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Vinicius vs TAA is just around the corner

Some tactical notes on Vinicius Jr’s season and Liverpool’s defensive line

Liverpool FC v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final 2021/22 Photo by Etsuo Hara/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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Instead of hitting you with 3000 words of analysis I’m going to start releasing my column in bite-sized pieces. Here goes the first one of 2023 which include two main themes on Vinicius’s season and Liverpool’s defense:

Appreciate the ascent of Vinicius Jr

The greatness that we witness week-in and week-out from Vinicius Jr may have been normalized to an extent where we don’t appreciate him enough. Maybe we’re desensitized to his dominance or hyper-critical of trivial flaws because he’s set the bar so high. Appreciate him. If he’s not on the field, the offense dies a slow, painful death.

Vinicius carries the ball forward as a threat like few others in the world can. He does it every game even if he doesn’t score or provide an assist. He kickstarts transition attacks by gliding out of pressure and releasing a pass or carrying the ball himself at the speed of light.

It’s the consistency in which he breaks lines that’s impressive, and if you’re Carlo Ancelotti — completely necessary. Vinicius is one of the handful of footballers that can transcend tactics and low blocks, but that he can do it doesn’t mean it’s easy for him to do so. Opponents are tasked with making his life as difficult as possible. They throw multiple defenders at him and close his space. They foul him (more than any player in the top-5 leagues gets fouled), and get away with a lot of physical abuse. (It doesn’t help that Vinicius also has to carry a lot of mental weight with the racism he’s suffered all season.)

Vinicius has been one of the vital members of Real Madrid’s ball progression for a good part of the last three years:

He doesn’t have much space to work with, but still can find a way to split the defense:

Those are spaces Vinicius is so dangerous in. It’s not as ideal as getting the ball to him in open water on the counter-attack, but it is a scenario he’ll find himself in more commonly against opponents who don’t allow that kind of space (which is frequent).

The defensive shape from Real Valladolid in the second video looks in control of the situation in some capacity, but facing Vinicius even in that pocket is terrifying. The Brazilian has gotten so good at slowing the game down in those moments. He can duck his shoulder and get to the byline, cut in with a disguised dribble into a shooting or cut-back position, or split the defense with a 1-2 in the box like he does above with Dani Ceballos in the left half-space.

Vinicius is special. Moan about some of his mistakes all you want. His high volume of chance creation is what gets the team in those positions in the first place. The offense would be lost without him.

Looking wide-eyed at Liverpool’s defensive line

With Real Madrid’s trip to Anfield just around the corner, it’s time to take a look at Liverpool and think about the annual (it seems like?) matchup between two European giants.

Every year the scouting report will read pretty similar. Liverpool like to press (we’ll save that segment for later) and hold a high line. But they are not what they used to be circa 2018 - 2020. In some ways that might make them even more dangerous — they are sleeping, hungry Leviathans that have enough sharp teeth and experience to get to the Champions League Final even when not at their best. Sounds familiar.

But some of their weaknesses they had even at their peak are magnified more now because the sum of their parts has had a drain in efficiency. The high-line dances on a tight-rope, and Trent Alexander-Arnold still leaves space behind him while looking lost on so many defensive sequences.

Liverpool have the sixth worst xGA in the Premier League this season. They are bleeding, relying on Alisson heroics while sitting at the mercy of opponents missing great chances. (Alisson has saved 74.4% of the shots he’s faced, the fifth best mark in the league; while his +8 post-shot xG-xGA is, um, insane, and by far the best in the country).

Jurgen Klopp has always accepted that TAA is who he is because of one clear, fundamental reason: He is arguably the best attacking right-back on earth. Even this season he leads the Premier League in progressive passes and successful dribble % (while doing a bunch of other things in the final third that are important). But that doesn’t mean Real Madrid won’t look at him wide-eyed just like they have done in previous years, and most recently did in the Champions League Final.

TAA gets his positioning wrong often. Sometimes he’s so high up the pitch he’s not there at all. But some attacking-minded wing-backs can still hold their own when they are defending deep. TAA struggles even when he’s in his own box.

He can’t defend balls like this that come in at the far post:

You can already close your eyes and see how Carlo Ancelotti will set up against Liverpool. They’re good at going forward, and not so great on the other end. I think we have a precedence for how this goes tactically.

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