The 2017/18 Champions League final saw 12-time winners Real Madrid take on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who surprised the entire football world by reaching their first Champions League final in 11 years, eliminating many people’s favourites Man City on the way.
For the holders Real Madrid, they were aiming to make history once again by becoming the first side to win three consecutive Champions League title and consolidate what was a rather underwhelming season with a disappointing 3rd place finish in La Liga and an early exit in the Copa del Rey.
As predicted, the game was an exciting one, two teams who posed a great attacking threat but left much to be desired defensively. The first half was a cagey one, with both teams’ pressing and solid defensive blocks keeping each other at bay.
Liverpool were to experience a massive blow to their chances in the 29th minute, with star player Mohammed Salah leaving the field with a shoulder injury. Worse was to come as a howler from keeper Loris Karius gave Benzema the chance to put Real ahead. Liverpool fought bravely and equalised through Sadio Mane before a wondergoal from Gareth Bale and another outrageous goalkeeping error from Karius gifted los Blancos their 13th European Cup.
REAL MADRID 3-1 LIVERPOOL
Made using TacticalPad
Real Madrid (4-3-3/4-4-2): 1. Navas // 2. Carvajal (Nacho), 4. Varane, 5. Ramos, 12. Marcelo // 14. Casemiro, 10. Modric, 8. Kroos // 22. Isco (Bale), 9. Benzema (Asensio), 7. Ronaldo
Liverpool (4-3-3): 1. Karius, 66. Alexander-Arnold, 6. Lovren, 4. van Dijk, 26. Robertson // 14. Henderson, 5. Wijnaldum, 7. Milner (Can) // 11. Salah (Lallana), 9. Firmino, 19. Mane
Goals: Benzema ’50, Bale ’63, ’82 // Mane ‘54
Real bypass Liverpool’s press
As is typical with Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, they began the game with high intensity, looking to unsettle Real in the build up phase. Firmino in the ST position would typically lead the press with Salah and Mane forming secondary lines of pressure in behind.
Liverpool 1st phase press
In order to reserve the compactness of their defensive block, the Liverpool front three would be on different lines as can be seen in the image above. Throughout the game, they did not often press the ball carrier in the build up, often looking to block off passing lanes forward and force a turnover in possession. Therefore, their pressing game was based predominantly on interceptions as opposed to winning tackles.
Here, Navas is in possession with Varane and Ramos either side of him. Instead of directly pressing the Real Madrid keeper, the Liverpool forward players would block off the passing lanes of Kroos and Casemiro, attempting to stop Real from breaking the lines.
Real seemed to have no trouble bypassing Liverpool’s initial press as they were able to break the lines fairly regularly due to the movement of the midfield; particularly Kroos who often dropped deep into the half-space to receive from the centre-backs. In this scenario, he drops into the left half-space to create an angle for Ramos. After receiving the ball he is tracked by Wijnaldum but still has time as Wijnaldum does not have sufficient access to make a challenge.
The distances between the forward and midfield line significantly weakened Liverpool’s press as Real were often able to break lines and bypass 3-4 Liverpool players with a single pass. The Liverpool midfield line was often far too deep during the Liverpool press, possibly due to a fear of not wanting to afford the Real front three too much space and an opportunity to go 1v1 with their defenders.
Here we see the large distances between the Liverpool units and the excessive amount of space between the lines. Marcelo is in possession and has acres of space to drive forward in possession and pick out a pass. With the Liverpool midfield so deep, it is very difficult to apply pressure to the Real Madrid left back. That said, they did an adequate job of remaining compact in the final third, often forcing Real into wide areas.
Liverpool struggle against Real block
In contrast to Real Madrid, Liverpool found it very difficult constructing play between the lines due to a very organised structure from Real Madrid. The Real defensive block was not as high, partially due to the threat in behind the defence posed by the Liverpool front three, particularly Salah and Firmino.
Liverpool’s centre backs often had much more time in possession than their Real Madrid counterparts due to the difference in defensive structure in the build-up phase. Real have never been known for their high intensity press and with an age front three, it would be difficult to maintain intense spells of pressure for large periods of the game.
Lovren is in possession here but does not have any realistic options, despite Alexander-Arnold dropping into the half-space from his right-back position. Unlike Real Madrid, who have excellent press-resistant ball players with intelligent movement, Liverpool did not have a playmaker type in midfield capable of finding space in tight areas to circulate the ball. In this image, Henderson drops off but is being man marked by Isco.
Had Lovren driven forward in possession, he may have been able to attract pressure from Benzema, thus making Henderson free to make a blind side movement and progress play into midfield.
Here again Liverpool are struggling to play out of pressure despite having a 5v3 overload (6v3, including the keeper). Despite the Real front three doing well to remain compact, with a well structured set up, Liverpool should have no problems playing out of danger.
Should van Dijk move out wider, he could possibly attract the attention of Isco, freeing up Henderson. Although Henderson is being cover-shadowed by Benzema, if he goes to press Lovren, it will be much easier for Henderson to create that angle and receive the ball in space.
With Liverpool’s 8s being closely marked by Real Madrid’s midfield, Salah was forced to drop deep into midfield to create a vertical option for the defenders. His run is tracked by Marcelo and although it seems a good solution as they move possession into the final third quicker, it results in Salah being further away from goal. Again, the movement to receive and in relation to Salah in possession are not ideal as there are no angles being made to receive. Had Henderson come short and made an angle and Wijnaldum given him a forward option, Liverpool would have been able to play between the lines of Real fairly easily.
Real are in their defensive shape again, but this time in the midfield third. Lovren is in possession here with the Liverpool defensive line on the halfway line. He is once again caught in possession partially due to the well organised 4-1-4-1 shape or Real Madrid and the positioning of the Liverpool midfield.
With only Wijnaldum providing a short option and the 3rd Liverpool CM Milner so high up the pitch, the spacing and distances between the Liverpool midfield do not allow for optimal connectivity and thus making it harder to form connections in possession and play around pressure.
Real dominate wide areas
As is common with this Real Madrid side, they looked to dominate the wide areas as they so often do during games, creating overloads out wide with the balancing movements of Marcelo and Ronaldo. With Liverpool condensing space in central areas when Real attacked in the final third, they constructed attacks more often than usual from the wide areas with their 8s Modric and Kroos finding space hard to come by centrally.
Liverpool’s defensive block was very well organised with the two 8s covering the space between the lines while the two wide players occupy the half spaces. As a result Real are forced to play around the block which played into Liverpool’s hands initially, as their block did well to shift towards the active side of the field; where Real had possession of the ball.
Real tended to favour attacks down the left hand side due to the danger posed by Ronaldo and the telepathic understanding between him and Marcelo. Liverpool did well to neutralise Real in this area until Isco began to occupy spaces out wide on the left to create overloads.
Here, Real are in possession but fairly deep with Ramos in possession. Isco (red) has moved from his starting position on the right and moved into the left half space. Real now have an overload with Kroos also out wide and Ronaldo high creating depth in the channel out of picture. It was far easier for Real to play between the lines and create combinations with numerical superiority in this area of the field.
However, Real did not really begin to dominate and create meaningful opportunities until the inclusion of Gareth Bale around the hour mark. With Dani Carvajal coming off injured, Real were severely lacking natural width down the right hand side with Isco moving in centrally and towards the left, and Nacho not venturing forward due to his inability to function as an attacking full back.
Focusing almost the entirety of their attacks down the left made Real predictable as they had limited attacking options. Bale’s tendency to hug the touchline when positioned out on the right, stretched the Liverpool back 4 and opened channels for runs in behind by Benzema or potentially midfield runners from deep.
Nacho is in possession, here with Bale on the right also, looking to run in behind. A 2v1 overload has now been created which Robertson is unable to defend against. Had Isco been on the field, in all likelihood he would have been positioned in the centre or on the left; meaning Nacho would be attacking 1v1 with Robertson, something at which he is not adept. Now however, Bale’s inclusion gave this Real side the natural width on the other side of the field which they had been clearly lacking.
In addition to this, having a player of Bale’s quality on the field also provides the possibility of a moment of brilliance as we saw with his phenomenal bicycle kick, which will surely go down as one of the great goals in Champions League history.
In the end a comfortable scoreline in favour of Real to take home an astonishing 13th Champions League trophy, at least 6 more than any other club. A third in a row for this current Madrid generation, who appear to be coming to the end of their cycle with a number of their players in their 30s or reaching that age. However, they still showed that they have what it takes to perform on the biggest stage and came up big when it mattered.
In Liverpool’s case, it will be a bitter loss to take after reaching the final against all odds and performing so well on the night. The injury to Mo Salah and the goalkeeping horror show from Karius will have Liverpool fans wondering what might have been as they gave a very good account of themselves and were competitive for much of the game.