Breaking down the UCL final between Liverpool and Real Madrid
“Vinicius scored and Courtois parried.” With these words, Carlo Ancelotti summed up the Champions League final, a record fourth for the Emilian coach and number 14 in the history of the Merengues.
Real got the better of an opponent that made no less than 24 shots (compared to four for Madrid), nine of which were aimed at goal (only two for Madrid).
What factors influenced this result, which was far from certain at the start of the elimination phase? “Quality, mindset, and veteran experience” were among the elements to be considered, according to Ancelotti.
Tactics applied by Liverpool and Madrid
In this regard, the Paris final simply served to reaffirm this assertion. Ancelotti faced the challenge against Liverpool by devising a few tactics, staying true to his version 2.0, which favours a defensive organization with medium or low blocking without any specific pressure and an offensive phase delegated to individual skill.
Ancelotti attempted to attack Jürgen Klopp’s backline from behind, passing primarily through the left side of the pitch, where Vinicius operated or where the spaces usually left by Trent Alexander-Arnold could be exploited, with the Reds implementing a ball-oriented pressing without falling into the traps set by the Spaniards.
Although deemed defensive, Madrid attempted to agitate and eliminate Liverpool’s press in the build-up. Modric was the first to go down.
It was no coincidence that on that side of the pitch, in several situations, Konaté had to slip or make the pre-emptive marking. In non-possession, Luka Modrić was asked to keep Thiago Alcántara under control while the rest of the team compacted into two lines of four, covering the central corridors of the pitch.
On the outside channels, Klopp and his men had some room. Initially, Liverpool focused on the right attacking flank. On the left, though, a duel between Luis Daz and Dani Carvajal, which could have theoretically tilted the scales in favour of the English, was decided in favour of the Spanish national. Carvajal always had the upper hand, especially in 1-on-1 circumstances, thanks to Valverde’s deflections, and he managed to be dangerous even in his offensive projections. It’s no coincidence that they scored the game-winning goal.
Even so, the strategy seemed obvious. Attract Liverpool’s press block to one side, then remove it using a switch/circulation to the opposite side. It took the form of this one and only goal.
Klopp’s offensive changes came with Diogo Jota and then Roberto Firmino. This increased the offensive pressure, but it all came tumbling down on an incredible Thibaut Courtois performance along with Karim Benzema. Together, they were the masterminds behind Real’s successful European campaign.
However, there is another factor to consider: possession. Although Liverpool had more shots, Real Madrid still possessed the ball 45% of the time. Ancelotti’s team had possession phases in practice that, although not translating into threatening chances, resulted in the ball being taken away from the Reds.
The Blancos had over 40% in the key return matches against PSG, Chelsea, and City. Ancelotti has developed a system around Modric and Toni Kroos that, even if it fails to arm Vinicius and Benzema fast, can still put the opposition to sleep by handling the ball for lengthy periods.
Of course, this does not mean that Madrid won the cup by controlling matches or always dictating the context. But it can help explain the success of a team that, thanks to the talent of its individuals and the readings of its coach, in the end, always controlled the episodes, turning them in its favour.
The defensive structure of Real Madrid:
A key component of Madrid’s defensive scheme began in Liverpool’s defensive third. Modric, as the #10, was responsible for positioning himself between Liverpool’s double pivot and disrupting any quick passes between them.
To control activity on lanes, Madrid’s risky defensive asset was to densify lanes continuously, even if central defenders had to step aside to let Liverpool forwards pass. This was the first objective.
A double pivot and close distances are how Liverpool hide their tactical approach, so Henderson can jump on the right lane and offer more run options for Salah and TAA. To counter this strategy, Modric had to jump out automatically on Thiago to prevent long balls.
At that position, Alexander-Arnold is especially dangerous. He can cross and find a diagonal pass in the penalty box. Casemiro understood that and dropped to avoid TAA’s dangerous passing angle.
Due to Henderson’s activity on the right lane, Casemiro changed the way he positioned himself and man-marked him with discipline throughout the first half. I believe that Salah or TAA could have taken advantage of this opportunity, as Madrid’s low defence could not compensate for the space created by Henderson.
Look at this example: Liverpool’s double pivots moved forward, and Luis Diaz remained on the left side and forced Carvajal to stay with him, creating spaces. If they could’ve moved the ball on that side, it would’ve created a huge opportunity.
In that scenario, Madrid created a diamond shape to stop TAA’s passing angle. It worked to some extent.
Keeping the structure is Ancelotti’s first rule when setting up a defence, no matter the move a player makes. Here, Valverde replaced Carvajal because he moved to the centre of the defence to prepare for the attack.
When Carvajal had to jump out on Diaz or Robertson, Casemiro took Carvajal’s place. As a result, when players are coerced to evacuate their initial position, other teammates must reimburse to maintain the defensive channel, which is a fundamental and sound four at the back defence.
Another scenario: Carvajal’s offensive movement was equalized by Militao, and Casemiro was assigned to the centre defender position as a result. The scheme was not to allow Diaz adequate room to take a shot, which compelled him to play on the left lane due to constant man-marking.
Leaving no option other than back passes. Madrid implemented two strategies: man-marking and numerical superiority.
In this situation, Madrid’s defensive animation was imprisoned by two or three players, so the ball carrier (in this case, Thiago) could only retreat, while Liverpool had no alternative but to try to overthrow Madrid’s defence in another way.
Modric positioned Himself between the double pivots of Liverpool, not allowing any kind of passing among them. His tactical discipline was a key factor.
Alaba forced Salah to back pass to Henderson as Mané dropped off as #10 (well-known moves from this duo) while Mendy was preparing to face him in 1v1
Carlo narrowed the gaps between the defensive line and the second defensive phase in the second half. Given Liverpool’s adaptability and Madrid’s lack of discipline, it was an awkward decision. However, in the final, Madrid were highly disciplined, manoeuvring them from behind like a chess master. Vini had some clumsy off-the-ball movements, but Liverpool were unable to capitalize on them.
Ancelotti changed his tactical approach, instructing Modric and Kroos to stand in the same line and block the passing lane instead of pressuring Liverpool’s player. The change came after the goal.
In other words, it became Casemiro’s responsibility to closely follow Liverpool’s wingers, Mane (who changed positions with Salah) and Jota. He did it brilliantly during the whole second half. He may give a professorial lesson to the younger generation on “How to cover the spaces and restrict the movement.”
Even though Klopp’s team played exceptionally well, Ancelotti’s strategy gave him the upper hand. To deconstruct Madrid’s defensive organization, Liverpool used a variety of offensive combinations and positions. Thanks to yet another individual. It’s someone you’re familiar with.
To sum up, this UCL was one of those that featured football in its purest form! Unpredictability. Chaos. Turns. Everything that makes this sport the world’s most loved. And it won in another final, this time against the “reactive” squad, which is a fundamental element of the discussion.
Were Chelsea and Real Madrid just lucky against Manchester City and Liverpool?
Is it always the team that aims to play with less possession, the one that “deserves” to lose?
I saw Real Madrid intent on suffering. Trained for that. A team that knew it had the strength (mental and technical) to reverse any situation. They bet on the brilliant Courtois, the historical trio of midfielders (the best of the century), and BenzeVini.
That is, after all, football- putting your money on what you know best. It was Ancelotti who did it. And this is where he excels: the model was dictated by the athletes and their attributes. They competed like Real hadn’t competed since 2018.
An immortal team, even when (almost) dead…
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