In part one of our tactical analysis of Liverpool’s Champions League final opponents, we took a look at some of the ways the Spanish juggernaut can hurt the Reds. And as Real Madrid are very good, there were plenty. Today, we’ll be focusing on something altogether more uplifting, namely the potential gaps exist in the Galactico armour and how the Reds can exploit them.
Keys to Victory
So how do you beat the threepeaters elect, the most successful team in the competition’s history, sporting more individual and collective trophies than you can shake a stick at? It’s undoubtedly a daunting task, but thankfully not an impossible one. Zidane’s team have conceded 44 goals in the league this season, over 60 goals in all competitions, and rarely — in less than 30% of their games, in fact — keep a clean sheet. They can be got at, in a number of ways, is what I’m saying, and worse teams than Liverpool have been able to.
An emerging trend for this Real side is the tendency to concede early goals. This doesn’t necessarily spell disaster, as they are always liable to get a couple themselves, but a propensity for starting slow and digging a hole for themselves has been emerging this season. On Saturday, they will face one of the fastest starting teams in the game, and as both Manchester City and Roma have found out, a slow start against this Liverpool side can make the subsequent uphill climb insurmountable. Blitzing Real from the opening whistle could well set the stage for victory.
The attacking disposition of Zidane’s disciples makes them exceptionally dangerous going forward, but also leaves holes to be exploited at the other end. Marcelo can be a menace on the left, and Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are two of the best all-purpose passers in the world, but none of the three are defensive behemoths. Space is often left available both horizontally and vertically between Marcelo and his centre-back, and Kroos and Modric — the former in particular — will rarely cover the half-space in front of their backline with much gusto.
The result is that the extraordinarily athletic and talented — but still human — pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane are required to cover a lot of ground to put out fires. Incidentally, the areas in which these fires occur are where Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino thrive, and the battle between Liverpool’s top scorers and Real’s defensive stalwarts for dominion of that space could well determine the game.
It is expected that Zidane will start defensive midfielder Casemiro on Saturday in order to provide cover for his more creative outlets. The Brazilian sat out the majority of the second leg against Bayern Munich, and Real struggled mightily to protect their backline in his absence. While every player on the team is excellent on the ball, the 26-year old is not the most versatile passer, and will occasionally attempt to dribble his way out of trouble if his first and second option are cut off. This provides an opportunity for Liverpool’s aggressive counter press to win the ball in a dangerous area, and setting their pressing traps up to catch the number 14 out could pay off massively.
Another effect of having so many offensive-minded players in your team is that whenever the opposition has the ball, the majority of your players are waiting for the counter to set them free, anticipating possession to change hands so they can do what they do best. As a result, Real Madrid tend to become a little light on numbers in their own area, as neither Kroos, Modric or Kovacic do particularly well at tracking off-the-ball runners all the way home.
Both goals conceded — as well as a handful of chances — in the 2-2 draw with Bayern displayed how los Blancos’ attacking mind-set leave them vulnerable when teams dare to overload their 18-yard box. Pushing fullbacks or midfielders into the Madrid area should allow Liverpool to produce a numerical advantage in decisive moments.
Finally, there is the counter attack. With so many players pushed up the pitch, there will be spaces for the Reds to break into, particularly in the channels between Real’s centre-backs and fullbacks, and lacking genuine pace in midfield the Spaniards are at risk in transition. Zidane’s fearsome offense forces most teams to sit deep with nine or ten players behind the ball, making a counter attack difficult, but if Klopp’s men are brave enough to to trust their organisation and let Firmino and Salah be an outlet in these spaces, chances can be created against a team out of balance.
Real Madrid are not a perfect team — though they are a very, very good one with potential match winners throughout the side. If Liverpool are to have any chance of lifting the Champions League trophy for the sixth time on Saturday, they will need to find the right balance of discipline and bravery, as well as identifying areas of weakness and executing an assault on them. This is not an impossible task by any means, but should the Reds succeed, it will have been a monumental achievement for a side whose pre-season expectations stopped at the round of 16.
All that is left now is to go out and play fucking football.