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Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics

UEFA Champions League 2021/22: How Real Madrid can restrain pressure and ruin Liverpool’s season – tactical preview

The 2021/22 UEFA Champions League final is expected to be quite a spectacular one. Liverpool, who have had a striking season will be looking to win their third trophy this campaign. After just missing on the opportunity to make a quadruple, as Manchester City were crowned champions of England, they will be extremely motivated to prove their prowess again and defeat Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid in the CL final.

The Spanish side are not that easy to outplay though, with them getting back to the top in La Liga and looking for an even more positive end to their successful campaign. After three disappointing seasons in the tournament, Ancelotti is looking to bring them back to European heights and doing it against such strong opponents would definitely boost Los Blancos’ confidence and motivate them to perform even better in the upcoming season.

It is expected that both teams will stick to their attack-minded approaches and will constantly be on the front foot, looking to score goals and outplay each other. Liverpool are pointed out as the favourites in this game but as Los Blancos showed in their semi-final matches against Manchester City, they can be equally as dangerous in front of the goal.

In this preview, we use tactical analysis to examine both managers’ tactics for the game and explain how the teams could expose each other and grab the trophy.

Possible line-ups

Jürgen Klopp will stick to his 4-3-3 scheme and will rely on Alisson as the goalkeeper who will try to block Real Madrid’s attackers’ efforts on the goal. He is expected to employ Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Ibrahima Konaté and Trent Alexander-Arnold in defence, as his most efficient back-four combination out of possession but also as a line that can successfully support ball progression and attack.

The midfield line will most probably consist of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Naby Keïta trying to bring confidence and security between the lines. Thiago Alcântara is also an option for a starting spot should he be back after sustaining an injury in their last Premier League game. His presence could bring dimension to Liverpool in possession as his passing and dribbling could bring additional pressure on Real’s defence.

The biggest question around Liverpool’s starting XI is whether the manager will rely on Diogo Jota or Luis Díaz in the frontline. Or maybe both? Of course, lining up both is less likely as he would rather rely on Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, but either combination of attackers could be equally deadly for the opponents.

Real Madrid also use the 4-3-3 formation, although, as the manager explained, they like to switch things up in-game, so it could be expected that they will transform throughout the game. They will go out with Thibaut Courtois on the goal, while Ancelotti will most probably rely on Ferland Mendy, David Alaba, Éder Militão and Daniel Carvajal defensively. He has a few options at the back, although only Nacho Fernández looks like another contender for a starting spot. Some of the most experienced players, Luka Modrić, Casemiro and Toni Kroos will form the midfield trio as the defensive line would need quite a lot of support, while not removing their attacking strength.

The forward line won’t be less threatening than Liverpool’s with Vinícius Júnior, Karim Benzema and Rodrygo in it, with the manager having quite a few more decent options for the final third.

Can Real Madrid restrain the pressure? 

Liverpool’s pressing proficiency might turn out as the biggest problem for the Madrid side. Not because they have many defensive issues but more so because they are not used to playing against pressing teams that often. The average PPDA rate against them in La Liga is 16.14, which underlines their dominance in possession but also the low level of resistance that they meet.

This won’t be the case against the Reds for sure. Liverpool are expected to try to trouble the opposition’s build-up and focus on pressurising their key players with the aim to force them into individual mistakes and recover the ball. Despite being the team with the fewest ball losses per 90 in La Liga, Real Madrid’s players often make errors under pressure, which lead to conceding goalscoring opportunities.

The battle on Real’s right flank would be key for them to be able to resist the pressure and avoid any danger.  Carvajal’s performance throughout the season has been unconvincing and a big part of the team’s defensive struggles have come as a result of his individual errors and inability to cope in 1vs1 situations.

This comes as the perfect opportunity for Liverpool to display their full potential. With Robertson’s constant involvement upfront, it will be easy for them to overload the flank and pressurise Carvajal both in and out of possession should he not have enough support from his teammates.

Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics
Carvajal recovered the ball but then made a few controversial moves. He sent an inaccurate pass to Modric, risking the opposition intercepting the ball.
Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics
He then moved off it with the aim to support ball progression but was pressurised by the opposing player and passed the ball too quickly, allowing the opposition to intercept and counter-attack.

The struggles might get even bigger if Alcântara plays against him. With his ball control and technical abilities, he has a high chance to succeed in ball progression, against Carvajal’s average of 55% won defensive duels. But the team need to be careful with how they approach the Spaniard as if he doesn’t have the needed space to progress on the left, he tends to send long diagonal balls to the other flank and allow Liverpool to exploit the underloaded areas.

Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics
Seeing that the passing lanes are blocked, Thiago switched play to the underloaded area through a long diagonal ball that caught the opposition off guard.

Add Mané’s speed runs or Díaz’s positioning off the ball and it might be impossible for Carvajal to split his responsibilities, especially with his tendency to move into the advanced areas.

The right full-back will need a lot of support from his teammates in order to not allow 2vs1 or even 3vs1 situations on the flank and Los Blancos might need to commit to high pressing and involving the attacking players in defence if they want to have a chance against the Merseyside club.

The midfield players would also be key for going out and closing out spaces to avoid the numerical disadvantage.

How can Los Blancos threaten Liverpool?

Real are quite a threatening team in possession but there’s one area where they might gain a precious advantage. Using Vinícius Jr’s movement and abilities correctly might turn out crucial for the team in attack. While many would defend Alexander-Arnold’s defensive displays, the truth is that his success in 1vs1 situations is doubtful. While he is absolutely vital in his contribution to attack, his defensive responsibilities are often left behind and he has difficulties in meeting the expectations.

His movement to the advanced areas and inability to drop back in a timely manner could cost the team a lot against players like Vinícius Jr. The 21-year-old has scored 21 goals this season, thanks to his link-up-play ability and his dribbling skills. He naturally has positional flair which allows him to take advantage of second balls while his accelerations could leave every defender behind easily.

His constant movement back on the flank to pick up the ball and then his occupation of the half-spaces will need to be minimised in order to limit his chances on the goal. This is crucial, as his finishing is equally strong with 57.7% of his shots per 90 being on target.

Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics
Vinicius Jr. had dropped back to pick up the ball. Once he received it, he made a run with the ball with a significant speedup and outplayed both of his markers to enter the final third successfully.

Benzema’s outstanding form this season should also bother the Reds. He constantly moves around the advanced areas looking for the ball and once he receives it, his ability to hold on to it and exploit spaces in the box rarely gives any chances to the opposition to defend.

Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics
Benzema’s 2021/22 shot map shows the efficiency of his positioning.

And while Liverpool will make sure to commit enough players to limit his movement, his passing abilities come as an additional threat to Alisson’s goal. Benzema has one of the highest pass completion rates for a forward (86.32%) and is able to set his teammates up perfectly. Apart from his deadly finishing (44 goals in the 2021/22 seasons so far), he has also assisted 15 more, meaning Liverpool need to have a very delicate approach against him if they want to block his efforts.

Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics
He tried to dribble past the goalkeeper multiple times while Vinicius Jr was moving off the ball.
Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics
When the space was closed out, he decided to pass to his teammate instead of shooting on his own.

Should Liverpool stick to what they do best?

The question when it comes to the Reds in attack is – should they stick to what they do best, and is it going to work out against Real? We have explained Liverpool’s set-pieces efficiency many times, with them finishing the Premier League season with 18 goals scored from such situations.

This time, they go against opponents that have been quite successful in defending set-plays, meaning they might struggle to employ their usual strategy. But there is something that they could try to take advantage of in order to succeed.

While Los Blancos have conceded most of their goals from open play, they have had some critical moments in defending set-pieces that have resulted in conceding. The team sometimes fail in their aerial performance in the box and give their opponents a huge advantage. This could allow Liverpool more options up front as the Madrid side have conceded six goals from headshots in the league this season. While this might not look like a lot, adding it next to Liverpool’s 19 scored headers this term, it looks like a real threat for Ancelotti’s team.

That’s something where players like Jota and Roberto Firmino can come in handy with.

Champions League 2021/22 preview: Liverpool vs Real Madrid - tactical analysis tactics
Firmino can be a great replacement in case things don’t go Liverpool’s way. His positioning and aerial abilities could put the Reds forward.

Conclusion

As our analysis shows, Real Madrid have all the needed weapons to trouble their opponents and take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Liverpool, on the other side, are the big favourites as it looks like it will be impossible for Los Blancos’ defence to counteract their constant pressure in and out of possession. Both teams can offer a lot in this game and it will be a matter of awareness and control to come out of it as the winning side.