Out with a whimper – Three tactical keys to Liverpool’s UCL exit vs Real Madrid
Liverpool are no stranger to Champions League comebacks. Coming into this match, there was certainly hope that the side could overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit as they welcomed Real Madrid to Anfield.
This time around, there was a different feel to the match. Without the Anfield crowd to spur them on, Liverpool still managed to create chances and played well through the first 60 minutes, but as the minutes died down without the screaming Anfield faithful, Real Madrid managed to hold their ground and see out a 0-0 draw, progressing to the Champions League semi-finals with a 3-1 aggregate score.
Despite the lack of goals, this match saw plenty of quality opportunities. This tactical analysis will address the quick start Liverpool had, especially by attacking the matchup of Sadio Mané vs Federico Valverde. We’ll also look at how Liverpool pinned Real Madrid deep in their end, making it difficult for Los Blancos to find their way out of the high press. Ultimately though, this match was determined by Liverpool’s lack of composure in front of goal. Unable to put one past a patchwork Real Madrid backline, the rally never properly got started, leading to Liverpool’s quiet exit from the tournament.
When Lucas Vázquez picked up a season-ending injury in El Clásico, the starting right-back was a mystery that only Sid Lowe, after gazing into his crystal ball, predicted. Zinedine Zidane tactics included adding Valverde to the backline of Ferland Mendy, Nacho Fernández and Éder Militão. Thibaut Courtois took his place in goal with Casemiro as the pivot, Toni Kroos the regista and Luka Modrić as the right-sided 8/10. In the 4-1-4-1, Marco Asensio and Vinícius Júnior were the two wide midfielder while Karim Benzema was the lone forward.
On the other side of midfield, Jürgen Klopp had the clean-shaven Alisson in goal with Nathaniel Phillips and Ozan Kabak as his centreback, flanked by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. In midfield, the Reds started the trio of Fabinho, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. Roberto Firmino was back in the starting XI while Mohamed Salah and Mané completed Klopp’s 4-3-3.
Mane vs Valverde
The Vázquez injury was a massive blow for Real Madrid. Not only was he playing well, but Álvaro Odriozola is yet to earn the trust of Zinedine Zidane and Marcelo, who would likely have forced Mendy to the right had he started, is not in form. Zidane got creative in this match, slotting his Swiss army knife, Valverde, in at right-back. Moving into a new position is always difficult for a player and being asked to contain Mané made the task all the greater.
There was the assumption that, regardless of who Real Madrid put opposite Mendy, Liverpool planned to attack that side early and often. And they did. From the opening whistle, Liverpool looked to challenge the positional knowledge and discipline of the young Uruguayan, as well as test his 1v1 defending against Mané’s dribbling ability.
Liverpool used creative sequences to move the ball across the pitch once they entered the final third. If Valverde was disciplined and held a positional superiority within the low block, Liverpool often looked to switch the point of attack, as in the example below. Alexander-Arnold was a recipient of the pass, receiving the ball deeper in the half space to sit outside of Real Madrid’s block and limit their counterattacking threat.
Once the pass reached TAA, the next image shows Real Madrid’s low block sliding either left to cover the threat or moving at an upward diagonal towards the ball to pressure Alexander-Arnold. That’s when Mané made his move, making his run behind the line to test the tracking ability of Valverde. He latched on to the cross but lost his footing on the play which saw Militão clear the danger.
In other instances, Mané looked to engage Valverde with the dribble. This was especially the case in the middle third. If Valverde was without a covered defender, Mané aggressively dribbled at him to test his defending in space. In this instance, Mané won the battle.
With Valverde beat, Militão had to slide over to slow down Mané’s approach to goal. With the Real Madrid backline aggressively sliding to the right, Firmino and Salah were active with their runs behind the backline, offering a presence in the box as Liverpool attacked the goal.
Though they didn’t manage to score on the night, Liverpool used Mané’s quality on the left against the inexperienced Valverde at the right-back position. They created a number of early threats, leaving the Real Madrid backline disjointed and scrambling to cover the entries into the box.
Real Madrid struggled to beat the high press
With a two-goal advantage, it was always the tactical plan for Real Madrid to hit Liverpool on the counterattack. Analysis of the first match showed the success of this tactic, especially in targeting the space vacated by Alexander-Arnold, as well as his defensive vulnerabilities. To their credit, Liverpool made an adjustment and TAA put in a much better performance in this leg.
On the whole, Real Madrid found it very difficult to break Liverpool’s press. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, as we see in the image below, Liverpool progressed with some ease into the final third of the pitch, hitting the Real Madrid defence deep in their own end. Everyone but Benzema had dropped within 30 yards of goal, leaving Real Madrid with just one high target to play into. The additional issue here is that Alexander-Arnold and Robertson were very well positioned outside of the Real Madrid block. In the image below, they’ve pinched into narrower areas to prevent Vinícius Júnior and Asensio from receiving passes in the 2/4 and 3/5 gaps. Additionally, there’s also the presence of Fabinho to limit access to Benzema.
With Real Madrid pinned deep and lacking high outlets, they typically required a moment of brilliance from the wide forwards or a burst of speed from the outside-backs to join their #7 and #11 to create a 2v1 or 2v2 battle, combining to create progression. With the outside-backs’ focued first and foremost on their defensive responsibilities, those runs were mostly contained by Liverpool. Additionally, especially when Valverde made his runs forward, Liverpool were quick to attack the space the outside-backs had just left.
The second reason for Real Madrid’s issues getting out was Liverpool’s aggressive counterpress. The rest defense was excellent in this matchup, leading to excellent pressing deficiency. For the match, Liverpool pressed at an impressive rate of 8.3, a far higher intensity than Real Madrid’s 19.25. To their credit, Liverpool made Real Madrid’s deep players look unsettled on the ball. There was so little time and space for them to play out and no natural outlets higher up the pitch to relieve pressure. Further, with them defending so close to goal, deep outlets to Courtois were often unavailable, which stands in contrast to the first leg.
Third, Real Madrid struggled to beat Liverpool’s traps in the high press. The Reds often set their line of confrontation 30 yards from the Real Madrid goal. As Real Madrid looked to play the first pass forward, often from Courtois to one of his centre-backs, Liverpool sent one player to pressure the centre-back with the hopes of forcing him back to Courtois. When the pass went back, a second Liverpool forward would press the goalkeeper while eliminating the switch of play, effectively forcing him to hit a hopeful ball into his high targets.
When Real Madrid managed to play the ball into Kroos or Modrić, even those two players were left with little time on the ball. In the image below, we see Modrić receive the pass just outside of Liverpool’s press. With Mané closing down space, Modrić elected to play into Benzema.
However, Benzema lost the aerial duel, putting the second ball at the feet of Wijnaldum, who made a nice turn on Kroos’ challenge and launched a direct attack on goal.
One of the things Liverpool did really well was the way they funnelled play into one of the wings and compressed the playing area. In the next sequence, we see that Éder Militão has just played the ball back to Courtois who was pressured immediately by Salah. Courtois played it safe and looked to hit one of his high targets rather than risking a deep loss with his team in an expansive shape.
But again, Liverpool won the first ball and, as we saw in the last example, were well-positioned to restart their attack with three players situated between the Real Madrid lines.
After eight difficult days featuring two matchups against Liverpool, which sandwiched El Clásico, Real Madrid’s weary legs were evident. The lack of high targets and Liverpool’s attention to detail in their rest defence, eliminating the running lanes of Vinícius Júnior and Asensio, made it really difficult for Real Madrid to transition into the attack, especially from the low block.
Liverpool’s frustration in the final third
This game was very much a matter of Liverpool’s ability to finish off chances versus real Madrid’s bend but don’t break defending. Liverpool had plenty of chances, several of which were very high quality, but their inability to produce the final product sealed their fate.
To their credit, even though Real Madrid conceded a number of quality chances, their backline generally did well to get bodies in front of the shooter to increase the difficulty level of the shot, secure the occasional block or alter the shot attempt, especially by rushing it.
Though Liverpool didn’t have too many opportunities for direct attacks or counterattacks, when they did, they tended to target the spaces vacated by the outside-backs, particularly Valverde. In the image below, we see Wijnaldum playing into Mané, who caught Valverde out of position.
Éder Militão does well to cut off his path to goal, but Mané does equally well to transition into a playmaker role, picking out the run of Salah. His pass was spot on, but Salah’s hurried attempt was pushed over the far post.
As mentioned, Alexander-Arnold had a really strong performance in the second leg and was back to his playmaking self, be it with his crossing or with his drives into the box. In the example below, he managed to burst into the Real Madrid box before playing a negative pass into Wijnaldum who scuffed the shot. Liverpool had more success in their box entries, leading to more high-quality scoring opportunities.
Despite not registering a goal, Liverpool managed 12 shots for the match, but only three made it to the frame. When you look at their shot selection, they had a great deal of success getting shots off from excellent locations. The issue was that they simply couldn’t finish off their chances. When you look at their shot placement, they were often pushing the ball over the crossbar. Courtois made a few phenomenal saves, which certainly didn’t help Liverpool’s confidence or conversion rate, but, on the whole, Liverpool’s forwards will be disappointed with their finishing.
It’s another Champions League semi-final win for Zidane, his fourth in five attempts, adding to his impeccable resume. Real Madrid will meet another English Premier League foe as they move on to face Chelsea in the next round.
For Liverpool, it’s a disappointing end to their campaign, a game many would have expected to be closer with the squad fighting for progression until the final whistle. In the end, they go down with a whimper, unable to generate a comeback tale due to their poor composure in the box. They’ll focus on their domestic campaign, looking to secure Champions League play for next season.