UEFA Champions League: Why Liverpool’s inability to defend Real Madrid’s transitions cost them after a first-half sparring match – tactical analysis
Although they both have bad form this season, the game was exciting and the 14-time European champions won in their regular melodramatic way and put a leg in the quarter-final.
Real Madrid’s players’ personalities in the Champions League in recent years under any situation or inside any stadium are something unique and rare.
Liverpool’s regular 4-3-3 system had been used by Jürgen Klopp who started with Alisson in goal, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, and Andy Robertson as his back four. Stefan Bajcetic, Fabinho, and Jordan Henderson were the midfielders while Mo Salah, Cody Gakpo and Darwin Núñez were the strikers.
In contrast, the Italian expert, Carlo Ancelotti who’s won four titles before, lined Real Madrid in 4-3-3 form and started the game with the returning Karim Benzema in front alongside Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr. Carlo furthermore picked Thibaut Courtois with a backline Dani Carvajal, Eder Militao, Antonio Rudiger and David Alaba. Meanwhile, the midfield trio of Fede Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga, and Luka Modric started in midfield.
A superb start
There is no better way to open a game in the knockout stage than leading 2-0 in the first 14 minutes like Liverpool did.
Jürgen Klopp, after a period of shifting between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, had settled on his favourite formation with the team that are performing at their worst under the German who built his team around direct play, high pressing, counter-pressing and quick transitions, and unexpectedly lost them all.
Liverpool started the game in a 4-3-3 in possession, attempting to restore some of their dynamism and the dynamic triangle on the right-hand side between Salah, Henderson and Trent.
Earlier, Real Madrid stayed in a 4-5-1 defensive block in their half. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s right triangle was more dynamic to make the difference with different rules from the opposite side and Gakpo’s deep movements in between the lines opened an extra option to penetrate and then attack the backline from deeper positions.
Here, while a bad defensive contribution from Vinicius occurred, Henderson overlaps the flank which is taking the attention of Alaba and provoking Rudiger to go out to deal with the danger.
At the same time, Darwin is moving from the blindside, across the front of Carvajal, to the blindside of Militao. Then, he receives a through pass from Salah and finishes it brilliantly.
This idea of fluidity of the right side alongside the directness of attacking the space from the left side was resumed successively during the game, primarily in the first half once the Reds reached the final third.
In the below graphic, TAA from a deeper position reaches Henderson who moved in-to-out overlapping the flank and letting the higher of the half-space for Salah to exploit.
Furthermore, Salah’s positioning is provoking Alaba to step out. Meanwhile, Henderson receives in Vini’s blindside behind the backline.
Once Henderson receives the ball in the cut-back zone, Salah and Gakpo are attacking the box with deep runs, while Robertson is running diagonally, confusing Carvajal in his blindside to maximise the chance with Darwin’s presence.
Here, below, are Liverpool’s winger actions graphic showing how the impact of the right-hand side was influential for the hosts.
“The start of the game, in our situation, where we are, it’s really important that we see positive steps. I think the first half, besides the two goals we conceded, was the best we had played, probably in the whole season. I liked that a lot.” Klopp said after the game
After Salah scored the second from Courtois’s horrific error, Real Madrid made an incredible comeback. But how?
Individuality makes Real Madrid still alive
Comebacks at this level of football are about experience, mental strength, confidence and dealing with pressure. The Meringues possess all of these traits.
The Italian had structured the European champions in their 4-3-3 classic shape with consistent movements out of the box from Benzema to get involved in combinations, especially on the left-hand side which left space for Rodrygo to exploit.
Real Madrid during the game started to use Modric in deeper positions alongside Camavinga to get out of Liverpool’s high pressure and with his pressing resistance and passing abilities, they broke the pressing.
Luka’s touch map illustrates that he was everywhere.
Once they reached the final third, the left-hand side, where Vinicius, Alaba and Modric with aid from Benzema, was very effective, especially with the Reds’ defensive right-side problems this season.
Below, Vini has the ball on the left side. Meanwhile, Benzema is dropping to combine, creating numerical superiority there with a bad recovery from Salah to support his fullback, which provoked Gomez to be involved more.
Modric is recognising the space and moves vertically in the left half-space behind Gomez which is forcing Gomez to drop back again and opens room for Vinicius.
After doing a successful 1-2s combination with Benzema, Vini, the man of the match, lustrously scored a beautiful curved goal.
Real Madrid consistently did this pattern very well and had a variation. In the below graphic, while the same pattern is being executed and Modric also running into the interior corridor and Benzema is deeper involved, Rodrygo is exploiting the striker position, with Carvajal attacking the blindside waiting for the cross.
Like Courtois, Alisson’s error gave Real Madrid the draw. The match, which was a spar until that point, was later decided by Madrid’s attacking transitions.
Real Madrid’s deadly transitions
‘Our identity is intensity’, Klopp said before. The main issue with Liverpool this season is losing the intensity in everything they were doing well.
Real Madrid are not the most proactive team in Europe, they love to counter with speed in their attacks. During the match, Liverpool were vulnerable in the transitions because of looseness and incoherence.
Modric, the 37-year-old, was superior and clear in the last two goals because of his defensive awareness. He played a main role in the defensive transitions and began the counter brilliantly.
In the below graphic, before the 4th goal, Luka is doing an excellent interception of Bajcetic’s progressive pass to Gakpo, the counter that would be a goal later.
Also in the fifth goal, he tackled Fabinho after a bad touch, carried the ball into the space and then played a through pass to Vini which later produced the goal from Benzema.
Real Madrid are arguably the most unpredictable team in the UEFA Champions League ever.
As the tactical analysis showed, Real Madrid tried and succeeded to beat Liverpool at Anfield 5-2 making the next game so challenging for the Reds at the Santiago Bernabeu.
And the question is still, is there a team in Europe that Real Madrid can’t take out of this tournament?