How Liverpool’s tactical naivety against Real Madrid led to an unthinkable meltdown

Watching Liverpool in last night’s 5-2 collapse at the hands of Real Madrid, you could be forgiven for thinking Jurgen Klopp’s side had no previous experience of a two-legged European tie.

This, of course, is far from the truth. Liverpool’s record in European competition under Klopp is exemplary. They reached the Europa League final in 2016 and then the Champions League final in 2018, 2019 and 2022. They have lost three of those four finals but are obviously excellent at getting through two-legged matches.

Yet they often progressed in chaos rather than control.

Think of their journeys to the final, and you remember the 5-4 aggregate win over Borussia Dortmund in 2016, the 7-6 aggregate win over Roma in 2018, the miraculous comeback to win 4-3 against Barcelona in 2019, and maybe the 6-4 win against Benfica last season.

But sometimes it feels like Liverpool only have one kit. They can only play heavy metal football. No way to slow down the pace of a match and calmly assert your dominance. Last night it cost them.

More than Athleticism on Liverpool’s collapse at Anfield…

Early in Klopp’s battles with Pep Guardiola in English football, matches took on a familiar pattern. Liverpool came out of the traps, took an early lead, then couldn’t maintain that pace and City gradually worked their way into the game. More recently, it feels like Liverpool and City styles have converged and Klopp’s side have become more patient.

But last night’s performance against Real was a throwback to the good old days: a searing opener, then an unthinkable collapse.

At 2-0, Liverpool played as if they were down 2-0. Against Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo’s counterattacking threat, Karim Benzema’s clever movement and Federico Valverde’s relentless run, Klopp’s side continued to throw men in attack.

Here’s an example of the two full-backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, committing to attack with the score at 2-0. In this situation, at least the midfield trio is in a position to guard against any counterattack. That wouldn’t always be the case.

After Vinicius Jr brought Real back into the game with an excellent goal from nothing, Liverpool kept coming. Here is Alexander-Arnold drilling a cross ball towards Robertson, ending for a spectacular volley. Top marks for ambition, but the consequence was Vinicius Jr bursting into space on the left, full-backs nowhere to be found. He didn’t quite make the final ball.

Klopp’s approach, of course, is all about risk and reward – and it would be rude not to recommend Liverpool’s approach when things are going well.

Here’s another example of Liverpool full-backs being elevated – in fact, nine outfielders are in this first screenshot. Liverpool have just conceded possession – but with team-mates helping to take up space around the ball, Cody Gakpo charges towards Nacho, wins possession on the edge of the box and Liverpool find themselves in a promising situation.

It’s a classic counter-press, precisely what Klopp wants from his side.

But again, Liverpool failed to take advantage of this opportunity and Vinicius Jr was again allowed to counterattack in space. For clarity, Virgil van Dijk is out shooting from the right, ready to step in. And you can’t fault his teammates’ determination to come back. Also, Vinicius Jr ends up tripping over the ball.

But that’s obviously a ridiculous situation for a team 2-1 up front, and Liverpool’s approach helped a home-and-away game which saw Real get back into it.

At times Liverpool tried to be mature. The closest to a third goal, a scrappy situation involving Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez, came after a rare period of possession play in midfield, with Fabinho and Stefan Bajcetic exchanging passes in midfield, building up movement slowly.

But at other times, Liverpool’s lack of tactical awareness was staggering.

Here is an example of Jordan Henderson gaining possession in midfield and dribbling forward. Salah and Nunez, the two wide players, prepare to sprint forward.

Henderson makes a pass to Bajcetic, but Eduardo Camavinga reads his intention and intercepts. Liverpool’s move lasted precisely zero assists. Real Madrid regained possession immediately after losing it. Despite Liverpool’s focus on their own counter-pressure, they constantly allow the opposition to give them a taste of their own medicine.

And because Liverpool forwards had begun their attacking transition, they are unable to come back and help defend.

Liverpool’s defense and midfield are in place, but it’s like watching Paris Saint-Germain – a 4-3-0 form. Really work the ball into Valverde, who shoots over the top. It’s not a brilliant chance, but Liverpool shouldn’t have put themselves in this situation around ten seconds after gaining possession in midfield.

And even Real’s equalizer – yes, a bizarre goal – came from a lack of patience.

Bajcetic tries to turn forward when he could have played a simple side pass. It turns into traffic and Liverpool have lost the ball. Alisson’s mistake is obvious. But it’s worth pointing out that he was actually trying to play a positive forward pass, probably to Alexander-Arnold, as a simple ball to three other defenders was thrown. It was not a risk worth taking.

At this point it was 2-2, and maybe there was more call to take a risk.

But even in this direct free-kick situation, Liverpool seemed naive. Alexander-Arnold was always going to fire from this position; a cross would have been impossible. And yet, Liverpool felt the need to push Van Dijk and Gomez, both highlighted, to the edge of the opposition box. For what? Did they expect this balloon to be crossed? Would they be better poachers than Nunez, Salah and Gakpo if Thibaut Courtois pushed the ball away? As Courtois grabs the ball, Liverpool’s centre-backs are the two players – from each team – closest to the goal.

And what happens? Courtois kicks the ball in, Vinicius Jr attacks again into space on the left and almost places himself for a tap-in from Rodrygo. Van Dijk, who could have defended the precise space Rodrygo collided into, is still chasing in midfield. Only a superb last-minute tackle from Robertson prevented Liverpool from losing 3-2 at the break.

Things got out of control after half-time, of course. Liverpool poorly defended a free kick wide and lost 3-2. They were unhappy with Benzema’s deflected goal for the fourth, then crumbled completely and left their centre-backs exposed again for the fifth.

The number of expected goals would suggest Real were lucky to score five. But the expected goal numbers only take shots into account. They don’t explain that Vinicius Jr was allowed to counterattack three times in the first half – once not quite playing the final pass, another time tripping over the ball and finally squared the ball off to a simple tap-in – but for Robertson’s Intervention.

These moves didn’t produce any shots, but they were still significant. They were important because they gave Real an easy path to goal, and they were important because they were a direct result of Liverpool’s poor organisation.

Klopp’s side offered little attacking threat in the closing stages, as if they were happy to accept the scoreline.

In a damning indictment of this team’s tactical intelligence, when Liverpool were 2-0 down they played more like they were 2-0 down, and when they were 5-2 down they played more like they led 5-2.

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