“It helped that Liverpool were easier to decipher than the others, because they have a very clear identity and we could prepare.”
As he basked in the glory of winning the Champions League last summer, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti’s reflections were telling. Their path to victory had included knockout ties with Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, yet the Italian deemed Jurgen Klopp’s side the easiest to prepare for tactically.
Revenge had been on Liverpool’s mind after the Champions League final defeat to Madrid in 2018 but instead Vinicius Junior’s second-half goal secured a 1-0 victory and the club’s 14th Champions League trophy.
The pair have faced each other four times during three Champions League campaigns between 2017-2018 and 2021-2022. On each occasion, Liverpool have been second best.
If they have any hope of winning silverware this season, they need to change the narrative when the two meet in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League tonight.
The Athletic rewatched the four previous matches to identify what’s been going wrong.
Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool
Champions League final, May 26, 2018
The final is remembered for Gareth Bale’s wondergoal and Loris Karius’ blunders. The goalkeeper was later diagnosed to have suffered a concussion, probably from a Sergio Ramos elbow before the goal.
Oh my word! 😮
A disaster for Loris Karius!
Real Madrid lead in the #UCLfinal pic.twitter.com/zgX9XRwdAM
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 26, 2018
However, the game’s first momentum shift came much earlier. After 25 minutes, Ramos and Mohamed Salah tangled. The Egyptian’s shoulder was injured and he had to be substituted.
Until that point, the final had been played on Liverpool’s terms. Their intense counter-pressing was effective, forcing numerous Real Madrid turnovers — within the opening 15 seconds…
… then at the edge of the Madrid box…
… and stepping up from defence.
Zinedine Zidane’s side could barely get out of their own half. When possession turned over, Liverpool’s front three ran beyond Madrid’s back line, while full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold pushed forward.
Casemiro had been dropping deep to cut off Roberto Firmino’s influence, and a chipped pass to left-back Marcelo was Madrid’s only reliable out-ball.
After Salah went off, his replacement Adam Lallana could not provide the same attacking focal point. Liverpool had nine shots before Salah departed but failed to register another for the rest of the half.
They struggled to dominate territory or sustain attacks and possession. Lallana and Sadio Mane swapped flanks, and Liverpool dropped deeper into more of a 4-5-1.
Real took control. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos dictated tempo while Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, before he was replaced by Nacho Fernandez, bombed forward.
Isco’s free role allowed him to create overloads on either flank, which led to Real’s offside goal in the first half.
Then, any half-time plans were thrown out the window when Benzema’s outstretched leg blocked Karius’ throw six minutes into the second half.
Liverpool equalised five minutes later, but there was very little they could do tactically about Bale’s goal, which came three minutes after he came off the bench.
Liverpool tried to pick their moments to press as they searched for a second equaliser, but Modric and Kroos, flanked by Casemiro, took over, tiring their midfield counterparts in the process. They finished with 65 per cent possession and nearly twice as many passes (685 to 366).
“It felt as though they were just toying with us,” Alexander-Arnold later reflected. “We couldn’t get the ball. We weren’t creating chances. They were almost mocking us, the way they were keeping the ball.”
Karius’ second error, when Bale’s routine long-range effort went through his hands, summed up a horrific night for Liverpool when circumstances rather than tactics defeated them.
Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool
Champions League quarter-final first leg, April 6, 2021
A starting centre-back partnership of Nathaniel Phillips and Ozan Kabak away to Real Madrid was asking for trouble, but that was Liverpool’s best option with Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez injured.
Madrid identified and targeted the right channel between Alexander-Arnold and Phillips, exploiting it in the first half via a Kroos passing masterclass.
For the first goal, Kroos was given an abnormal amount of time to lift his head up and play the ball. The midfielder used it to his advantage, producing an inch-perfect pass to find the chest of Vinicius Jr as he darted between Liverpool’s defenders.
The Brazilian then finished past Alisson.
Happy birthday to Toni Kroos who turns 33 today 🙌
This #UCL assist for Vinicius Jr back in 2021 was a joke… 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/5pzzCCucKw
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 4, 2023
For Madrid’s second, Kroos was again given time to get his head up and pick out a long pass behind the Liverpool defence. This time, it was Ferland Mendy who had darted beyond the back line.
Alexander-Arnold attempted to cut the pass out but headed it to Marco Asensio, who scored.
Problems stemmed much further up the pitch than the right defensive channel and Klopp pointed that out after the match. In possession, his side were sloppy and the German was increasingly animated on the touchline.
When possession turned over, they were too slow to press Kroos and Modric, who dropped deeper, with Casemiro more advanced, allowing them the space to pick their passes.
It is very rare that Klopp makes a tactical change before half-time but Naby Keita was replaced by Thiago on 42 minutes to offer more security in possession.
Liverpool’s first shot of the game was a blocked Diogo Jota effort, which fell perfectly for Salah to finish their second shot in the 50th minute. They had barely got near Madrid’s goal in the opening 45 minutes.
Klopp’s side controlled the game better in the second half, but Liverpool’s lack of proactiveness allowed Vinicius Jr’s second goal. From there, Madrid could manage the game.
Liverpool 0-0 Real Madrid
Champions League quarter-final second leg, April 14, 2021
If the first leg was about defensive lapses, the second was about composure at the other end.
The best chance came within two minutes of kick-off when Kabak’s ball over the Madrid defence allowed Mane to square for Salah.
Salah was faced with the goal.
But he hit it straight at Thibaut Courtois.
Tactical plans will shift in two-legged European ties based on the first result and Madrid’s was apparent quickly. They knew Liverpool would start quickly, underpinned by James Milner’s strong challenge on Benzema, so they scrapped trying to play out from the back almost immediately as Liverpool pressed well.
Kroos dropped deeper alongside Casemiro when they had possession to draw Liverpool out and expose the right channel, but Liverpool managed that much better than in the first leg.
Out of possession, Madrid were a solid 4-1-4-1…
… or 4-5-1 with Asensio dropping into a wing-back role on occasion to help stand-in right-back Federico Valverde and prevent Liverpool from running in behind as the game wore on.
Liverpool were on the front foot and they created chances. Courtois had to spring to his left to palm away a Milner curler during the fast start. The big chance fell to Georginio Wijnaldum, but he blazed over.
“It was uncomfortable for Madrid. We were good, aggressive, had chances. We didn’t score and then the experience of Real Madrid played the tie down,” Klopp said afterwards.
Madrid seized some control in the last 30 minutes. Liverpool changed to a 4-2-3-1 shape following the introductions of Thiago and Jota, and the game became more open.
Zidane’s side defended deep, similar to how they would set up a year later. They looked to hit the flanks, with Vinicius Jr getting in behind from a long pass for virtually the first time all game on 66 minutes and forcing Alisson into action.
“We were up against it and we knew we had to suffer tonight, but in the end, we got what we wanted, which was to go through. We handled the game well, we rode the storm,” Zidane said.
Firmino had the best second-half chance, saved well by Courtois, but that attacking onslaught Liverpool needed never occurred. They had just two shots in the final 20 minutes.
Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool
Champions League final, May 28, 2022
“We knew what strategy to take: don’t give them space behind the defence to run into.”
As Ancelotti went into more detail on Madrid’s plan, there were hallmarks of the previous games under Zidane. Ancelotti’s Napoli sides had also proven a tough nut for Liverpool to crack in previous Champions League campaigns when they used similar methods.
Liverpool looked to get in behind the defence early on, but instead, Madrid allowed the midfield three of Jordan Henderson, Thiago and Fabinho to have the ball while dropping deep.
There was another problem for Liverpool too. Look no further than Salah’s chance in the 82nd minute, one of the few times Madrid left themselves exposed to a ball in behind.
The Egyptian did everything right…
… but was thwarted by a stunning Courtois save.
Mane, Luis Diaz and Salah all found pockets of space in and around the Madrid area. It was the risk Madrid took…
… but they had Courtois in goal — here, he tips Mane’s shot onto the post in the 20th minute.
Where Liverpool had lost the final via a goalkeeping disaster-class four years earlier, Madrid won it because of a masterclass.
Ancelotti’s side, in an attacking sense, were essentially playing dead throughout the game. Liverpool had 10 shots in the opening 40 minutes until Madrid had their first in the 43rd minute.
To prevent Liverpool’s pressing, the Spanish side opted to play long balls more frequently than usual, relying on Vinicius Jr and Benzema to produce moments of quality. Ibrahima Konate read those passes and was excellent.
In the second half, as Liverpool’s press became less intense and less frequent, Madrid passed through midfield. Modric and Kroos became more involved, dropping deeper like they had the previous year, with Carvajal more advanced.
They were prepared to wait for one mistake from their opponents. They got it in the 60th minute when they played through Liverpool’s press.
Robertson stepped out from left-back to press but gave Modric sufficient time to play a reverse pass to Carvajal.
It left Liverpool scrambling. The right-back quickly passed it to Casemiro while drawing Fabinho and Thiago towards him.
It opened up the left channel and Madrid, with Robertson out of position, were able to create an overload with Valverde and Carvajal.
Valverde fired the ball low across the box and Vinicius Jr had a simple tap-in at the back post after peeling off Alexander-Arnold.
Happy 22nd birthday, Vinícius Júnior! 🙌
The man who helped deliver Real Madrid’s 14th Champions League 🏆 pic.twitter.com/owgAzrA75V
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) July 12, 2022
Once in the lead, Madrid reverted to their counter-attacking game, leaving most of their team back to retain a compact structure, crowding the box and limiting big opportunities.
After 80 minutes, Madrid had only registered two shots to Liverpool’s 19. Liverpool had switched to a 4-2-4 shape with the introduction of Jota and Firmino. Both injected energy and the Brazilian found threatening pockets of space. It proved to be in vain.
This was not the perfect performance from Liverpool, but they carried a threat and largely limited Madrid, registering 23 shots to three. However, they were denied by a goalkeeper resembling a brick wall.
This week’s game will present new problems for Liverpool, but they will not have to deal with Kroos, who was not included in the Madrid squad.
The two clubs are in vastly different places from where they were at the end of last season but the memory of last year, and of Ancelotti’s words about the ease of working Liverpool out, have remained.
Klopp was asked yesterday what he thought about Ancelotti’s comments. He replied: “Somebody told me — I don’t know if it’s true — that after the final, Carlo said with Liverpool it’s cool because they know exactly what they will face. I watched the game back now and even knowing exactly what we will do, we have to win this game. We didn’t, for the one reason that we didn’t score and conceded, but apart from that we should have won this game.”
Liverpool will be hoping that confidence from back-to-back victories over Everton and Newcastle, as well as the power of Anfield on a European night, will help them win it this time.
(Top image: designed by Samuel Richardson; photos by Julian Finney and Michael Regan via Getty Images)