bigger problem. Carvajal has also been a liability in big games throughout the entire season, with the only exception of the semifinal second leg against City.

Just like PSG, Chelsea, and City did in previous games, there is no doubt Liverpool will heavily target this side to create their most dangerous chances. And they have an ideal player to do so in the form of Luis Díaz. The Colombian winger has quickly become the most prolific dribbler in Liverpool's attack, and there is no doubt his dribbling will require the best version of Carvajal. Anything less than that will allow Díaz to go past him several times throughout the game. Meanwhile, Mané will punish mistakes by Militao, making runs in behind when he goes out of position or outsmarting him in the box during incoming crosses and set pieces.

Chelsea v Liverpool: The Emirates FA Cup Final Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

This means there are huge incentives to reinforce the right wing with a player who can provide enough defensive support to Militao and Carvajal. Starting Fede Valverde on the right wing seems like the best solution in this regard. He will track the runs of left back Andy Robertson and can put out any fires that occur due to mistakes. Meanwhile, since Liverpool does not have that much of a threat through the center, Casemiro could also be relied on for help on the wings.

Create Chaos and Short Possessions

If we go one by one through the starting XIs, the difference in individual quality between Liverpool and Real Madrid is small. What gives Liverpool the true advantage is developing strong pressing and possession systems that allow the team to be more than the sum of its parts. It's a system that has been developed and fine-tuned over five arduous years of work by Jürgen Klopp and his coaching staff. Therefore, Real Madrid must look for ways to break up these collective systems and turn the game into a mess of individual duels that can be more easily won by Real's players.

For example, there is a huge incentive for Real Madrid to press in short bursts and force long balls from Liverpool players. These long balls will turn into individual duels and will shorten the duration of Liverpool's possessions. Short possessions and more individual duels play better to the strengths of more impulsive defenders like Carvajal, Militao, and Nacho.

The more time Liverpool keeps the ball in settled possession, the worse things will be for Real. Ancelotti's men do not have the defensive organization to handle these situations well. When the opponent moves the ball around, everyone is running out of position and leaving huge gaps in defensive lines.

Real Madrid v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League - Quarter Final - First Leg - Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium Photo by Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images

Thiago's form and injury recovery will have a massive impact on how the game plays out. He is Liverpool's best bet for more controlled possession phases that can really put Real Madrid’s defensive structure in trouble. If he does start, it's vital for Real's midfield and attack to press in such a way that forces long balls and prevents the ball from getting to him. Once again, this is another argument for playing Valverde as right winger.

Casemiro to Defend Crosses and Set Pieces

Our friend Yash already did a solid review of this Liverpool threat from crosses and set pieces. Liverpool did the most crossing in the Premier League this season, and their fullbacks are the players who create the most danger, as shown in the figure below from Yash. For example, a cross from Alexander-Arnold with Salah, Mane, and Jota in the box is a terrifying prospect, and Liverpool can truly brute force their way to a goal by spamming crosses like this. If Liverpool delivers 20 crosses into the box during the game, it's likely that one or two of them will make it in.

Thus, it's important to mark Liverpool fullbacks in such a way that prevents them from crossing from comfortable positions. It might even be worth it to double team Trent in such a way that forces Henderson to make the cross instead. Such a trade-off would likely be worth it.

Meanwhile, Liverpool are one of the most effective teams in Europe from corners (1 goal every 15 corners, second in the European big leagues). Casemiro's strong aerial presence will be vital to defend both crosses and set pieces. One could even argue that when Real defends in a deep block, Casemiro could drop back into the box almost as a third center back to improve defending of the crosses.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

That's all I have for now, friends. If Real Madrid applies these principles, they can hold up Liverpool's attack enough for Rodrygo, Benzema, and Vinicius to do their thing on the opposite end of the pitch. Enjoy the game!