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Tea for Two: Talking Tactics, Subs, and Penalty Takers Ahead of the Champions League Final

Are you ready? TLO scribes Zach and Steph are, and they have a last few thoughts about the possible ins and outs of the final.

Liverpool Press Conference Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

As the yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and Fowler laughs.” Such a sentiment is doubly true in a football match, and even more so in a Champions League final. Last year, when Mohamed Salah trod off the pitch in tears, we experienced the collective dread one feels when a script goes straight out the window.

Regardless life or fate or whatever you might call it having a way of undoing even the best-laid plans, the managers here will surely hope to implement some semblance of order—their order—on the upcoming match. Do Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino plan for 90 minutes, or 120? Do they plan for 3 subs, or 4? And what about the possibility of deciding the affair on penalties? These are all questions they must think about, and frankly, we’re glad we’re not in the hot seat in case things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Zach: First things first, I think Liverpool’s best chance of winning this match is if it goes 90 minutes. Although this side has been great at wearing teams down and scoring in the last 15 minutes of matches, extra time and penalties generally favor the underdog. But, somewhere in the back of your mind you have to think about penalties. The game plan needs to be a holistic one, that can win the match in 90, but one that also gives you the best chance of winning if it goes the whole way. Working backward from the thought, “I want James Milner on the pitch in case of a late penalty and/or penalties,” and because of that, I think he has to start the match on the bench. Therefore, my starting XI would be:

Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Robbo; Fabinho, Henderson, Gini; Salah, Mane, Firmino

Steph: I have to disagree with you here, Zach. Although it’s safe to say that both of us would prefer that Liverpool just win the game in 90 minutes, I think they have the advantage if it goes into extra time. The bench that Klopp will have to choose from is so strong, even without Naby Keita. Making subs, especially in the midfield, will barely dent their strength.

The starting XI is a trickier question. I think Klopp goes with Matip over Lovren or Gomez, especially after how well he played against Barcelona. So that’s the defense sorted, and the attack picks itself. The midfield has been where the questions have come all season. You think Milner starts on the bench, and I think you’re probably right, but it’s not certain. Klopp has a lot of trust in Milner for the big games, and after three weeks off, I think he also trusts in his ability to go 120 minutes if the game requires it. Overall, though, I have to agree with your starting XI assessment. I wish we Oxlade-Chamberlain was a realistic option in there, but I suppose that will just have to wait until next season’s final.

But, since you mentioned penalties, what are your thoughts on who should take them for Liverpool, if it comes to that, aside from Milner? Him, and I think Fabinho, are the two main guys I’d want on the pitch for that, along with Salah, Mane, and...maybe Henderson? Shaqiri? Van Dijk? I don’t know. And does Milner, who I think we both agree is our best penalty taker, start them off or pick up the rear?

Zach: Woo-hoo! A disagreement right off the bat! And I thought we were going to be guilty of TLO Groupthink (though, we did pick the same XI, so…). My thinking on the “please don’t let it go to pens,” besides self-preservation, is this: we start off the match as strong, 72% favorites to win according to FiveThirtyEight. Penalty shootouts are much closer to a coin flip, with the favorites prevailing 57% of the time since 2000 (in World Cup and Champions League knockouts). Though, I have no idea how you calculate staring down a mountain of a man in Alisson Becker from a mere 12 yards away.

Steph: Literally a coin toss, in that studies have shown that the team who wins the toss and shoots first has a 60% chance of winning. So you’ve got a point in that I think penalties are a different beast. So many different psychological factors play into it at that point.

If they need to go the extra 30 minutes, I believe Liverpool will find a way to prevail without penalties. But if it does come to that, it’s more of a crapshoot and impossible to say.

But anyway, sorry. Back to penalty takers.

Liverpool FC v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Zach: Since we both agree Milner is a nailed-on penalty taker, maybe start by answering that last question first: I think he has to be the first one out of the gates. The last time we were in a shootout in the final, the 2016 League Cup, we didn’t even get to our fifth penalty taker. A strong start is important, and can go a long way toward settling the nerves.

As for the others? One of The Anfield Wrap lads suggested going back-to-front, and that’s not too far off. For me:

1. Milly (obviously)

2. Fabinho: He was Monaco’s penalty taker, and I’d expect him to slot one (if he’s still on the pitch).

3. Calm as you’d like, Virgil van Dijk

4. Trent Alexander-Arnold: Fantastic set piece delivery, and an absurd level of composure under pressure, especially for his age.

5. Mo: The lad scored a pen to take Egypt through to the World Cup. He’s slotting this one.

Honorable mention: Alisson. Calm, composed, and keepers taking pens is one of my favorite things in football.

Steph: A keeper taking a penalty? You’re a man after my own heart, Zach. I mean, it won’t happen, but I’d love it if it did.

So let’s see: we agree on Milner, Fabinho, and van Dijk, at least. I think I’ll take Shaqiri as the dark horse, and Salah to round it off.

Zach: Shaqiri’s an interesting shout! A big part of me wants to see Robbo in that situation, but I still have flashbacks to John Arne Riise’s miss in Istanbul. Left footed leftbacks in penalty shootouts? Sorry, Robbo. Sorry.

Steph: If we have Milly on the bench, who does he replace? Henderson? Mane? And what other subs would you make, keeping in mind the fourth sub Klopp gets if it goes to extra time.

I think Milner comes on for Gini. Origi has earned a sub after his excellent performances, and Firmino will probably need to come off anyway. Finally, I wanna say that Oxlade-Chamberlain comes on, but it’ll probably be either Gomez or Lovren, because Klopp loves a defensive sub. Let’s say Gomez for Mane. My fourth will be the mighty Power Cube in for Henderson.

Zach: What?! No mad shout for bringing on penalty specialist Simon Mignolet?

So much of this question is wrapped up in “how are things going?” No matter what, Milly has to play a part. Leading? Bring him on to clog up the works, make and win important fouls, and run out the clock. On level terms or trailing? Bring him on for any potential pens, and to keep things composed and ticking over. I’d guess Gini probably makes way in most of these circumstances.

As for other subs, I think Origi is a great option to run at a tired Spurs defense, likely coming on for Roberto Firmino. I’m really struggling with the last two subs, though. If we’re leading and approaching stoppage time, I could see a Degsy or Jo Go shout, possibly on for TAA or Hendo. Personally, I hate the three CB thing, but Kloppo’s gonna Kloppo.

That leaves the fourth sub in extra time. Ox isn’t that crazy of a shout, actually. He certainly makes more sense, even after the injury layoff, than bringing Lallana on last year. And we’ll probably need the legs in midfield at that point, and he might be our best option. Otherwise, maybe Shaq?

I think most of the changes will have to be in midfield, and because of their pace and ability to create something out of nothing, I’d let Mane and Salah stay on the pitch all 120 minutes.

Any final thoughts? Predictions? Prayers to Fowler that we win this thing comfortably and party all summer?

Steph: Yes, that last one. Let’s do that. My heart can’t take losing a fourth European final, and my ego can’t take losing it to Spurs. If Liverpool get out there and play like the team they have been this season, the one that ended up 26 points ahead of Spurs in the league, then they should be fine.

Zach: Your lips to Fowler’s ears! My head tells me that it’ll probably be a tight Liverpool win. But my heart tells me we could really run them off the park if we get going. Let’s hope Klopp & Co. finally earn their well-deserved prize!

Liverpool Celebrate Champions League Win With Victory Parade Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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