Every statistic and historical precedent and eye test would have told you that, in all likelihood, Liverpool would advance to the Champions League final tonight, but those of us who have followed the team — this historically phenomenal team — had a sense that Always the Hard Way FC would make sure to rear their head at some point.
They got some help from a well-drilled and energetic Villareal, who scored their very first chance of the night in the third minute — their second shot of the tie — and generally made the Reds look half the side they usually are, pressing their visitors into numerous poor passes and doing a terrific job of bypassing the dreaded gegenpress.
In the end, though, the Reds were able to adjust, and in the second half, made it seem like the first didn’t happen at all, scoring three goals and running out well-deserved winners of not only the match but the tie overall.
Below, we take a look at some of the narratives surrounding the match and perhaps give some credit to some top performers.
Analysis and Coaching: Many, many, many fans and pundits will undoubtedly heap credit on Luis Díaz for Changing the Game when he came on the pitch, and the Colombian was indeed good, popping up at the back post to nod home a Trent Alexander-Arnold cross for the second goal, effectively ending the tie as a competition, and he provided an intensity that had been missing in the first half.
He was also only part of the solution. As confirmed by Jürgen Klopp post-match, the adjustments made at half-time were mostly about adjusting the distance between the players in the front line and setting up to pass the ball at the right moment through the Villareal midfield and into the right-side half space for either Naby Keïta or Trent Alexander-Arnold to receive, effectively forcing the aggressive home side midfield to turn and run back towards their own goal while their defenders were dealing with four on four situations.
The difference in assuredness on the ball while under pressure between the first and second half was palpable, and it was down to the analysis and coaching team doing a great job of identifying the issues facing the players and relaying that information to them alongside actionable adjustments, more than it was about personnel changes or the opposition changing their strategy or running out of steam.
As an example, Thiago, the passing maestro came into the dressing room at half-time sporting a 71% passing completion rate, making 17 out of 24 attempts — more misses than in his last three games combined — and between coming back onto the pitch and being substituted, bumped that number up to 96%, hitting on 26 out of 27 attempts.
These sorts of improvements were uniform, with the team as a whole going from 71% to 84% pass completion, their possession from 50% to 63%, their shots attempted from 2 to 15, and denying Villareal a single shot in the entirety of the second half.
Liverpool’s players are incredible. As a collective, they’re even more than the sum of their parts. The club’s recruitment staff are the best on the planet, and Jürgen Klopp is rightly hailed as the premier football manager in the world. But the analysis team are at least nearly as good as all of those people, and get very little credit for it in the broader sphere. They were critical in creating that second half performance tonight, they have been in the past, and they will be again in the future.
Give them all medals.
That First Half: With that said, good lord that was a sloppy first half.
Certainly, Villareal were very handsomely rewarded, scoring on two of their four shouts, and they played very well, bringing an energy and intensity and physicality to proceedings, while also doing a great job of executing on what was clearly a well-constructed game plan by Unai Emery.
But Liverpool, in addition to getting their spacing and rhythm all wrong, having their attackers too far apart and their midfielders and fullbacks running forward when the pass was coming to feet and vice versa, just didn’t compete in the physical battle of the game. They didn’t close down the crossers, didn’t track the runners, and didn’t find the spaces. Abysmal stuff all round.
Going two goals down against the seventh best team in Spain is rectifiable in 45 minutes for this gang. Doing it to an English top four — or top two — side much less so, and the Reds need to learn from tonight if their quadruple ambitions are to be fulfilled.
Geronimo: Two very saveable shots going in between your legs then getting rounded 30 yards from your own goal when your team is on the verge of qualifying for their first ever Champions League final must be devastating. Geronimo Rulli had a night to forget, to put it mildly, and will not be getting much, if any sleep tonight.
Credit to the Opposition
Villareal came to play. After being unfairly slated for their approach to the first leg, Unai Emery’s men turned it all around tonight, putting in a tremendous first-half performance that was the right mix of strategic brilliance and energetic execution that had the best team in the world on their heels.
They weren’t able to keep it up or make the necessary adjustments when it was clear the Reds had adapted in the second half, and paid the ultimate price for it, but they nonetheless deserve heaps of credit for the brave manner in which they played tonight.
Credit also to the Villareal fans, who sang their songs from start to finish, stayed loud even as it became clear their dreams were about to be dashed, and stayed to applaud and serenade their players for nearly half an hour after the final whistle.
By all accounts, they were swell to Liverpool fans outside the stadium as well:
Villareal fans waiting for us down a backstreet after the game… to shake our hands an say good luck. Beyond sound. They’ve been fucking great all day. Brilliant club.— Adam Rowe (@adamrowecomedy) May 3, 2022
What Happens Next
There are finals to be won and lost! Two of them in actual cups, and a couple in the league as well. The Reds host Tottenham on Saturday night, a side that shredded them on the counter several times when they faced off earlier in the season and one that should have fans rightly nervous and pundits warming up their High Line takes.
Then, it’s the long-awaited return of Steven Gerrard to Anfield, as Aston Villa come to visit on Wednesday night. Narrative, narrative as far as the eye can see.