Over the past few seasons, we’ve seen some legendary Champions League finals. This encounter between Liverpool and Real Madrid, in many ways, was more lethargic and leisurely. A chess battle as both teams patiently worked through the thirds and never fully pressed the gas, Liverpool couldn’t quite ever get up to full speed in matching Real Madrid’s assuredness and steady flow in possession. With Courtois supersonic-ifying his gloves beforehand, the match ended with Real Madrid coming out as winners, claiming an impressive double under the influence of Carlo Ancelotti, and one last hurrah for many of the decade-defining stars from the 2010s. Here is our tactical analysis of Real Madrid’s narrow 1-0 win over Liverpool.
LIVERPOOL – 4-3-3
You would expect nothing less than for Liverpool to line up in their trademarked 4-3-3 formation in the final, with the starting eleven practically picking itself on merit and form. The only difficult selections would have been at the back in whether or not to stick to the “cup centre-back” Ibrahima Konaté, or the man who excelled to exceptional heights this season in league play – Joel Matip; and up front in keeping Diogo Jota on the bench from the start.
In terms of Klopp’s selections, Ancelotti and Real set into motion the plan to target the weaker right side of Trent and Konaté. Benzema drifted over to the left in both build-up phases and moments of transition, where he could link up in close quarters with Vinicius Junior. Konaté stuck to his tasks in matching up to Benzema’s physicality and strength, and often covered nicely across the back-line in dealing with Vinicius. Nevertheless, Liverpool could never fully stop either man from being a handful, with the two Real Madrid men working in tandem to cause misery to Klopp’s back-line.Embed from Getty Images
In the different phases of the game, Liverpool would occasionally change shape, but almost always fell back to that starting 4-3-3. For example, when pressing from the front, Jordan Henderson would sometimes step up on Toni Kroos in a sort of 4-2-4 pressing shape. But as the ball continued to be circulated deeper, he’d recede back into position.
In possession, Liverpool performed their usual exploits involving a mix of all three facets of the game outlined in this article – positional play, positional rotation and positional interchange. For the purposes of this match, there were a few highly notable elements of positional play in particular. Most notably, Luis Diaz often played inverted in the left-half-spaces in moments of possession, as Andy Robertson held the highest position out wide. On the right, Salah, Henderson and Trent took turns being the highest and widest player, with Trent likely to invert into shooting and crossing positions. Mane then occasionally trickled toward the ball in early build-up phases and attacking transitions, but found himself excellently ushered by Casemiro – following him every step of the way.
Then there was Thiago, dancing his way around the pitch with an air of elegance with every step. The Spanish midfielder helped to keep Liverpool ticking in their progression, providing that only real cutting edge of passing over Real Madrid’s defense – completing 5 of his 7 long passes. However, with Real’s defensive structures holding firm and Liverpool exuding patience, Los Blancos were the ones generally more direct in playing passes over the top and attacking with immediate fluidity. But Liverpool were the team that had greater attacking intent nevertheless, taking 24 shots to 4.Embed from Getty Images
Unfortunately for the Reds, their many attempts and excellent link-up from the likes of Mane and Salah always found their match in the steady arms and warm embrace (Tifo reference. Hi, Joe!) of Thibaut Courtois in between the posts. In fact, in many ways, Real Madrid have the Belgian keeper to thank for their historic victory.
REAL MADRID – 4-3-3
Famous for their 4-3-3 and stellar midfield triangle, Real Madrid’s veterans have shown this season that age might be just a number in football more than most fans would ever admit. Ancelotti has used a 4-3-3 in almost every single match this campaign in all competitions, and the final of the Champions League was never going to be anything different. The durability of Ancelotti’s team has been particularly impeccable and impressive this season, with older heads like Modric, Kroos, Benzema and Courtois still kicking about as some of the most important members of the team. With Liverpool’s dominance all season long, many tipped the Reds to be favourites for this match. But Real held their own, and asserted their dominance throughout the ninety minutes.
They kept solid possession in patiently working the ball through the thirds, utilizing Kroos + 1 other central midfielder to drop toward the centre-backs and aid in the circulation out from the back. The full-backs pushed high, as the third member of the midfield triad urged forward and joined Valverde in holding an advanced position in a box-like midfield quartet. That then pushed Benzema over to the left next to Vinicius Junior, where the dynamic duo could work in close quarters. Notably, when Casemiro advanced into left-half-spaces, Benzema continued with this positioning just as when Modric pushed up into right-half-spaces instead.
In this shape, Real Madrid worked the ball between their centre-backs to find avenues forward, where they could eventually use the carrying power of Benzema and Vinicius Junior, not to mention the exceptional weight of pass in Toni Kroos’ right foot, and the buzzing behaviour of Luka Modric. In other moments, such as David Alaba’s beautiful long spread for Benzema on the disallowed goal, the Frenchman looked for momentary gaps in between centre-back and full-back to receive over the top. Kroos completed 8 of his 10 long passes, whilst Modric managed 5/6, constantly offering a threat from deep for the likes of Vinicius and Benzema to go toe to toe with Liverpool’s back-line.Embed from Getty Images
Out of possession, Real Madrid functioned within a 4-2-2-2 pressing shape, as Luka Modric shifted up to the first line alongside Karim Benzema. This transgressed into a 4-1-4-1 in their mid-block, where Modric returned to midfield, and Casemiro acted as a screen for Sadio Mane’s movement. Deeper on the field they compacted into more of a 4-5-1, with Vinicius Junior typically either late to join the party on Liverpool’s right, or holding an advantageously high position altogether. This meant Liverpool often had the space to progress out wide on both sides, especially their right. But when it came to delivering passes into the penalty area or finding the right crosses into the box, the Reds struggled to muster up anything overly challenging for Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian’s services were still required more times than Ancelotti ever would have wanted, and Real Madrid can be thanking their lucky stars that Thibaut Courtois was not only blessed with movie star looks, but an exceptionally tall frame and strong hands too.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
In the end, Real Madrid snatched the surprise victory from Liverpool, winning their 14th Champions League title. Liverpool generated several quality opportunities, but couldn’t find a way past the tall frame of Thibaut Courtois, and failed to find the heavy metal-ness of their usual dominance and control. Nevertheless, losing the final does not put a blemish on Jurgen Klopp’s exceptional season at Liverpool, with three cup finals, two titles, and two runner’s up medals. Carlo Ancelotti may however have more to celebrate and remember in 2021-22, winning the Champions League and La Liga title in his first season back with Los Blancos. Congratulations to Real Madrid on an epic season, as we close out the 2021-22 season across Europe.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Liverpool’s loss to Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League Final. Be sure to check out more of our Match Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite, to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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