In the end, all it took for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool to finally win a final was one more clean sheet. For all the focus on Liverpool’s vaunted front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino, for all the hype surrounding their attacking fullback duo of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool’s true stars in Saturday’s Champions League final victory over Tottenham were the three players who stood furthest from their opponent’s goal.
The performance of Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip, and Alisson was the sort that validates the hoary cliches loved by yer da-types, about “bending but not breaking” and “defense wins championships.” In this case those were accurate, though. Especially after being gifted a penalty just two minutes in, Liverpool’s Champions League final was defined by their defense’s ability to face up to Spurs’ attacks and parry them away. Thanks to a savvy tactical switch from Klopp this season, and the considerable talent of the three main defenders, Liverpool were able to make it all look easy.
Klopp’s subtle tactical shift was as masterful as it was necessary. Though the German coach is known for his teams’ relentless high pressing, this season Klopp’s men were outstanding at deeper, more static defending as well. Running around like lunatics harrying the ball-carrier for 90 minutes is a great way to win games, but it’s also incredibly taxing physically. By getting Liverpool more comfortable sitting back and absorbing pressure, Klopp was able to keep the team fresh throughout the long season, and provided them with a new way to win tough games.
The results, both in big games and overall, speak for themselves. Liverpool had the most clean sheets in the Premier League this season, and gave up the fewest goals as well. There were some high-profile slip-ups (most famously, the 3-0 away loss to Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals’ first leg), but even against the goal-mad Manchester City, the Reds only allowed two goals across both league games. After years of defensive mediocrity, you could argue that Liverpool had the best defense in Europe this year.
That turn-around coincided with, and is in large part attributable to, van Dijk’s arrival from Southampton in January of 2018. Though the big Dutchman cost some €85 million to sign, he’s been worth every penny. The Premier League player of the year won the man of the match award on Saturday with another steadying performance at the back. Time and time again van Dijk stymied Spurs’ attacks with his strength, speed, positioning, and otherworldly sense of patience and timing. (He’s now gone 64 games without someone successfully dribbling past him!) This pitch-perfect block of a dangerous-looking Son Heung-min run was just one example of his excellence:
And yet! You could credibly argue that van Dijk made the least impact of the aforementioned trio. His central defense partner, Matip, deserves as much if not more credit for Saturday’s triumph. The Cameroonian has quietly developed into the perfect companion for the more heralded van Dijk during the latter stages of the season. Matip was particularly brilliant against Barcelona in that famous 4-0 comeback win last month. And on Saturday, he was even better. While van Dijk smashed a respectable five clearances, Matip crippled Spurs attacks with a whopping 14 of them:
Matip may not have the imposing physicality of van Dijk, but he doesn’t need it. His positional awareness has improved markedly, and he uses every inch of his lanky 6-foot-5 frame to dominate in the air. He even sometimes strides forward to help the attack. On Saturday, Matip created a chance after a botched corner, a chance to fell to Divock Origi, who added to his list of unexpected critical goals this season to seal the win:
Though van Dijk and Matip brought the thunder, Alisson’s less flashy showings were just as important. The Liverpool goalie had a massive eight saves against Spurs. The most impressive of them was this two-handed palm of a dangerous Christian Eriksen free kick:
Though none of Alisson’s saves were exceptionally difficult in themselves, his reliability in goal was arguably the difference between this title-winning result and the painful loss in this same match a year ago. Compare Alisson’s performance with last season’s final, when Liverpool’s then-goalie Loris Karius had two howlers that essentially cost the Reds the title. (In fairness, both of Karius’s errors came after he suffered an undiagnosed concussion during the game.) To replace that performance with the steadying presence Alisson has provided all season was a godsend for the Pool Boys. While Spurs will surely rue their horrific shooting on Saturday, it would have taken something special to beat Alisson.
You can try to explain Liverpool’s successful Champions League run with a handful of anecdotes: Barcelona getting caught napping in the semis, Mané blasting a ball directly at Moussa Sissoko’s arm in the final, Origi’s whole Big Game thing. But when it mattered most, facing a team capable of stunning comebacks, it was Liverpool’s rock-solid men at the back that carried the day. Not bad for a team that couldn’t keep anyone from scoring just 18 months ago.