by Ryan Hernan 6/1/2022
Real Madrid and Liverpool played a thrilling Champions League Final on Saturday, and while many thought Liverpool would walk away with their second trophy in four years, it was Los Blancos who triumphed once again, adding another chapter to their storied history in the competition. Even after the game, some are still calling Liverpool “the best team in Europe” and questioning if Real deserved their win over Klopp’s mighty Reds. While Liverpool certainly played well in a losing effort, it’s harsh to say that Real’s win was not deserved, and in the end, Madridistas won’t care how they got their hands on the trophy.
For Real Madrid, Champions League number 14 might be one of the sweetest of them all. After a tense, action-packed, and late night in Paris, the book has closed on yet another eventful Champions League season. A fan could not have asked for more from this season, which featured late comebacks, spectacular goals, upsets, and the world’s top talent showcased on Europe’s biggest stage. UEFA’s decision to do away with the away goals rule to determine the winner of two-legged ties turned out to be a wise one, resulting in more late drama, most notably in Real’s late comeback from two goals down in second-leg stoppage time to beat Manchester City in extra time and advance to the final that they, of course, would win. That’s about the only nice thing to say about UEFA after their terrible mismanagement and mistreatment of fans led to dangerous scenes outside the Stade de France as well as a lengthy delay of the match that surely impacted Rafael Nadal’s early pre-match bedtime (though he seems to be doing just fine after his recent defeat of Novak Djokovic).
In terms of the actual match, however, the result could be called nothing but a smashing success (unless, perhaps, you’re a Liverpool fan). The game was competitive, fun, and, for a 1-0 result, filled with action from whistle to whistle. Much of the discourse before the game centered on how Liverpool would dominate and win after the game it was all about how Liverpool dominated but lost. Calling the game a Liverpool “domination” doesn’t quite capture the full picture. Yes, Liverpool dominated certain facets and periods of the game, but Real was often comfortable in dealing with Liverpool’s threats. Liverpool did control the game with their press, possession, and passing from the back, and the numbers (54/46 possession and 24-4 on shots) certainly back them, but they did so in a manner that seldom worried Real, and when they did conjure a chance, Thibaut Courtois was there to block anything and everything that came near his goal.
Both teams lined up in their typical 4-3-3 formations, though Real often dropped into a 4-4-2 in defense, allowing Federico Valverde or Vinícius Júnior to drop back and provide additional cover on the wings while Luka Modrić pushed higher with Karim Benzema. In the first half, Liverpool was able to catch Madrid out with quick attacks sprung from turnovers in midfield or by beating Madrid in rotation. Thiago Alcantra had space and time to pick passes that cut apart Madrid’s midfield and allowed Mo Salah or Sadio Mané to turn and attack Real’s goal. As the game went on, Real dropped their midfield line deeper, creating a 4-2-2-2 with one of Kroos or Modrić falling back to support Casemiro, while the other played on the third line with Valverde, and Vinícius Jr. and Benzema looked to be released on the counter.
The two lines of the midfield in this formation often broke into a fluid line that was able to play as a flat four or a 1-2-1 diamond that could shift to cover Liverpool’s attacks on the wings and expand to a 1-2-1 of Casemiro-Valverde/Kroos-Modrić when attempting to break into attack. This shape allowed Real’s midfielders to beat Liverpool’s press by remaining compact and dropping into deep areas where Liverpool’s midfielders were less willing to press at risk of exposing themselves at the back. What was originally a three-on-two in Liverpool’s favor became an advantage in Real’s favor, as Fabinho was taken out of the press and Real’s midfield four could pass around Jordan Henderson and Thiago. Real was then able to move the ball through Liverpool’s high press and stop committing the turnovers in their own half that were presenting Liverpool with quick attacking opportunities. This deeper position also led to more combinations with Real’s fullbacks pushing into higher positions that further stretched Liverpool’s midfield, such as with Carvajal in the build-up to Real’s goal. This allowed Real to break on the counter more effectively in the second half. Liverpool still found opportunities either over the top or (less often) in possession, but with this adjustment Real almost completely cut out the quick attacks up the middle that Liverpool’s midfield press was tearing them apart with in the first half.
The game was billed as one that would be won on the flanks, with Liverpool’s deadly attack looking to run at Madrid’s Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy, and Madrid in turn hoping to catch out Liverpool’s rampaging fullbacks Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson on the counter. In some ways this was accurate. Luis Díaz attempted to terrorize Carvajal on the left side throughout the first half, and Liverpool’s best chances often came from the combination of Alexander-Arnold and Salah on the right, at times linking up with a more central Sadio Mané as well. Carvajal, however, was more than up to the task, and with the help of Fede Valverde’s tracking back, contained Díaz throughout the game until he was substituted for Diogo Jota in the 65th minute. Madrid’s right back proved his doubters wrong, turning in a spectacular defensive performance across 90 minutes that almost completely nullified one half of Liverpool’s explosive attack. With 4/4 successful tackles, 7 recoveries, 2/2 successful dribbles and 34/40 successful passes, and a few tactical fouls, Carvajal was immense in defense and in helping break Liverpool’s press.
Carvajal’s exploits (as well as Mendy’s own solid defense) forced Liverpool to look more centrally when attacking, and, as mentioned above, the time that Real allowed them to have on the ball let Thiago deliver a wonderful performance in the first half. The Spaniard played his game superbly from the midfield, completing 70/74 passes, 5/7 long passes, and picking line-breaking balls with ease. He kept the ball moving quickly as Liverpool wanted and started many attacks with his wonderful right foot. Along with Ibrahim Konaté and Mo Salah (who had more shots on target than Real had total shots), Thiago was one of the stand-out players for Liverpool, even in a losing effort.
As the game wore on and Real dropped deeper, they also began to break out of their shell and take their chances. In attack, Real attempted to overload the right side of the Liverpool defense, perhaps targeting the supposed defensive deficiencies of Trent-Alexander Arnold. For his part, Alexander-Arnold mostly, besides one crucial moment, held his own against the combination of Vinícius Jr. and Benzema, a frightening prospect for any defender. Real did have their chances, though not nearly as many as Liverpool did, and it appeared that they had their first goal in the 43rd minute after they finally connected on a pass over the top and Benzema put the ball in the back of the net following a frantic scramble. The goal was ruled out for offside, though many (including myself) will argue that the ball found its way to Benzema at the end from an intentional play off the leg of Fabinho, which should have led to the goal being allowed. However, the half ended 0-0, with both teams having reason to be happy, and reason to believe that they should be leading.
The second half began more-or-less the same as the first ended. Liverpool controlled the ball, but Real often dictated what they could do with it. Their defensive block stayed strong the entire match, and they finally got their goal thanks to a brilliant combination between Carvajal and their midfield. The play began with a throw-in from Mendy on the left side of the pitch in Real’s defensive half. Kroos dropped deep to receive the throw and returned the ball to Mendy who played it back to the defensive line. Real’s midfield quickly shifting into their 1-2-1 diamond with Casemiro at the back and Valverde drifting into the attack. The ball reached Carvajal on the right, who dribbled inside and opened up space on the right touchline for Modrić to drift into. Carvajal passed the ball to Casemiro centrally who advanced it to Modrić at midfield. Modrić immediately retreated, taking Robertson with him towards Real’s goal while Casemiro stayed central and pushed further up the pitch. Thiago stayed attached to Casemiro, allowing Carvajal to occupy the space that Modrić vacated.
This rotation between Modrić and Carvajal pulled Liverpool’s press out of position, and with one pass to Carvajal, Modrić took Robertson and Thiago out of the play. Carvajal now turned towards goal with Díaz and Fabinho in front, Thiago rotating to cover him, and, with Henderson caught marking Toni Kroos on the left side of the center circle, Casemiro alone in the middle of the pitch. Carvajal smartly played Casemiro, erasing Díaz and Fabinho. Casemiro now had the ball at midfield with all of Liverpool’s midfielders behind him out of the play, and he immediately advanced the ball to Valverde in space on the right wing, creating a three-on-three for the Uruguayan, Benzema, and Vinícius Jr. in the attacking third. Valverde dribbled into the box against a backtracking Virgil van Dijk and fired what may have been a shot but he has the right to call a cross across the goal. Vinícius Jr., unmarked at the back post, had a tap-in, and Real had a 1-0 lead that they would never relinquish. It was another questionable piece of defending from Alexander-Arnold, leaving Vinícius Jr. in behind him, and while his offensive brilliance cannot be denied, he has had multiple moments of lackluster defending that lead to goals in this tournament alone.
Even after Real found their breakthrough, Liverpool still seemed the more likely to score, but they were never able to find the equalizer. Courtois made a number of world-class saves in a man-of-the match performance, and Real’s entire defensive seven from the defense to the midfield was airtight. Casemiro had his struggles on the ball, but was a stalwart in defense. Kroos and Modrić looked young again as the second half wore on and Real closed the game into the half-field, taking away the space and opportunity for Thiago and then Naby Keita to find the passes that were cutting them apart in the first half. Valverde continued to track back and add the extra defensive man that helped Real win duels all over the pitch, and Vinícius Jr. provided a great outlet on the counter that kept Liverpool on their toes until the final whistle.
In the end, Real Madrid simply doesn’t lose finals, and neither does Carlo Ancelotti. The most decorated Champions League manager of all time does not get the credit he deserves, as he has earned the right to have his name spoken with the likes of Guardiola, Ferguson, and the other managers on the Mount Rushmore of world football. The Italian put forth a simple yet effective game plan that stymied the greatest Liverpool team of a generation and their own brilliant manager Jurgen Klopp. Madrid’s defensive set up was firm and purposeful. Their aging midfield grew into the game and provided a wall that Liverpool struggled to break down. Valverde and Carvajal were monstrous on the right side, and the constant two on one defending helped Real keep the Liverpool attack contained for most of the match. They smartly took their opportunities to go forward quickly on the counter or to slow down and possess the ball when the game flow called for it.
Some will call this a Liverpool domination and a smash-and-grab for Real, but the true story is that Real played their gameplan to perfection. They dared Liverpool to beat them and won that wager. It took the performance of Courtois’ life to do it, but they did it. Real Madrid are champions of Europe once again.