real MadridThe team’s progress to the 2022 UEFA Champions League final has largely defied explanation. Three times he was outplayed and looked on his way out, and three times he found sudden and unexpected late goals to win: three after the 61st minute against Paris Saint-Germain, two after the 80th minute against Chelsea and three after the 90th minute against Manchester City.
The tactical explanations seem inadequate. What happened was partly luck, partly self-confidence and partly individual genius. Systemically, Madrid have been second-best in every game. He lost the larger game of strategy but won the battles. In the longer term, this seems unsustainable. You can’t keep counting on Luka Modrić to produce a pass of the mesmerizing brilliance that brought the equalizer against Chelsea. You can’t assume that Karim Benzema will always gobble up every half chance. And you can’t expect Thibaut Courtois to save everything once the surge begins.
And yet, with every step, after every lap, it felt unsustainable. Nevertheless, here we are. It’s hard to imagine how Madrid could dominate liverpool. But could he produce enough moments of individual brilliance to win a single game? Of course it could.
Benzema aside, Madrid’s most effective attack came from Vinícius Júnior shooting wide and hitting space behind the opposing right-back or right-winger. He tormented Chelsea in that area in the first half of the first leg, but also threatened Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg and scored from that position in the first leg against Manchester City.
Liverpool will be only too aware of this threat. Last season, it was a ball from Toni Kroos for Vinícius, hitting space behind the defensive line, which scored the opening goal as Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 in the first leg of the quarter-finals. A deep pass from Kroos also led to the second, scored by Marco Asensio, as the ball bounced off Trent Alexander-Arnold’s box. There may be a hunch: how can Liverpool prevent their right flank from being exposed? After all, it’s not the most surprising suggestion that Alexander-Arnold might not be the best defensive back.
But then, he’s not supposed to be a defensive back. He is a supreme ball cruiser, registering 12 league assists this season. His bond with Mohamed Salah is one of the main reasons for the Egyptian’s efficiency. To suggest he should temper his attacking inclinations is to ignore his importance to Liverpool’s attacking rhythms. There will always be room behind him; the way Liverpool protect themselves against this is through their press, preventing opponents from having time to measure passes in the space behind the defensive line.
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Last season he was exceptionally exposed in this regard due to the plague of injuries that plagued his central defense which impacted the midfield. The press didn’t operate with the same efficiency or aggression, which is why Kroos had time to judge his passes. Liverpool this season have regained their shine.
That’s not to say the high defensive line isn’t a risk. It is, and Wolves frequently threatened to expose him in their Premier League season finale on Sunday. However, part of Liverpool’s shake-up last season was surely down to Virgil van Dijk’s absence. He is the ringleader of the press and the player who usually judges when and how far Liverpool should step in; the margins are good and without van Dijk things can easily go wrong. He was substituted after 90 minutes of the FA Cup final with hamstring strain but should be fit to start in Paris.
Thiago Alcântara’s injury update is also encouraging for Liverpool as he took part in training despite being sent off at half-time against Wolves. He offers a measure of control to go along with Liverpool’s press fury, and given how Madrid have thrived over the last three rounds by breaking the structures of the game, his passing ability could be vital.
But so does the press. For some seasons there has been growing suspicion that the Premier League has physically overtaken the other major leagues. Madrid were physically overwhelmed by Manchester City penultimate season and have struggled against City and Chelsea at times this season. It’s fair to assume that there will be times when Liverpool can come out on top as well. The main thing, and what PSG, Chelsea and City have failed to do decisively, is to take advantage of these periods.
There can also be times when Madrid are able to come clean, turn the game into a shootout in which their brilliant individuals can make a decisive difference. This is where Madrid’s previous three opponents have faltered, but a Liverpool side whose style is still derived from Jürgen Klopp’s original heavy metal template should be better equipped than them to handle the chaos.
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