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Preparing for the Champions League Final: A Chat with Managing Madrid

We sat down for a chat with Real Madrid fansite Managing Madrid to get some insights into the Reds’ final opponents of the 2021-22 season.

UEFA Champions League Final 2021/22 - Previews Photo by Boris Streubel - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

With Liverpool set to take on Real Madrid in the Champions League final on Saturday, we wanted a little insight into what to expect from the 2022 edition of Los Blancos as they seek a record 14th European Cup—and Liverpool battle for number seven and a little revenge after losing to Madrid in the final in 2018—so we sat down with Om Arvind of Managing Madrid.

The Liverpool Offside: In English media at least there’s a prevailing narrative that the 2018 final was something of a launching pad for this modern Liverpool side, whereas it seems many see that same final as the end of a chapter for one of the most successful Madrid sides. Briefly, can you explain what sort of rebuilding process Real has gone through to return to the final four years later?

Managing Madrid: It’s ended up more of a hearty renovation process perhaps than a full rebuild. Real Madrid lost a key figure in Cristiano Ronaldo and struggled to replicate the same offensive dominance as other contributors from that side declined (Marcelo) and/or faded out of relevance (Gareth Bale) and younger talent that was supposed to step up in his absence didn’t (Asensio).

Madrid tried to rectify that in the 2019 summer window but whiffed big on Eden Hazard and Luka Jović. Then, the pandemic hit and those transfers became even costlier, meaning that everything had to be saved for an eventual Mbappé bid down the line (which also didn’t go well).

Aside from the rise of Fede Valverde and Ferland Mendy, then, Madrid hadn’t successfully changed all that much until this season, when both Ramos and Varane left. Even so, the likes of Kroos, Modrić, Casemiro, and Benzema who were key back in 2018 have driven a lot of Madrid’s success this season, with the main difference to prior years being the explosive growth of Vinícius Jr.

Just to put an exclamation point on how big a leap he’s made: we’re talking about a wildly inefficient kid—so hit or miss Benzema didn’t want to give him the ball—transforming into someone who has been better than Sadio Mané this season (sorry!). Flo’s big transfer ploys might’ve fallen flat of late, but his policy of paying relatively pricey fees for teenagers has come clutch. While Rodrygo Goes is nowhere near Vini at the moment, he too has been huge in the Champions League.

TLO: I’m having a hard time figuring out this Real Madrid side. Their run to the final has been chaotic as hell but one consistent is it seems like everything centers around Karim Benzema scoring the big goals. What is Carlo Ancelotti’s typical setup and why does it seem like it’s always down to the big man to bail Madrid out?

MM: Carlo’s lineup picks itself aside from the right wing, where he’ll choose between one of Rodrygo, Asensio, or Fede Valverde. Asensio won out in the first half of the season, but Rodrygo came back in a big way in the UCL knockouts. Valverde has further eaten into Asensio’s playing time, having rediscovered a niche as a defensive winger (also in the UCL knockouts), which was originally a Zidane experiment.

On the ball, Madrid let Kroos and Modrić dictate most of what happens while the inspiration to unlock defenses arrives from the interplay between Vinícius and Benzema. It’s against the ball where Carlo is unpredictable. Madrid’s press has been bad almost all the time, but he still has an affinity for trying it and seeing what happens. Despite being far from structurally sound, it did trouble Manchester City at times. However, Ancelotti is aware of the schematic deficiencies for this group and so is often content to sit in a low block.

These types of tactical issues and trade-offs are what produce the inconsistencies that have often put Madrid behind in matches and two-legged ties. So, naturally, it’s left to Real’s best players to drag their team back into things, and Benzema is our best player.

TLO: To get to the final, Madrid have beaten the two other best sides in England, including Manchester City, aka the team that just beat Liverpool to the Premier League title by a point. Is there anything that particularly worries you about this Liverpool side? And how do you see this playing out?

MM: Honestly, I would say basically everything about Liverpool worries me. They’re way better at dissecting deep blocks than they were in 2018 thanks to the arrival of Thiago, the rise of Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Klopp’s gradual embrace of a more controlling style. Yet they’re still just as good at pressing and counterpressing.

City’s issue (or one of them, at least) was the lack of elite safety valves in defensive transition once the game got chaotic. Kyle Walker was basically the only one and he wasn’t available in the first leg. Liverpool are better suited to ride out chaotic moments with players like Van Dijk and Fabinho.

So we’re left knowing that if we sit off we may never escape our own half. And if we try to press TAA will probably shred us (especially with how we press, with a winger jumping out to form a front two with Benzema leaving the fullback as the outlet). Madrid’s best path to success probably involves hanging on and being efficient when it comes to seizing on whatever random moments do arise. Thankfully, football is a fairly random sport.