In the Zone: Champions League final tactical analysis
Saturday, 28 May 2022
UEFA's Technical Observer panel casts an expert eye over Saturday's UEFA Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid.
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When Liverpool beat Real Madrid in the 1981 European Cup final in Paris, they did so with a goal from left-back Alan Kennedy.
Four decades on, the venue is different – the Stade de France, not the Parc des Princes – yet the Liverpool full-backs could be key once more.
The attacking role of the full-back in today’s football has been well documented and there is no better example in the European game than the Liverpool duo of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, who are pivotal to the offensive side of the Reds’ game.
A glance at the statistics offers abundant evidence of their contribution to Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League campaign. As well as four assists, Alexander-Arnold has completed more crosses (23) than any other player in the 2021/22 competition, while Robertson (two assists) ranks joint-fourth in that category with 16. For key passes, Robertson has 19 (joint-best among Liverpool’s players with Mohamed Salah) and Alexander-Arnold 16.
The UEFA Champions League technical report for 2019/20 singled out the Reds pair for their playmaking qualities and, two years on, Alexander-Arnold has had more touches than any other Liverpool player – 853 from eight matches, which is only 15 fewer than Luka Modrić’s total from 12 matches for Madrid.
As the heatmap of Alexander-Arnold’s touches underlines, he is ever more involved in the opposition half. David James, an ex-Anfield goalkeeper and UEFA’s Technical Observer at the semi-final first-leg win over Villarreal, indeed noted that Alexander-Arnold had “a relatively free role on the right side”, taking up “aggressive positions when attacking” and even popping up in the No10 role.
Looking ahead to Saturday night, this raises an intriguing question of whether Madrid can exploit the space in behind the full-backs, particularly on Alexander-Arnold’s side given it is on Madrid’s left that Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior have combined so effectively this season.
A prime example was the first goal of Real’s quarter-final victory at Chelsea as Benzema dropped deep to exchange passes with Toni Kroos and then did the same with Vinícius; his return pass, a flick of the boot, sent the winger haring down the left as Benzema sped into the box to meet the resulting cross with an outstanding header. It was one of four assists that the Brazilian has provided Benzema, the tournament’s 15-goal leading scorer.
The heatmap of Benzema’s touches underscores the fact he is so much more than a goalscorer; a player who will also test Liverpool’s defensive powers with his habit of drifting into wide areas to create two-vs-ones before getting back into the box to apply his finishing skills.
Liverpool’s set-piece threat
After Liverpool’s FA Cup final win against Chelsea – won on penalties in a repeat of the clubs’ League Cup final duel – manager Jürgen Klopp dedicated that triumph to the German neuroscience company which, during pre-season, had worked with his players on set-piece situations.
That work has paid off in back-to-back domestic cup finals and the question now is whether Liverpool can benefit from their set-play prowess in another final. They have the most dead-ball goals in this season’s Champions League – eight – and this total includes four from corners. Both of their goals against Inter in the round of 16 were from set plays. In the following round, Ibrahima Konaté highlighted his aerial menace with strikes from corners in both legs against Benfica.
Reflecting on this threat, Frans Hoek, observer of their game at Inter, said: “When I look at Liverpool, it’s about the taker – and they have excellent takers – and then it’s a combination of the right movement in the right space. You can see they do that and have very strong finishers with their head. It’s also the second, third and fourth ball where they put immediate pressure.”
This last point is telling. Back in 2018/19 the UEFA Champions League technical report highlighted Salah’s five shots on goal from set-plays cleared to the edge of the penalty box. This season, Roberto Firmino, Thiago Alcántara and Salah himself have all hit goals from the ‘second phase’ of set plays.
Spreading the load
10: Liverpool players to find the net en route to the final, compared with six from Madrid.
For the record, Madrid’s defending of set-pieces in this season’s competition has been solid, with just one goal conceded from a corner – to Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger. However, they would be wise to be doubly prepared come Saturday.
Amid the incredible late drama that Madrid have scripted on their path to this final, they have also sought to make an early impact in matches with inventive kick-off routines. At home against Paris, Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos and Marco Asensio produced a slick combination in the centre circle, which ended with Asensio nearly finding Vinícius Jr with a through-ball.
Carlo Ancelotti’s men got even closer on the restart of their home leg against Man City. Kroos concluded an exchange of passes in the centre circle with a diagonal ball behind the City backline for Dani Carvajal to chase on to and cross low to Vinícius, who ought to have scored at the back post.
If they did not get their reward for inventiveness on those two occasions they did score within ten seconds of a Paris kick-off in the second leg of their round of 16 tie. Three white shirts went in instant pursuit of the ball as Paris restarted at 2-1; they won it back and, in a flash, Benzema had his hat-trick.
If there were an early goal from either side – and don’t forget Liverpool got one after 107 seconds when they were last in the final – one thing not in doubt would be the ability of the opposition to come back. There are arguably no two sides in Europe with greater mental strength than Liverpool and Madrid right now. Klopp called his team the “mentality monsters” after their 3-2 semi-final win at Villarreal.
As for Real, their fightbacks against Paris, Chelsea and Manchester City explain why UEFA observer Roberto Martínez put the emotional factor at the heart of their success in getting this far. “It is that winning culture when you put on that shirt – you expect to win,” he said. The fact both teams hold such conviction should make Saturday’s contest all the more enthralling.