If Liverpool were hopeful success in the Champions League would salvage their season, those hopes were dealt a major blow last week as they suffered a 3-1 quarter final first leg defeat to Real Madrid. This was proof the Reds’ troubles extend beyond the Premier League. There was no escapism in the surreal surroundings of the Spanish giants’ out-of-town temporary home.
Jurgen Klopp was given plenty to ponder by the performance and result. Real Madrid are not the force they were a few years ago, but Liverpool were comprehensively outplayed by their hosts. Not only this, Klopp was outmanoeuvred by an opposition manager frequently targeted for his lack of tactical nous.
Lessons must be learned from what happened at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano if Liverpool are to have any chance of overturning the 3-1 deficit to make the Champions League semi finals. With the right game plan, Klopp and his players can still make amends at Anfield on Wednesday.
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First of all, Liverpool must do more to pressure Toni Kroos on the ball. The German was a controlling influence in the centre of the pitch for Real Madrid last week, producing the pass from which Vinicius Junior scored the opener. Kroos performed the role Liverpool signed Thiago Alcantara to carry out, but Naby Keita started over him.
Liverpool appeared disorientated by Casemiro’s advanced position and consequently left Kroos and Luka Modric with far too much space in deep positions. Even if Casemiro pushes forward at Anfield, Klopp must ensure his players burst past the Brazilian to get to Real Madrid’s most technically able pair. They’re the ones who can do the most damage.
Klopp might also be advised to drop his defensive line 10 yards closer to goal. There’s no denying the effectiveness of Liverpool’s high line when they have everyone fit, but Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips simply don’t have the physical attributes to make it work, particularly against an opponent as good at getting in behind with pace as Real Madrid.
Some of Liverpool’s best performances this season have come when Klopp has integrated Diogo Jota as part of a front four in a 4-2-3-1 shape. The attacking benefit of having Jota, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah all on the pitch at the same time is clear, but it also allows the Reds to press higher.
Trent Alexander-Arnold und Andy Robertson vom FC Liverpool
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The problem here could be when Real Madrid beat the high press and feed the ball into midfield, where Liverpool might be overwhelmed. This would ask a lot of Fabinho and whoever partners the Brazilian in the centre of the pitch, but the reward may well be worth the risk.
It goes without saying that Trent Alexander-Arnold must cut out the mistakes, but for all the scrutiny the right back has been placed under in recent weeks it’s Andy Robertson who could help Liverpool clamber back into the tie. The Scot has similarly struggled for form this season, but against a Real Madrid side with a right-sided deficiency Klopp needs his left back to be more productive, certainly more energetic.
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Of course, Liverpool have pulled off a second leg comeback against Spanish opposition in the recent past, but Klopp knows his side can’t rely on the Anfield factor to pull them through on Wednesday night, especially when the place will be empty. “You don't get a comeback because you had a comeback in the past,” he said. “You only have a chance if you play really good football in the present.”
Really good football, as Klopp puts it, will require changes, both in terms of strategy and mindset. A repeat of the performance produced last week in the Spanish capital will result in a similar outcome. To stand any chance of salvaging this season through the Champions League, Liverpool must first do the work to salvage this tie.
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