As far as UEFA Champions League quarter-final ties go, they don’t get much bigger than this. Real Madrid hosted Liverpool at the Alfredo Di Stéfano in the first leg of the repeat of the 2018 Champions League final, but a number of key players were missing from both sides. Neither team had either of their two senior centre-backs available, while Eden Hazard and Dani Carvajal were also out for Los Blancos.
Two depleted defences meant that we certainly had goals in store, and that was just the case as Real Madrid emerged 3-1 winners – just as they had done nearly three years ago. There was no Gareth Bale to bag a brace for Zinedine Zidane’s men, but Vinícius Júnior stepped up more than adequately with a match-winning performance.
We will take a look at that and much more as we dissect the game and try to understand the reasons for Real’s success.
Liverpool’s lack of pressing
In their 3-0 win over Arsenal, we got to see a glimpse of vintage Liverpool as they pressed incredibly well, pinning the Gunners in their own half for long spells of the match and capitalising from high turnovers. Against Real Madrid, though, they were not so good.
Jürgen Klopp’s line-up, which included both Diogo Jota and Sadio Mané, indicated a clear intent to press Real Madrid high up the pitch and prevent them from having too much comfort on the ball. They were not quite successful, though, as they only made one successful tackle in the Real Madrid third.
Their pressing certainly was not up to the mark, but Toni Kroos’ midfield masterclass meant that it was extremely difficult for Liverpool to pinch the ball in forward positions. The German international often dropped between the centre-backs in possession, using his therapeutic pinged long balls to pick out teammates.
As his passing and heat map from the match indicates, Kroos was simply phenomenal. He took more touches than any of his teammates with 86, completed more passes than any other player on the pitch with 75 at the best accuracy for a Real Madrid player with 90.7% and created more than twice as many chances than anyone else with 5.
However, as aforementioned, Liverpool did not even try to make things hard for him.
The Reds were too busy violating the fundamentals of pressing instead. This frame has been captured just before Kroos played the long ball to Vinícius for the opening goal. You can see that there is absolutely no form of pressure being applied by the Liverpool front line. This is still acceptable, but only if the defence drops back. It’s quite simple: If you give the opposition time on the ball, don’t leave space in behind; and if you leave space in behind, don’t give the opposition time on the ball. Liverpool did neither, and they were made to pay.
Real Madrid did press Liverpool high up the pitch in the opening stages, but after taking the lead, they often decided to sit back. They, unlike the visitors, did so correctly.
Los Blancos dropped into a 4-1-4-1, with the defensive line camped around the edge of the defensive third. This meant that there was little space in behind for Liverpool to work with, and any long balls would be easy pickings for Thibaut Courtois.
Even after being stung once, Liverpool refused to back off, and they were made to pay for a second time. In that case, though, one man had to shoulder the majority of the blame.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s horror-show
It appears that everything that went well against Arsenal went absolutely terribly against Real Madrid for Liverpool, as Alexander-Arnold dropped an absolute shocker of a performance in Spain on the back of a world-class showing in North London.
Vinícius was his direct opponent, but he was not his only problem, though.
Ferland Mendy was encouraged to overlap on the left, and he too enjoyed running at Alexander-Arnold.
The English full-back was absolutely exposed defensively, as he was dribbled past every time he attempted a tackle.
Alexander-Arnold received little help from Mohamed Salah in this regard, as the Egyptian winger stayed up to supposedly press. Mendy pushed further forward than Lucas Vázquez on the opposite flank, and with the already-narrow Liverpool midfield occupied with Casemiro and Luka Modrić, crossfield balls to the left were often the way forward for Real Madrid as Alexander-Arnold would have to contend with both Mendy and Vinícius.
That is not to say, though, that the 22-year-old full-back did not make some entirely avoidable individual mistakes, such as the one that led to Real Madrid’s second goal.
Once again, things started off with Kroos long ball.
Mendy made an overlapping run to chase it, but Alexander-Arnold got there first. What he did with it was simply inexplicable, as he squared a diving header to Marco Asensio, seemingly not even attempting to find his keeper. The Spaniard capitalised by chipping Alisson, going around him, and finally nudging the ball into an empty net.
It’s easy to pin the blame on one player, but this was a terrible showing from Liverpool overall. Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips made individual errors of their own, but fortunately for them, Real Madrid did not capitalise. Each of the eleven players on the pitch and Klopp must be blamed for the joke of a press that they deployed along with the scarily high defensive line, while their cluelessness in possession, especially in the first half, was equally discouraging.
There was a period at the start of the second half when Liverpool looked alright and gave the hosts a serious run for their money, even pulling one goal back through Salah. Before they could build on it, though, the Reds conceded another entirely avoidable goal as they switched off from a throw-in, after which they seemingly resigned to defeat. On the back of a seriously good performance against Arsenal, this was a very puzzling showing by Liverpool, but it perfectly sums up their season.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, were in cruise control for most of this match. In all seriousness, Eibar looked a lot more threatening at the Alfredo Di Stéfano on Saturday than Liverpool did last night. Zidane’s men face their old friends from Barcelona next, so they must be quite content with this comfortable victory where they did not have to overly exert themselves.
Liverpool do have a second leg to mount a comeback, but going by this performance, they will need an even greater miracle at Anfield than the quickly-taken corner of 2019.
Stats courtesy WhoScored.