How Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool can break down Real Madrid and prevent a Champions League hat-trick
Shortly after Real Madrid advanced past a feisty and formidable Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals, Jurgen Klopp said his team would be “on fire” going up against Zinedine Zidane’s superstars in the final. “If we talk about experience, they are experienced and we are not,” Klopp said. “But we will be really on fire, you can imagine.”
A typical Klopp quote, certainly, but there’s perhaps no better way to describe Liverpool’s gegenpress and furious counter-attacking. His side retain possession as well as anyone, burst into counters with lightning pace, and play with a collective heat fuelled by their gurning boss on the sidelines.
Liverpool will be further spurred on by the fact that their strengths on the pitch tie into Real Madrid’s weaknesses. As great as Zidane’s men are on paper in every position, they have systemic issues which have often been masked by brilliant, last-ditch individual defending – in particular from Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and Keylor Navas.
The coverage for Marcelo’s naive positioning, particularly in the diamond midfield system which has been vulnerable defensively, has been absent. Luka Modric’s defensive duties in helping the full-back on the right flank have overburdened him;Casemiro often makes runs high up the pitch with neither Modric nor Toni Kroos in a position to protect the backline; and the midfield spearhead – either Isco or Marco Asensio – has a free-roaming role, which means one less opportunity for defensive coverage.
Moments like this, where Real Madrid may give the ball away in the face of a solid defensive block while their wing-backs are in no position to defend the counter, will be something for Klopp to relish.
Liverpool make those counter-attacks look easy, but they’re not that straightforward. The defensive shape required to coax Leroy Sané into coughing up possession against Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals – by snuffing out every single one of his outlets – required almost total cohesiveness.
Liverpool do this in a way where the dominoes are in place to punish teams for losing the ball. Mohamed Salah is the player who is strategically discharged of deep defensive duties. The rest of the low-blocking players push forward quickly, and Salah gets high upfield as soon as Liverpool gain possession. That’s in left-back Marcelo’s territory; the space on the pitch where Real Madrid have routinely been vulnerable over the course of their poor domestic campaign.
Real Madrid’s vulnerability in the left-back position was exposed by Barcelona in May's Clásico – Sergi Roberto gorged on the space available before his late sending-off.
Over the course of two games against Bayern, Real Madrid ceded possession and were forced to sit deeper than they’re accustomed to. Consequentially, they didn’t have many opportunities to push upfield and leave themselves vulnerable in transition (aside from Joshua Kimmich's first-leg goal that Real conceded amid a moment of chaos).
Their issues arose due to a lack of compactness, where central midfielders weren’t in good positions to cover as they each overcommitted individually.
Those moments were abundant for Real Madrid against Bayern, as Kroos, Mateo Kovacic and Modric were spread thin. The positioning of all three – coupled with Asensio’s free role – left the team with all kinds of holes. These moments will be less frequent for Liverpool, given that Real Madrid will likely have more of the ball. Klopp will look to do most of his damage through counter-pressing and counter-attacks.
However, it’s unlikely that Real Madrid will sit back and allow Liverpool the ball the way that Chelsea did in beating the Reds 1-0 in the Premier League earlier this month. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes might have masterfully deprived Real of the ability to control the tempo of the match, but that's not the norm.
Zidane wants his side to have the ball, and is prepared to create an open game which creates a back-and-forth melee of chances (and heart palpitations for supporters). Real Madrid’s midfield maestros are at their best when they have lots of touches of the ball to dictate the flow. This could work for Liverpool, as Klopp wouldn't enjoy seeing his side keep possession to the point where they're denied space. Liverpool had plenty of the ball against Chelsea, but generated little, conjuring up an xG of only 0.43.
Yet it’s not all sunshine and rainbows at Anfield. Liverpool blitzed Manchester City and Roma, but suffered along the way. In the second leg against City, they were pinned back in the first half – unable to gain control, and in turn, forfeiting their press. Against Roma, Liverpool were vulnerable in transition and had difficulty defending set-pieces in the first leg. Zidane will have taken note of Liverpool’s struggles in defending runs against Chelsea, where opposing attackers freely waltzed into dangerous areas without being detected.
Real Madrid’s European DNA is well known. The gear they move into in the Champions League, relative to their regular form, is dramatic. Juventus found it overwhelming to deal with in last year’s final. Once Real Madrid get a goal or two, their talent and cold-blooded instincts help them go on to score three or four. That’s if the game opens up and Zidane gets his way, though – with Liverpool being forced to chase the game. Luka Modric’s off-the-ball movement created Real’s third goal in Cardiff against Juventus, and if Liverpool switch off defensively as they did in the above sequence, they will shoot themselves in the foot.
Klopp will want to avoid having Real Madrid penetrate the final third in the first place. It’s easier said than done, and he’ll never be able to thwart Zidane’s men for 90 minutes, but the German can contain Madrid with his famed press, which gives his team plenty of opportunity to gain opportunities high up the pitch.
As masterful as Real Madrid can be at times playing their way out of a press (there were moments of pure brilliance against Bayern, where Real passed their way out of tight spots to break the press and exploit the space left vacant by Heynckes’s system), Bayern proved that Zidane’s men can be unnerved into coughing up possession.
There’s no clear, one-size-fits-all approach to beating Real Madrid; a team with enough weapons and answers to give you sleepless nights. Press high? There’s always a risk they will break you down and exploit the space behind you. Sit back? You’ll give Luka Modric & Co. plenty of time to pick you apart. Play a high line and pin Real back? Gareth Bale and Marcos Asensio will lick their lips.
This will be fascinating - and if Klopp wants to prevent a Real Madrid threepeat, his Liverpool side has to put in a flawless performance, just as they did in the first leg against Manchester City.