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How it Happened: the Champions League final
The tactical story behind Real Madrid's 14th title win.
In the end, the script was just as most would’ve written it. Liverpool had more possession and more chances. Liverpool were dominating the game throughout the 90 minutes. But as they have done time and time again this season, Real Madrid found a way through, finishing their big chance to win the game 1-0.
If any football fan on the street had to guess how the game would go beforehand, it would probably be like this.
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(I should say that I’m sticking strictly to what happened on the pitch here. There are many important things to be said about the problems outside the stadium, but primarily from people who were either at the Stade de France or have an understanding of organising these big events. I am neither of those things.)
Both teams also picked exactly the sides one would expect. Liverpool went for their customary 4-3-3 with Sadio Mané as the striker either side of Mohamed Salah and Luis Díaz, as has been the case for most big games since January. Thiago Alcântara was fit enough to start on the left of a three-man midfield, next to Jordan Henderson and in front of Fabinho. Ibrahima Konaté was favoured over Joël Matip, as is generally the case in European games. The other usual members of the back four in Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were all present in front of Alisson.
Real Madrid announced their team two hours early, but they could’ve given it to us weeks in advance. Éder Militão and David Alaba continued their strong centre back partnership in front of Thibaut Courtois, while Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy were favoured as the “big game” full backs. The eternal midfield three of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić all started, getting a little extra help from Federico Valverde in a right-sided shuttler role. Vinícius Júnior started high and wide on the left to complement Karim Benzema as the nine.
Perhaps because of events outside the players’ control – leading to a stop-start nature to their warm-ups – the match started slowly. It took until minute 16 for anyone to attempt a single shot.1 Liverpool wanted to press and Madrid were happy to sit off, so the Reds ended up having most of the ball against a deep block. This clearly frustrated Liverpool. As he often has this season, Alexander-Arnold moved into central midfield in possession, giving Liverpool two excellent passers there between him and Thiago. Looking for space, Liverpool tended to send the ball out to Díaz wide on the left, but he found it very hard to avoid dribbling into nowhere when surrounded by white shirts. Jürgen Klopp’s side probably needed to be more aggressive in having Andy Robertson push up as a consistent option on the overlap, giving Madrid a choice to stop the left-footed Robertson’s crossing or right-footed Díaz cutting inside. Robertson often came inside to underlap Díaz, which instead allowed Madrid to double up on the Colombian.
When Madrid got the ball early, the aim was obvious: get Vinícius running at Alexander-Arnold. The right-back and Konaté between them dealt with it well enough on the first few occasions, but the plan was clear.
Then Liverpool started to dominate in terms of chances. From minute 16 to minute 41, the Premier League took ten shots to Madrid’s zero. These were not huge chances. More accurately, Liverpool started peppering Courtois and stress-testing that low block. Courtois did have to make some good saves, especially from Mané, but there was no true “they must score from there” opportunity. Granted, that’s a lot better than Real Madrid’s zero shots in this period, but Carlo Ancelotti’s team were doing enough to hang on.
Then came the first serious Real Madrid attack. Alaba steps up into midfield and plays an excellent chip into the box for Benzema, who reads the situation quicker than Robertson. I assume it’s a move they had practised because Benzema immediately knows what to do.
Robertson actually recovers well from there, catching up with Benzema and forcing the striker onto his weaker foot, giving Alisson time to set himself and prevent the shot from coming. The ball nudges itself to Konaté, who takes a slight touch that prevents Alisson from being allowed to pick it up. The ball kind of clatters its way to Benzema, who finishes an easy chance, but it was deemed offside. I’m not going to get into the rule interpretations here. Dale Johnson of ESPN doesn’t take issue with the decision, and that’s good enough for me. But Liverpool survived by the skin of their teeth, through virtue of no defender making a “deliberate touch”. Alaba should’ve been pressured, most likely by Henderson (who made a slow attempt to close him down way too late), into playing a poorer ball.
Henderson had a really disappointing game. Of the starting eleven, only Van Dijk managed fewer pressures than the Englishman. In that right central midfield role, his job is often to push up high and press the opposition. He has the energy to do that less and less these days. Whereas in the past he could do that while also shielding Alexander-Arnold, things have flipped, and the right-back has to step into midfield to fill the gap Henderson vacates. He can’t do what he used to, and it showed against Real Madrid.
The second half continued as the first ended, for the most part. Liverpool still took most of the chances without ever really getting too many killer opportunities. The one big difference was Real Madrid’s midfield getting a foothold in the game. Madrid largely just had Courtois launch it forward in the first half, but became more nuanced in the second and tried to work things through Modrić and Kroos. This is why I’d disagree with anyone who says they simply executed the plan perfectly from start to finish. Ancelotti clearly looked frustrated on the sidelines in the first half and tweaked it in the second. He probably recognised that Liverpool weren’t pressing well in the middle of the park. As I’ve said, Henderson was off it, while Fabinho and Thiago were both recovering from injuries and probably weren’t at 100% fitness. They started the game trying to bypass the midfield but correctly realised that contesting it was the better option.
Liverpool didn’t make such tweaks. It might become a moot point if the transfer reporting is to be believed, but I don’t think the balance of the Salah/Mané/Díaz front three is right for a game like this. Mané plays the striker role with a desire to run in behind, whereas Roberto Firmino would drop deeper and Diogo Jota offers a happy medium between the two. This gives the wingers slightly less room to come inside, forcing them a little bit wider than they would like. The problem is especially bad for Díaz who, for all his bright moments, doesn’t look like he quite has all the patterns and rotations Klopp wants down yet. Thus he was often stranded out wide, blunting Robertson and running into dead ends. Salah wasn’t as much of a problem, but he too can’t quite get into those central areas as easily with Mané upfront. This made it more difficult to really break down deep blocks the way Liverpool have in the past, though we’re talking about a very high-quality deep block here.
Then came the goal. Modrić receives the ball wide in midfield, and Robertson goes out to press him. Modrić, one of the most press-resistant midfielders in the history of football, wriggles past Robertson (who now finds himself caught up the pitch) and slides it through to Carvajal, who gives it short to Casemiro, and it’s then knocked into Valverde attacking Madrid’s right flank. Valverde then dinks in a fairly timid low cross that nonetheless catches out all of Liverpool’s defenders, with Vinícius right there to tap it in.
Let’s start with the positives for Real Madrid here. The football data company Impect is famous for its stat called “packing”, built around measuring how well a player moves the ball past other players and takes them out of the game. Modrić’s role in the build-up here was a perfect example of the value of packing. In dragging Robertson so far out of position and then sliding the ball forward, he totally opened up Madrid’s right flank for Valverde to run into. Valverde is not what you’d imagine a “Real Madrid winger” to be, so this allowed him to actually create in a way he might otherwise struggle to do.
It’s not a great cross, but it’s perfect for Vinícius to arrive onto it. Unlike a lot of modern wide players, Vinícius is not a quasi-striker. He stays much wider than many modern wingers would (perhaps because Benzema is so dominant in the box that he doesn’t need someone else getting in the way. This is part of what catches out Alexander-Arnold. The right-back is trying to keep tight with his Konaté to avoid any gaps within the backline, as conventional defending wisdom would tell you to do. This might be partly a consequence of Robertson getting caught high up, and making Liverpool defend with three instead of four. But it means Alexander-Arnold is tucked very narrow. Most modern wingers will position themselves there anyway, so he’d normally be fine. But Vinícius is a winger-winger and stays much wider, giving himself acres of space to run into.
Nonetheless, Alexander-Arnold does not look over his shoulder often enough to spot what Vinícius is doing, and that’s a clear mistake. It’s a more difficult situation than it perhaps looks, but he still should be doing better.
The general pattern of the game continued after the goal. Liverpool created plenty of chances, though none of really high quality, and kept peppering Courtois’ goal without truly breaking that deep block open. For the sport’s pinnacle showpiece event, this was a remarkably simple game. Liverpool dominated and created lots of shots, but never truly broke that deep block. Their pressing was poor in midfield and that meant they couldn’t stop a couple of really good attacks from Madrid. Quality beat quantity.
Were Liverpool “unlucky”? That’s a complicated question. The expected goals say that, yes, Liverpool were clearly unlucky in losing a game where they managed 2.4 xG to Real Madrid’s 0.9. Yes, if you repeated those chances a million times, chances are Liverpool would score more often than not.
But I don’t think it can be argued this was a good Liverpool performance. Normally you’d expect one to sneak in but none were great chances. Real Madrid executed a deep block well enough to frustrate the Reds, and then Courtois did the rest. This was some performance from him and that happens. Still, I don’t think he would’ve miraculously saved all those chances if Liverpool attacked in a better-structured way, really exploiting the flanks with the full backs and finding a more balanced front three.
Where does this leave Real Madrid?
I’m not going to say I think Real Madrid have a sustainable model of playing here. This happened through several players doing incredible things for stretches and it proving to be just enough. I can buy that the model works in one of the ties against PSG, Chelsea, Man City or Liverpool. But all of them? That’s some ask. This really does have to be considered one of the great implausible cup runs in the modern era. It doesn’t feel right because it’s Real Madrid and we expect them to win things. But this time, they really did do it with a hope and a prayer.
This side’s going to get another go at it with some key additions. There was a time when it looked like Madrid would be reshaped in Kylian Mbappé’s image, with or without Ancelotti. Things change. He’s built a fascinating throwback here, and I’m curious to see what it looks like with some enhancements.
Liverpool can take solace in the fact that they were hardly comprehensively outplayed. You can ignore anyone who spouts cliches about “knowing how to win” or “not turning up”. That’s outcome bias at its worst. There were a lot of positives here even if they couldn’t figure out how to really turn the screw in the final third.
Sometimes there’s nothing more effective in knockout football than very good players executing a low block. Yes, I generally prefer watching teams play a more progressive style, but tactical variety is good for the game. In that sense, we should all welcome Ancelotti’s return to the very top of the game. I don’t think he can play like this every year, but damn if he didn’t pull something off this time.