On the face of it, Liverpool should not be taking any lessons from Manchester City about how to beat Real Madrid. Pep Guardiola’s side were unceremoniously dumped out of Europe by the La Liga side in the semi-finals, mustering an implosion of epic proportions to throw away another shot at their first piece of European glory.
But as they seek their seventh, Liverpool will be using Man City as a blueprint in a different way. Specifically, Jürgen Klopp will be reflecting on exactly how his side got the better of Guardiola in the recent FA Cup meeting. The Champions League final will pose a similar test in one particular area of the pitch, and two unusual playmakers may have to come to prominence once again in order to see off Real Madrid.
At first glance, Real Madrid and Manchester City do not pose especially similar challenges. Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti are both great managers, but they are from very different schools. The Italian is a throwback in many ways, consistently finding ways to harness the quality of individuals rather than slavishly dictating the team patterns. But a lot of that quality comes in the wide areas – almost incidentally, it presents Liverpool with a roughly equivalent test to the one they faced at Wembley.
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On that occasion, Klopp came up against a specific Man City plan. He had highlighted it before the game, claiming that Guardiola no longer lets his full-backs past the halfway line when he comes up against Liverpool. Sure enough, when the game came around, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were deprived of spaces to run into.
Against Real Madrid, the full-backs will once again struggle to bomb forward, because they are likely to have their hands full. Alexander-Arnold will be renewing acquaintances with Vinicius Jr., against whom he struggled last season. Robertson will most likely have to face Rodrygo at some point in the contest. In short, the Liverpool pair will be denied their usual freedom.
Naturally, Klopp will task his midfield with their usual job of plugging gaps when necessary, and Liverpool will still seek to get their full-backs involved in an attacking sense where possible. But it would be shrewd to plot some other routes to goal, too, and Man City have the blueprint.
In the 3-2 win, the emphasis fell upon two different Liverpool playmakers. The first was set pieces. Klopp has harnessed these situations all season, and his side finished the Premier League season with the best record in the league from corners. Manchester City ended with the best defensive record, but they were still breached when the two sides met, Ibrahima Konaté powering home a header.
Real Madrid also have a respectable record at defending set pieces: they conceded five in the league this season. By way of comparison, Man City let in just one, but Barcelona shipped 11 (and Liverpool themselves conceded six). But there is not a huge degree of height in the Spanish team. This is something Guardiola expressed concern about before he faced Klopp’s side, and the worry proved prescient.
Whether it is Nacho Fernandez or David Alaba who ends up playing, neither have a good record when it comes to aerial duels won. The Austrian’s is particularly lamentable, with 0.8 wins per 90 placing him in the very bottom percentile of center-backs among Europe’s top five leagues. Elsewhere on the pitch, Federico Valverde and Luka Modrić lack height too. Liverpool will see a chance to exploit this – it may even decide the question of who starts at center-back out of Konaté and Joël Matip, although the Cameroonian still has a convincing case.
As well as set pieces, Klopp will want to turn up the dial on another of his playmakers: pressing. The manager has famously claimed that no player can be as effective a creator as a good press, and Real Madrid may be about to find out the truth of this statement.
Liverpool thrive against teams who are confident enough to play out from behind – over the course of the 90 minutes, they will look to sap that confidence from Real Madrid. It would be no surprise to see Thibaut Courtois reduced to hurried, sliced clearances within 20 minutes or so. Hopefully, by then, the scoreline already reads in Klopp’s favor.
Rarely has the press been more aggressive than it was against Manchester City, and Liverpool got the ultimate reward. It might be too much to ask for Courtois to drop a clanger of Zack Steffen proportions (although it would be sweet retribution for 2018), but there is certainly an opportunity to force errors from Real Madrid, creating high-quality chances from high turnovers.
The battle of the wide areas will fail to materialize if Liverpool can cut off the distribution channels. If they could manage it against Manchester City, the master passers, they can certainly do it against Ancelotti’s band of individuals.
Between the pressing and the set pieces, Liverpool have two very effective playmakers outside of their usually reliable pair. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson could still make the difference from open play, but Real Madrid can not think they have won simply because they have managed to pin them back. Klopp has built a side that can hurt opponents from everywhere: just ask Manchester City.