It wasn’t the victorious return to European competition Reds fans had wanted after nearly three months of waiting, but it was perhaps the sort of game one could expect when taking on one of the most successful defensive sides on the continent.
Below, we take a closer look at the winners and losers of Liverpool’s round of 16 first leg defeat to Atlético Madrid, and how it all went down.
The Wanda: The stage for Liverpool’s greatest moment in recent years was always going to make an effort to be the opposite on Tuesday, and, with the help of 60.000 thousand or so home fans, it managed just that. Driven on by an early goal and a feral manager on the sidelines, the Atléti support was outstanding on the night, producing spectacular noise and going absolutely wild at every dribble, duel and dive.
If nothing else, it will serve as a reminder to the Anfield faithful just how powerful a home crowd can be, and encouragement to repay the favour two weeks from now.
Steve Bruce: In football, it is generally considered more difficult to score goals than to prevent them, and as such, both players and managers proven capable of the former tend to be held in higher regard than those doing the latter.
Diego Simeone is an outlier in that sense. Despite being the proponent of undeniably destructive football for nearly a decade, the Argentinian has won trophies both domestically and abroad, and is considered among the best in the business, with his name consistently featuring on the shortlists of top clubs in search of a new manager, although none have managed to tease him away from his beloved rojiblancos yet.
While the fundamentals of Simeone’s side are not particularly exciting — vary the press, trust the shape, run hard, and commit completely in every duel — the adherence to these principles is what really stands out, and should serve as motivation to other managers with similar ideologies that they too can make it on the big stage if they can persuade their players to buy in as hard as Simeone’s men do.
Set Piece Defending: It is a rule of sports commentary that anything you say will be immediately disproven on the pitch. Praise a player’s first touch and they will immediately shin one onto their own face, criticise a player’s work rate and they will bust a gut to stop a transition before reversing course and finishing their own counter attack at the other end with a tap-in, predict that Haaland’s ridiculous conversion rate will normalise at some point and he will continue scoring absolutely everything that is in front of him. It is exhausting.
Naturally, Liverpool’s proficiency at defending corners was a big part of the pre-match analysis tonight — the Reds have conceded just a single goal from corners in the league this year, from 120 attempts — and, equally predictably, they fluffed their lines 11 v 4 in their own box and gifted Saúl Ñíguez the opener only four minutes into the game. It was a surprise only to those who were entirely unaware of the narrative, and could prove enough to decide the tie.
Credit To The Opposition
While nicking a goal and defending your lead committedly isn’t a revolutionary gameplan, it is something many, many teams have attempted against this Liverpool side this season, and with the exception of Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli, literally none of them have succeeded.
As such, one must commend Atleti’s performance, which complemented their strategy just about perfectly. Setting out to surprise the Reds with an aggressive start, they were immediately rewarded with a scrappy set piece goal, before dropping back into the wheelhouse of their parked bus ways. Sitting in their traditional 4-4-2, Simeone’s men held Liverpools’ deadly attack to only eight shots, none from closer than 12 yards, and only one big chance.
Unless Jürgen Klopp can find some way to break the Atleti double decker in the next two weeks, this performance will have been enough to see the Spaniards through, and that is, in itself, commendable.
What Happens Next
The Reds continue their run of games against the relegation battlers of the Premier League after the weekend, as they host 18th placed West Ham on Monday, before traveling to 19th placed Watford the following Saturday. With five and four days rest between games, Klopp should be able to field a full-strength side in both matches if he so chooses, but with the league all but wrapped up already, it remains to be seen if the manager decides to juggle his starting XI a little in the coming weeks, in order to keep his main men as fresh as possible for the return leg at Anfield.