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CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL: The tactics Real Madrid need to spoil Liverpool (& the neutrals) party

Real Madrid go into the 2018 Champions League final as the enemy of most neutrals.

Their opponents, Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, have won the hearts and minds of many through their rampant pressing and incisive counter-attacking, led by the pacey Mohamed Salah.

That, along with the fact that the Spanish giants have monopolised Europe's elite club competition in recent years, means a great deal of support lies with the Premier League side.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, major continental ties are not won on support. And, as recent finals have shown, Real Madrid have a tendency, a knack even, for upsetting the neutral's preference, overcoming city rivals Atletico in 2016 and thrashing Juventus last season.

Here we analyse how Real could make it three Champions League titles in a row.


Liverpool have overwhelmed teams that try to play through them. Manchester City, one of the finest possession sides in Europe, were harangued relentlessly while trying to pass out from the back and centrally through the middle third in each of their last three clashes.

Klopp lines his side up in a 4-3-3, with Salah and Mane occupying the inside channels between the opposition centre-backs and full-backs. Roberto Firmino leads the press and is also involved in backwards pressing when opposition possession moves beyond him. All of this, along with the three-man midfield's aggression, can make the centre a dangerous place to go when facing Liverpool.

Real Madrid should therefore avoid playing into this area, keeping build-up simple by going sideways and wide. By deliberately not attempting to play through the first line of pressure and instead playing around it, the threats associated with Liverpool's pressing can be reduced somewhat. It is no coincidence that Klopp's men have struggled domestically against teams with rather conservative passing games.

This can be assisted by the outer central midfielders in Real's typical 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-3 system – Toni Kroos and Luka Modric – dropping deep in their respective half-spaces to ensure support around the ball.

This is a ploy Zinedine Zidane's men utilised to play around centralised pressing in their 3-0 win away to Juventus in the Champions League quarter-finals.

If necessary, Zidane should instruct his players to go long to prevent turnovers and counter-attacking opportunities for Liverpool high up the pitch. This may not lead to consistent high-quality attacking moves, but it will take away their opponents' primary strength.

This would be nothing new for Real Madrid. They were unashamedly direct their 2016 final win over Atletico – while they ended up with just 48 per cent of possession that night, they didn't play into the hands of an exceptional pressing and counter-attacking outfit.


Real Madrid's full-backs, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo, are key to the team's attacking play. Both could quite easily play in more advanced or central roles given their quality on the ball, and their dribbling, control and crossing will be crucial if Zidane's side are to build cohesive attacks against Liverpool.

As well as offering a wide outlet to relieve pressure during build-up, the full-backs attack their respective flanks, often ending up in extremely advanced positions. This means Real can switch play quickly to exploit the far side, often leading Carvajal and Marcelo into advantageous one on one situations against the opposing full-back.

Crossing is an important aspect of Real Madrid's game, something confirmed by the fact only one side – Eibar – attempted more crosses per game in La Liga this season.

Given their ability to get into good attacking positions where there is little defensive coverage, along with the quality of their crosses, both Carvajal and Marcelo can supply the aerially dominant Cristiano Ronaldo, who has developed into an innovative poacher in recent years.


Real Madrid's defence has let them down on occasions this season. Their La Liga record of 44 goals conceded was far worse than their domestic rivals Atletico and Barcelona managed, while head-scratching home displays against Juventus (conceded three) and Bayern Munich (conceded two) almost led to their elimination from the Champions League.

Zidane must organise his side better without the ball if they are to have any chance against a free-scoring Liverpool side in the final, and he can start by learning from mistakes made in a recent meeting with Barcelona.

Deploying an aggressive man-oriented press, his side lacked compactness, at times leaving huge gaps between the midfield and defensive lines for their rivals to exploit. An example of this is seen below. With Kroos and Casemiro pushing up to join the press, there is a worrying amount of space between Real Madrid's back four and midfielders, while Lionel Messi (gulp) is left completely isolated to receive a through pass from Ivan Rakitic.

Using a similar defensive approach against Liverpool could prove fatal, as Klopp's front three would cause havoc given this amount of freedom. Instead, Zidane must implement a more cautious plan without the ball.

Casemiro could operate close to his central defensive teammates, while Modric and Kroos should focus more on retaining the team's structure than moving up to press their opposite men. With an emphasis on shape and compactness, Real can reduce the space afforded to Liverpool's explosive attackers in the final third.

With a less aggressive defensive approach, risk-free build-up, and quality wing play from the full-backs, Real Madrid would have a good chance of sealing a third straight Champions League.

About the author

Blair Newman

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