For Liverpool, defeating Real Madrid in the Champions League final would be about more than just winning the competition for the sixth time—it would mean defeating the irresponsible, unscrupulous economics of the modern game. All month, the final has been cast as a cliche David vs. Goliath fight where the mighty Real Madrid would surely sweep aside Liverpool’s history. After all, Madrid have won the competition more times this decade than Liverpool have qualified for it. Madrid are European Cup royalty in today’s game and Liverpool promise bin misfits.
There’s real promise, though, in this Liverpool squad, and it’s shown itself to devastating effect this season. David’s dead and Jurgen’s here now. Gegenpressing over slingshots. After over two years of gruelling gegenpressing-intense training, scintillating victories, and crushing Cup Finals defeats, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are roaring unlike any of his previous teams, and they’re banging in picturesque team goals to boot.
Yet peering deeper, there’s a fairly obvious problem: Igniting Liverpool’s tactics and pushing the team into high gear is a difficult balancing act between tireless running and the prospect of injury and fatigue, especially when working with a thinner squad than the oil money and talent rich Manchester Citys of the world.
Like Liverpool, Real Madrid has to strike a balance for their lineup to fire, but for a totally different reason. As Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez proved during their managerial stints at the Bernabeu, most of the coaching battles in Madrid involve motivating stars and forming a cohesive, happy unit, as Madrid’s incomparable vault of riches can get in their own way.
Within a 25-man squad full of top players who’ve always been the man, only 11 are going to be happy on any given week. Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, a former Galactico himself as Madrid’s then-record signing in 2001, has received deserved credit for keeping this Madrid core energized enough to advance to their third straight final under Zidane.
The nagging problems for Liverpool and Real Madrid are similar in consequence, but are papered over in two distinct philosophies tied to the modern game, which is rich in money and borderless knowledge. As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski discovered in “Soccernomics,” the one real predictive indicator of success across club football is outspending your competition. That’s a simple but deeply unsatisfying answer to most fans in part because it’s so true. And with over $700 million in annual revenues, Madrid only lags behind Manchester United.
But if winning is distilled into merely a money-pissing contest between a handful of clubs similar to Real Madrid in riches, why bother rooting for any other team? It’s a point many fans across the world have made in recent years, especially as the sport has become more monetized and Financial Fair Play hasn’t made much of a difference. On the international stage, club football has vulcanized itself into an environment where a handful of teams pull the most meaningful strings.
What Roman Abramovich’s oligarchy created at Chelsea in 2003 has spread across the continent, and since 2004, the European Cup has been tossed around the same circle of clubs that, not coincidentally, are or have been among the top five revenue earners according to Deloitte. Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, and Manchester United have won a combined ten Champions League titles and every title this decade. Liverpool, AC Milan, and Inter captured the remaining three since 2004, and none are exactly minnows. Even the clubs that didn’t win the Final—like Juventus and Atletico Madrid—are usually near the top of domestic leagues, and further, are all finalists since 2004 are all from either England, Spain, Germany, and Italy.
Not everyone is thrilled with the current state of power in world football. A sport lacking in parity but high in predictability is off-putting to fans and narrative-builders alike—everyone without a rooting interest wants the underdog to win. And over the past five years, Real Madrid have killed the underdog.
They were the first club to win back-to-back Champions League titles, and the 2018 Champions League Final is now an opportunity for them to win their fourth European Cup in five years, cementing this century’s first European dynasty—and just to stick it to their rivals, it’s a trophy haul Pep Guardiola’s best Barcelona teams couldn’t achieve. And Zidane, it sometimes seems, doesn’t need his tactics board all that much when the old school philosophy of “tactics are for bad players” speaks so well to exactly what Madrid do best.
The club’s formula is the same as Kuper and Szymanski’s rule: Outspend the rest of Europe so much that almost any sensible combination of 11 world class players in 25-man squad can effortlessly win a match. Real Madrid plays a weak-link sport, and have loaded up their roster accordingly. Never, ever, will Madrid’s worst player be worse than the opposing team’s worst player. They may lack tactics and a signature style of play, but Madrid doesn’t need any of that. Just roll the ball out and let the eleven Los Blancos superstars win the game. An overwhelming collection of talent made Madrid the first club to successfully defend its European title, and there’s little reason to think it won’t work against Liverpool.
That’s because if Madrid fail in their quest for a three-peat, Liverpool would be the poorest club since Inter in 2010 to win the Champions League Final. Here, “poor” is a relative term of course—Liverpool’s revenues are nearly at $500 million and record-signing Virgil Van Dijk is the most expensive defender in the sport’s history. Still, owners Fenway Sports Group have preached a model of self-sustainability by modernizing Anfield, re-establishing themselves as Champions League regulars, and deftly identifying young, reasonably priced starlets to buy and develop into superstars, and if forced to, later sell for many times more than they were bought for. It’s the exact opposite strategy Madrid use to build their team. Liverpool’s version of modern football from the training ground to the pitch to wherever the hell the “transfer committee” meets is all about efficiency, effort, cleverness, and collectivism in an unprecedented era of exorbitant spending on players.
The Red starlets who stay and earn coveted shirt numbers, however, don’t operate like Zidane’s men at all. They must commit to Klopp’s tactics and instructions, or the team cannot function. Whereas Madrid may thrive with less instruction, Liverpool aren’t good enough to get away with that. So when former Spanish national team coach Vicente Del Bosque says “I don’t see even one Liverpool player who would improve Real Madrid, not even Salah,” he’s arguably correct, but also, he’s missing the point. Of course Salah would improve Madrid—imagine bringing him off the bench to run at tired defenders, even? He’d score 30 in La Liga without even starting.
More importantly, and where Del Bosque is just wrong from Klopp’s perspective, is that Liverpool don’t need 11 superstars to win. They just need 11 merely very good, along with maybe a few great players who can execute a plan and run a gegenpressing system out to lopsided score lines. Liverpool are trying to beat Madrid though, so they need elite and motivated talents to match a high intensity, difficult system. In “Bring The Noise” by Raphael Honigstein, Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana noted that individualists with planet-sized egos, no matter how talented, would fail under Klopp.
“Maybe you can carry one player, but that’s not how he wants to play. You can’t operate like that,” he said.
Having undeniably world class players in Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Virgil Van Dijk raises the ability level in the moment of Liverpool’s “weakest link player,” and makes for the most sublime version of a Klopp team the world has seen. Salah has repeatedly credited the way Klopp sets up the team, as well as Firmino’s unmatched selflessness as a striker, to his record-setting 43 goals across competitions. When Klopp’s instructions and his players are in harmony, not only is the team’s ceiling is as high as they want it to be, but so is the production of its frontmen.
Should Liverpool beat the Ronaldo Era of Real Madrid’s international dynasty, then, it would prove that there is a different path forward—for teams and players—if one wants to lift the European Cup. Surely, Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho watching Jordan Henderson kiss his winner’s medal would create some uncertainty in his mind about his choices and the state of modern football. That could’ve been me! And I paid an extra $15 million out of my own pocket to force the transfer out of Liverpool!
In their quotes and transfer requests, the ultimate dream of today’s footballers seems to be to become a squad number at Real Madrid or Barcelona because that ensures them medals, trophies, and, in their minds at least, a genuine shot at winning the Champions League every season. And no great player is immune from such thoughts. It’s at the heart of every major transfer and a player’s guiding ambition. Luis Suarez and Coutinho went to Barcelona for that. Thierry Henry left Arsenal for Barcelona specifically to win his first European Cup. Even fellow domineering superclubs like Manchester United and Bayern Munich lost Cristiano Ronaldo and Toni Kroos to Madrid.
To an extent, the players are right. Barcelona and Madrid make deep runs in the tournament every season, and out of the eight champions crowned this decade, there are only three clubs on that list not named Real Madrid or Barcelona. Should Madrid defeat Liverpool, the European Cup will go to one of the two Spanish giants for the fifth consecutive year. Who can fault a player for wanting such a sure thing?
Right now, Coutinho jokes aside, nobody can. Real Madrid is the most dominant club of all-time in the world’s most prestigious club competition. Ronaldo practically has winner’s medals dropping out of the pockets of his signature skinny jeans. Until Barcelona and Madrid’s grip on the competition is loosened—and that might not be anytime soon—the world’s finest will keep flocking to those cities in search of continental glory and international fame.
The first step to dismantling the institutions those clubs have built in the Champions League, though, is beating them head-to-head and winning the final. Show and prove, and the rest, just maybe, takes care of itself.
Your move, Redmen.