Liverpool's rare Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid revealed something even more unusual – they weren't prepared
Jurgen Klopp was obviously incensed by what he saw at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday night. In football parlance, Liverpool got 'done' in Madrid, by a niggly, agitating, win-at-all-costs Atletico performance which captivated the home crowd, provoked Klopp into getting himself cautioned by the referee, and reduced him to an incredulous mess in front of the television cameras.
This was always going to happen. Liverpool have been on such a terrific run and have grown so used to winning, that the moment they tasted defeat it was always likely to provoke a slightly graceless response. Remember the scenes at Old Trafford when Arsenal finally fell to Manchester United? The pizza-throwing, the tantrums?
This wasn’t anything like as bad, Liverpool’s players aren’t accused of pouting or sulking in any way, but the anguished howl is very normal. Klopp’s complaints about the referee. His slightly sarcastic remarks about style. His issues with the treatment of Sadio Mané. Normal, normal, normal.
As was the slight lack of class shown in the post-match interview with Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson. Both have drawn criticism in the day since, but what was to be expected? When was the last time Liverpool lost a game that actually mattered? Probably the first-leg of that semi-final against Barcelona, nearly a full year ago.
Still, even if it’s not directed at Liverpool, it’s important to remember that football’s variety underpins its appeal. There is no good or bad way to play the game, no pure form of the sport which must be piously adhered to.
For supporters, it’s a matter of taste. Some fans want to purr along to the rhythms of short-passing. Others prefer the bombast and violence of a more direct approach. For coaches, it’s less a choice, more an informed decision. On the basis of the resources available and the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, what is the approach which maximises the chances of success?
In this instance, clearly the best way forward wasn't to match Liverpool. Mimicking the way they play is nearly always the fast track to a hiding and Simeone had the humility to recognise that. His team are inferior. He knew, prior to that first-leg, that his players would need to take their advantages from where they could be drawn. From the supporters, the atmosphere and, ultimately, from the fringes of the rule book.
If there is a criticism of Klopp and Liverpool, it’s that they should have seen this coming a mile away. They gave away a cheap and preventable early goal and then allowed Atletico’s antics to get under their skin. But then that was part of the original challenge. With the first leg in Spain, the imperative was always going to be to defend well, not fall behind, and keep the crowd as uninvolved as possible.
As it was, Liverpool fell into Simeone’s trap - and nobody should have been more aware of that danger than Klopp himself. Nobody preaches the importance of communication more than he does, nobody's team finds more strength in its surroundings. Right at the beginning of his tenure, Klopp spoke about ‘activating’ Anfield as part of Liverpool’s resurgence and, ironically, that’s what they helped Atletico do on Tuesday night, in their own stadium.
It led to all sorts of advantages, not least pressure on the referee. Liverpool could possibly have been three goals down inside half-an-hour, they started the game so poorly, and the penance for that was having to play in the kind of atmosphere which slanted the competitive balance.
But that was Atletico's threat. If there had been a template that Simeone had wanted Tuesday night to conform to, then that would have been it. Everyone knew what was coming. So, it’s quite right to say that Liverpool suffered unduly and that, in a more dispassionate environment, they probably would have won the game. But it’s also fair to point out that having to navigate these crooked steps is part of the European footballing landscape and that, unusually for Klopp and his mentality monsters, this represented a failure to properly prepare and to condition his players for what they were due to face.
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