Champions League final In the Zone: Liverpool 0-1 Real Madrid performance analysis
Tuesday, 31 May 2022
UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyse Real Madrid's narrow victory over Liverpool in the Paris showpiece.
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Real Madrid's 14th triumph in the European Cup was the product of a solitary goal by Vinícius Júnior and some magnificent goalkeeping by Thibaut Courtois.
In this article brought to you by FedEx, UEFA's Technical Observer panel come together to reflect on the keys to Madrid’s narrow victory over Liverpool in a final that brought a record fourth success for coach Carlo Ancelotti.
0-1: Vinícius Júnior (59)
Vinícius Júnior’s back-post finish earned him a place in the record books – and also justified pre-match talk about the significance of his duel with Trent Alexander-Arnold. Yet the observer panel first highlighted key actions in the build-up, starting with the contribution of Luka Modrić. Coming under pressure from Andrew Robertson in the right-back position, the Madrid veteran turned and produced a terrific pass between two red shirts to the feet of Dani Carvajal, who in turn worked the ball crisply infield to Casemiro.
From there Casemiro set Fede Valverde on a run down the right into the space vacated by Robertson. As Valverde entered the box, he drove the ball on a low diagonal course towards the back post. With Ibrahima Konaté following Karim Benzema's run towards the front post, Alexander-Arnold behind him was not alert to Vinícius at the back and the Madrid forward applied the decisive touch.
Roberto Martínez, the Belgium coach and UEFA match observer, hailed the clinical touch of a Madrid side who had only two efforts on goal all night – the first ahead of Benzema's disallowed goal just before half-time and the second this winning strike. "They knew they would be under pressure for long spells but they never lost that killer aspect that they only need one chance to score a goal."
Player of the Match: Thibaut Courtois
The Belgian went into the final having made the most saves (50) of any player in the competition between September and May. He made nine more against Liverpool, the first five of them coming in a five-minute spell from the 16th minute which culminated in him getting down low to tip a Sadio Mané shot on to the post – a key moment of Madrid's early resistance according to the UEFA observer panel which credited him for "crucial saves at critical moments during the first half when Liverpool were on top".
Courtois saved the best for last by keeping out a Mohamed Salah shot in the 83rd minute, throwing out his right arm to deny the Egyptian after Salah had beautifully taken a ball over the top into his stride. David James, a former Liverpool goalkeeper and member of the observers' group, noted: "If he doesn't make those two incredible saves Liverpool win the game and we have a completely different discussion here."
Liverpool set up in a 1-4-3-3 with midfielder Thiago Alcántara (No6) passed fit despite an Achilles problem. In defence, Konaté (No5) was selected alongside Virgil van Dijk (No4) in the centre and – as seen in the video above – his speed helped to provide cover on the Liverpool right as Madrid targeted the space behind the forward-looking Alexander-Arnold (66) with long passes.
When Liverpool pressed, their shape shifted to a 1-3-1-4-2 with Mané (No10) and Salah (No11) leading the press, followed by four men behind in Luis Díaz (No23), Thiago (No6), Henderson (No14) and Alexander-Arnold (No66) pushing into midfield. Meanwhile, when Madrid tried to work the ball up the field, it was notable that Salah, Mané and Diaz would all come central to close down space in the middle of the field.
Madrid had a 1-4-3-3 structure albeit out of possession Valverde (No15) would drop back on the right as he had done in previous matches, their shape morphing towards a 1-4-4-2.
Generally Carlo Ancelotti set his team up to sit deep, ensuring there was no space behind their back line for the Liverpool forwards to exploit. Casemiro (No14), the sitting midfielder, would drop between the centre-backs to operate as a fifth defender at times. Meanwhile, Modrić (No10) sought to stay close to Thiago, pressing him as much as possible in an attempt to limit his influence, and instead allowing Fabinho more time on the ball.
This was a match where Liverpool had more of the ball (54%), managed 24 shots to Madrid's four and ended the night with an xG of 2.19 to their opponents' 0.92. Yet Madrid came away with the trophy.
One obvious feature of the Spanish champions' game plan was to look for balls to Vinícius Júnior out on their left wing. This was apparent from the outset with Valverde the first to seek out the Brazilian with a crossfield ball in the fourth minute. Then, in the seventh minute a David Alaba ball up the left led to Alisson Becker leaving his box to head away before Alexander-Arnold completed the clearance (with one of his final-best 14 recoveries). This action is featured in the first clip of the video above which shows how, as Alexander-Arnold is drawn inside into Madrid territory, Vinícius moves into space on the halfway line.
As Fabio Capello observed, this ploy meant that if Madrid did lose the ball, they lost it "far from their own box" with their defenders in good positions. It was a risk-free approach which was evident also in their build-up with goalkeeper Courtois and his defence taking no chances following a couple of early scares. As Packie Bonner said: "When the pressure came on, they played long."
Ancelotti's men had to withstand pressure in the first half, notably during that aforementioned five-minute spell which produced five Liverpool shots. Frank de Boer observed that the Reds found some profit from Jordan Henderson operating wide on the right, Salah coming inside and Alexander-Arnold turning up in pockets of space.
"Henderson goes wider and they try to play in the gaps in between," he said. This yielded the first of Salah's six goal attempts of the final as Thiago's diagonal ball out to Henderson led to the captain nodding it back inside for Alexander-Arnold whose run and cross brought a low flick by the Egyptian, foiled by Courtois
James saw Thiago's influence at its strongest in this spell. "Thiago is fundamental to Liverpool's success and in that first half, when Thiago got the ball early, things started happening. It was 15 minutes before he really got on the ball and then we saw a number of good opportunities." The pity for Liverpool was that thereafter Thiago's impact was more sporadic.
The player's fitness problems had necessitated him warming up away from the rest of the team, watched by a physio, and without him pulling the strings as normal, added James, "the build-up was Alisson getting the ball, giving it to Konaté or Van Dijk, then the ball goes wide and down the wing". Indeed James added that he saw similarities with his old club's recent home matches against Villarreal and Tottenham Hotspur which offered evidence that "if you can stop Liverpool from scoring early then they have problems".
As Thiago's influence waned, Liverpool could no longer press as intensely – the Spaniard made the most interceptions (four) of any player on either side – and the observer panel's view was they missed the full influence of a player who still posted a 94.4% pass completion rate in the attacking third. Eventually, in the 77th minute, he made way for Roberto Firmino with Naby Keïta, a different kind of midfielder, replacing Henderson at the same time.
The technical observer panel also wondered whether Liverpool's long campaign, spent challenging on four fronts, had finally told. This was their 63rd match and Capello reflected: "Liverpool were not as fast as they were in the [rest of the] season." Martínez concurred: "I didn't see their normal energy." While Jürgen Klopp's men managed 65 recoveries across the 90 minutes, 31 of that number came in the opening 35 minutes.
Liverpool's pressing in the first half – with Alexander-Arnold giving them a fourth man in the middle – had helped them to stop Modrić getting on the ball. Indeed the Croatian made only two passes in the final third before the break. Yet the game changed in the second period when Madrid began to find the veteran, working the ball wide to their full-backs, who were now pushing higher up, before it came back infield to Modrić.
De Boer paid credit to Madrid's game management, to their ability to sense when the time was right for a shift into an attacking gear. "That's the quality of Madrid – they recognise those moments. In the first half when they had the ball, they tried to play directly to Vinícius and he would directly start running. Then suddenly in second half they could play in between. The second half was more controlled by Madrid and after the goal it was, 'We've done our job, now try to score Liverpool'."
Meanwhile, Aitor Karanka, a Champions League winner with Madrid as a player, cited the winning mindset that had helped them achieve Houdini-like escapes against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City. "It's the mentality, it's the shirt. You don't see them panicking."
If the 15-goal Benzema was Madrid's hero en route to this final, their defenders earned particular praise from the technical observer panel for their efforts at the Stade de France. Éder Militão made the most clearances (four) of the match and won six of his seven duels – receiving a chest bump from fellow centre-back David Alaba after diverting wide a first-half strike by Mané.
At right-back Carvajal caught the observers' eye too, winning three of his four tackles – including one in the first half when Diaz looked to have got past him down the Madrid right only for the full-back to recover and come away with the ball. As for Valverde, as well as teeing up the winning goal, his stats showed three of five successful take-ons and the game's highest average carry distance of 8.5m.
Madrid also defended well against Liverpool's set pieces. The Reds had scored eight set-play goals en route to the final yet from six corners only produced one goal attempt – a shot that Henderson whistled wide from outside the box after Benzema had headed away Robertson's first delivery of the night. Frans Hoek noted that one of Alexander-Arnold's three corners was driven low to the near post, just as he had done when teeing up Divock Origi to score against Barcelona in the 2019 semi-final, but on this instance there were white shirts alert to the threat.
Liverpool's only far-post corner was collected by the giant figure of Courtois and Capello praised Ancelotti for the way Madrid were set up to defend dead balls with "the Real Madrid players all at the front post because if it's a long ball [to the back], it's for Courtois. Usually Liverpool are really dangerous. They scored a lot of goals but not one header on goal [on Saturday]. Ancelotti prepared everything."
Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool coach
"The problem is when you play against Real Madrid and they play that deep, their counterattacking threat is immense. I saw us doing a lot of good things, but it was not enough. We accept that. They scored a goal and we didn't – that's the easiest explanation in the world of football. It's harsh, but we respect that of course."
Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid coach
"Liverpool were strong, but if you keep a high defence and give them room to attack behind you, that's where you struggle. So our defenders did well to close those spaces. I think it helped that Liverpool were easier to decipher than others, because they have a very clear identity and we could prepare the way we did.
"We knew what strategy to take: don't give them space behind the defence to run into. Perhaps our football wasn't extraordinarily beautiful on an aesthetic level, but playing out from the back to incentivise their pressing wasn't a great idea. We hit a few more long balls, then when their press in our half of the pitch lessened, we got to control the ball more in the second half."