When the Liverpool teamsheet was announced ahead of their Champions League match against Real Madrid on Tuesday evening, there were two key changes made by manager Jürgen Klopp. Two gambles that would potentially decide the game.
The big surprise was Naby Keïta replacing Thiago Alcantara in the eight. The other—maybe less surprising due to form—was Roberto Firmino, the man tasked with setting Liverpool’s press from the front, dropped to the bench in a big European match.
The result did in fact decide the game, but not as Klopp would have hoped. The result was Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos given copious time on the ball. Time to pick his passes. Time to hurt Liverpool repeatedly as he quarterbacked their 3-1 victory.
“A lot of things went well in the first half,” was Kroos’ post-match verdict. “I think we came out very motivated. We tried to attack them early because we knew that they also have to change some players because they have injured players at the back.
“And of course when we have the ball, our idea was to keep the ball, keep the possession, and play forward. I think all of this went well, especially when we lost the ball—we got the back ball very fast. I think this was key for this for a great first half.”
Liverpool were slow in the buildup, with too much space between defence and attack. And when they tried to advance play more quickly, they only ever seemed to turn the ball over to Madrid. Then when Madrid had the ball, Liverpool gave them space.
They gave Kroos in particular space at the base of Madrid midfield. The player who had done so much damage to them in the 2018 Champions League final, a game that they also lost 3-1, was allowed time on the ball to hurt Liverpool. Again.
Klopp’s gamble, removing two players who would have been tasked with occupying similar spaces to Kroos on and off the ball, didn’t pay off. Now, Liverpool will need to stage another historic comeback if they’re to keep their European dream alive.