ALLEZ! ALLEZ! ALLEZ! The Reds are back in the biggest game in club football for the first time since 2007, and with the big day fast approaching, even the most pragmatic Liverpool fan will be starting to feel the flutter of flapping wings in their stomachs.
We take our title of most pragmatic Liverpool fans quite seriously, though, so before we’re inevitably swept away by the emotion of it all on Saturday, let’s take a sober look at how the two sides match up, what the Reds need to be worried about, and how they can take advantage of their opposition’s potential failings.
Style of Play
The recurring theme when it comes to Zinedine Zidane’s latest Galacticos iteration is flexibility. The abundance and variety of talent at the Frenchman’s disposal means that the team can line up in a number of different ways depending on which players comprise the starting XI.
Typically, a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 will be the nominal template, but with Cristiano Ronaldo’s largely theoretical position on the left morphing into something of a free striker role, the structure in reality often becomes either a 4-4-2 or 4-D-2, depending on whether Isco or Bale/Vasquez star opposite the Portuguese.
Depending on the situation, Real will switch between an extremely aggressive press, and a far more conservative defensive block.
The former is typically a direct result of the number of players los Blancos commit to attack. With seven or eight players pushed far up the pitch, it’s easy for Madrid to put pressure on the opposition when possession is lost. As most teams will drop the majority of their players back to defend the onslaught, easy outlet balls are hard to come by, and with Real often having a significant numerical presence in the opposition half they are excellent at winning back clearances, recycling possession, and resuming their attack, repeating the cycle until the levees break.
Should their initial press be broken but no immediate counter attack launched, Zidane’s men will fall into their secondary defensive formation, getting players back behind the ball while their frontmen provide token pressure on the ball carrier. In this set-up, Real will attempt to cut off passing lanes through the centre, forcing the ball wide, and keeping their counter attack on a hair trigger.
Foundational for both these modes of defense is that they are opportunistic in nature. When pressing high, Real do not set pressing traps to force turnovers in dangerous areas so much as they maintain an aggressive presence and trust it to do the job for them. Similarly, in their defensive stance, they are happy to sit and wait for a an error and a chance to counter rather than looking to elicit mistakes through targeted pressure.
Here comes that flexibility again. Real Madrid score all kinds of goals, and lots of them. When holding sustained possession, the Galacticos will simply take what is available, pushing numbers up the pitch in order to stretch the defense, spreading the ball wide for a cross if the defense sits narrow, looking for one-twos in tight areas if the wide men are covered, dinking through balls over high lines, or taking pot-shots from range if all passing options are covered.
This sort of versatility keeps defenses honest and is really only effective due to the obscene individual ability possessed by Zidane’s players. As the quality of crosses, runs, close control and long shots reaches this sort of level, half chances become three-quarter chances, and over the course of a season this translates into a lot of goals that would not be converted by lesser sides.
Not to be forgotten is Real Madrid’s venomous counter attack. Their transition from defense to offense is lightning quick, and the speed and precision of their attacking players when moving vertically means that mistakes in possession will more often than not be harshly punished.
With such a versatile offense, it is hard to pick out singular threats and make it feel remotely complete. Nonetheless, there are a few particularly salient dangers posed by the Spaniards.
It is mind-numbingly obvious to point out Cristiano Ronaldo as a man to watch out for, and while the reigning European Champion’s game has undoubtedly become more limited in recent seasons, Real Madrid’s top scorer for the past nine years remains their number one threat.
Where Ronaldo of yore was all about blowing past a series of opponents before thumping long range efforts at goal, the 2018 version prefers to collect the ball in the build-up, lay it off, and surge into the box to finish off attacks. Even at 33, Ronaldo’s athleticism, timing, and ability makes him one of the world’s very best in the area, and if Liverpool’s defenders fail to track his runs and allow him any sort of space, he will pounce and punish them for it.
Although there are reasonable questions to be asked about his positional discipline and defensive nous, Marcelo is probably the best left-back in world football, and he is absolutely perfect for Real Madrid. Pushing high up the pitch, the Brazilian provides width when Ronaldo moves central and is able to torment opposing fullbacks with his pace, dribbling, and delivery.
Real doubling up Marcelo and Ronaldo on Trent Alexander-Arnold seems utterly unavoidable, and while the teenager dealt remarkably well with Leroy Sané earlier in the competition, the German typically attacked alone and nearly always went towards the outside and Alexander-Arnold’s strong foot. The 19-year old will require help from his midfielders if he is to avoid being overrun on Saturday, as the combination of Marcelo and Ronaldo will risk pulling him all over the place.
Finally, set pieces. It often goes underreported, but Los Merengues are consistently a threat from free kicks and corners, netting 20 times from set pieces in the league this season. Excellent deliveries paired with great athletes possessing timing in the air and the ability to create separation from defenders means that the Reds must maintain laser focus on all defensive set pieces throughout.
All of that’s pretty scary, then, but tomorrow we will be taking a look at the other side of the ball—and how the Reds can look to exploit the potential weaknesses that do exist in this Real Madrid side and emerge victorious.