While four years is a long time in soccer, and teams can greatly transform a couple times in that timespan, Real Madrid and Liverpool look a lot like they did four years ago. Liverpool are still anchored by Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Andrew Robertson in defense and Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah in attack. The sharp end of the stick for Madrid is still Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, and Karim Benzema up top. Yeah, there’s no Ronaldo, and there’s no Sergio Ramos, perhaps the biggest antagonist the last time these two danced in the final. But Gareth Bale is still lurking deep in the closet, and if Carlo Ancelottii has the most devious sense of humor ever he would at least place Bale on the bench to give Liverpool some serious shakes.
But where as that final was defined by Salah’s injury/Ramos’s judo takedown and Liverpool being deficient in midfield (they basically signed Fabinho the next day because of it), it’s last year’s quarterfinal between the two that’s more instructive as to what Saturday could look like.
There aren’t a lot of surprises for either team come kickoff. Everyone knows how Liverpool play. A seemingly suicidal high defensive line that works because van Dijk and Alisson are that good, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold push up far into the attack, Mane dropping deep to link with the midfield and Salah and most likely Luis Diaz running beyond him. It’s an open book, but so few are able to stop it.
Everyone also knows that Ancelotti isn’t really an in-the-weeds tactician, and trusts his players to do what they do. As strange as it sounds, given the popular perception and length of their coaching careers, Zinedine Zidane last year was far more into the details. And Zidane picked out Liverpool’s exhaust port to hit. It was the right side of their defense, where Vinicius Jr. lives in Madrid’s attack. And Liverpool left Kroos far too much time in the 1st leg of that quarterfinal to just launch long balls over Alexander-Arnold’s head with Vinicius running onto them. To wit:
Or, with Alexander-Arnold essentially losing all sense of direction and self after being scarred by the first goal:
This has been a usual target for Liverpool’s opponents, with TAA pushing so far forward and the space behind him, and the perception that he’s also not a very good one-on-one defender. That latter theory isn’t actually true, TAA is fine as a one-on-one defender but he can lack pace against the faster attackers in the world. Which, sadly for him, Vinicius Jr. just happens to be. You can expect Benzema from the start to stand on whoever partners van Dijk in defense, try and drag them into midfield by dropping deep and leaving Alexander-Arnold on an island. The communication to Fabinho as the holder in Liverpool’s midfield will be crucial. Jordan Henderson can also help out, but some of Liverpool’s inability to control matches early in the season was rooted in the tactic that their right-sided #8, usually Henderson, has been overlapping Alexander-Arnold often to get the right-back more central and basically leaving no one on the right side of defense. It would be truly brave to go back to that well in Saturday’s final.
There are some huge differences for Saturday’s game and last year’s encounter. The biggest one is that Liverpool is not starting Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak at centerback this time around. Van Dijk usually starts on the left side of the two centerbacks, and no one will know until it’s announced whether it’ll be Joel Matip or Ibrahima Konate starting on the right side of the pairing. Konate comes with recovery pace, Matip comes with the experience and nous. Konate can get lost positionally, as evidenced by Wolves’ opener on Sunday. Matip started the last final Liverpool were in, and won, and the smart money says it’ll be him in the 11.
While Phillips is a cult hero for his performances at the end of the season last year that got Liverpool back into the Champions League places, he didn’t have pace, and he did have a habit of going for every ball whether he could win it or not, and would often leave acres of space exposed behind him in doing so. This is what Madrid preyed on, and won’t be as readily available this time.
Secondly, thanks to the ropiness of Liverpool’s defense last year, Liverpool couldn’t press in the same fashion that we’re used to seeing. Look at the time Kroos has for the two goals as Liverpool’s forwards sink back. That’s probably not going to be the case Saturday.
That was probably the plan for Man City too, and Vinicius and Benzema still tore them apart in the first leg. The hope for Liverpool is that when City were able to use Kyle Walker in the second leg, he had Vinicius Jr. fairly well shackled. Only after he had to exit late in the second half did things get loopy for City. Alexander-Arnold is not Kyle Walker, but the combo of him and Matip/Konate is pretty close.
As for that pressing, that’s not a certainty. Liverpool have looked gassed for a few weeks now. They looked lethal for the first 20 minutes against Chelsea in the FA Cup Final, but were clearly wheezing by the end of it. They had to slog past Southampton with the B-team before looking very labored against Wolves on Sunday. Going back even further, they had to come from behind against Villa, couldn’t break down Spurs more than once after going behind them, were rocked by Villareal in the second leg of the semifinal. It’s been a month since they’ve looked like the all-conquering unholy force we associate them with, and that was against Manchester United so it barely counts if at all. Whether they even can press Madrid furiously for a full match is very up in the air, and as seen, Kroos or Modrić only need a moment.
Still, there’s a level of tempo that Liverpool can probably still set that Madrid can’t match. All of PSG, Chelsea, and City have turned over Madrid in one match or more, and there’s no second leg or entrenched mental quivering that Madrid can feast on (in the case of PSG and City). When Chelsea and City hit the gas, they were miles better than Madrid. Benzema came up with goals to keep them close, but merely staying close doesn’t work in a one-off final.
But of course, Ancelotti doesn’t care about all of that. There is obviously something unquantifiable about this Madrid team, and even if they’re old and slow in every spot except where Vinicius Jr. plays, there’s enough genuine class to conjure up a couple moments of pure inspiration, which might be all it takes. Liverpool can play this perfectly, and one Modrić flick or one Benzema finish can undo all that work. The plan will be to isolate Vinicius and Alexander-Arnold, but as we’ve seen, very little has anything to do with a plan when it comes to Madrid this year in the Champions League.