Tactical Preview: How do Liverpool beat Real Madrid?

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Over the course of the season I’ve been breaking down a number of Liverpool’s matches in both the Premier League and Champions League, however, this week I was asked to do something rather different instead, and scout Real Madrid for the AEye Scouted pod, hosted by Dave Hendrick. Below are the key findings of my 12 game scouting exercise – essentially my notes – and a blueprint of sorts for as to how Liverpool might be able to beat Real Madrid tactically.

So, what defines Real Madrid’s play?

In terms of style of play, Real are very fluid. A team extremely comfortable in possession, but also with a counter-attacking potency as good as Liverpool’s. Yet there’s no clear identity to them, they way that City or Barcelona are seen as possession-based sides, or Liverpool and Spurs as high-pressing, ultra-high energy sides.

However, their style very much depends on who plays: if it’s a starting XI of Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Kroos, Modric, Isco; Benzema and Ronaldo – which seems the likely setup – Madrid will have a six, and two CMs ahead, in a staggered role, while Isco will float in a free role. Benzema in this system will function as an auxiliary striker, supporting Ronaldo as the centre-forward. Because of this structure, with Ronaldo playing centrally, and essentially what are four central midfielders, the width for Madrid has to be provided by Marcelo and Carvajal.

If Asensio/Bale or Vasquez start for Real Madrid though, they can shape up very differently. Bale and Asensio, in particular, are far more adept at operating within the wide channels and spreading out Real Madrid’s play.

Defensively, Madrid’s shape depends upon the context of the game. If the scores are level, or they’re chasing, there’ll be plenty of space in the full-back channels, as Marcelo and Carvajal push up to provide width, which is something Salah and Mané will no doubt be encouraged by, as they may find themselves with space to run into, and the opportunity to run at either Varane or Ramos in one on one situations, where they can really use their speed advantage and dribbling skills to full effect.

The key for Liverpool will be to not concede early on – for when Madrid play with a tight and compact back four, they’re extremely hard to break down. In order to break such a side down, the opposing team needs to commit players forward, and stretch them – what this means though is that Madrid will be able to counter-attack into space with ease. Furthermore, whilst Liverpool have improved in recent months in using wide areas and stretching play against low-blocks, generally, the team looks far less comfortable when trying to break a low-block team down compared to counter-attacking.

Real Madrid also employ a press, high up the field, where Isco, Ronaldo and Benzema look to target the fullback; Alexander-Arnold may have to be wary of this, and in the case he is pressed, Marcelo will likely join in too, meaning Henderson and Wijnaldum/Milner need to come short if Liverpool want to play their way out. What this also offers though, is an opportunity, if Marcelo is pressing up, a long pass into space which he’s vacated may allow Salah to break in behind.

But where will the majority of Liverpool’s opportunities to attack come from then?

  • Pressing the six
  • Fullbacks
  • Counter-attacks

Pressing the six

Juventus, in their 3-0 loss against Madrid pressed Casemiro every time he received the ball. If we ignore the scoreline and focus on the merits of the game though, it was clear that this was a successful ploy, with Juventus able to turn the ball over in key central areas, and pounce. Dybala’s red card and Ronaldo’s wondergoal scuppered Juventus’ chances in the game, but the way Juventus pressed him was reminiscent of Liverpool pressing Fernandinho. However, because of Madrid’s midfield structure, in which Kroos is close to Casemiro, Liverpool will need to block that short passing lane. But for a team which covered the lanes into Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva well enough, this should not be too much of a challenge.

What may become an issue though, is if Madrid use either Kroos or Kovacic as the six, who, whilst less efficient in breaking up play, are far more comfortable on the ball, and may be able to play their way through the press.

Because of the way Madrid play, it’s far more likely that should Liverpool press Casemiro successfully, they will likely find themselves in situations where they can break into the final third of the pitch with only the Madrid centre-backs to concern themselves with. There’s a reason as to why Klopp calls gegenpressing the “best playmaker” and this is precisely it: winning the ball up the field, in dangerous central areas, without the risk of possession based positional play.

Targeting the fullbacks and the channels in behind them

Targeting the fullbacks may also prove extremely useful. Liverpool can use the touchline to reduce options for the fullback, and approach by covering the CMs and closest CB – like Firmino did to Otamendi (second goal, second leg). Pressing them is one thing, but targeting the spaces they vacate, and the individuals covering in those spaces is another aspect too.

“Transitions” is something we’ve mentioned a few times this season on the tactical breakdowns, but it’s something you’ll hear moreso on the Under Pressure, Tactics Weekly or Talking Tactics podcasts, but it’s absolutely essential for Liverpool to seize upon Real Madrid’s transitional play. For when Madrid even anticipate  the prospect of winning possession, their fullbacks, Marcelo in particular, sprint forward, as Modric moves up, and Benzema moves closer to Ronaldo up top – who is almost always in a central channel to aid with a quick transition or counter-attack (as Liverpool’s SAS used to do under Brendan Rodgers). It’s this immediate offensive movement which gives Liverpool the opportunity to counter-press and not just win the ball in a dangerous area but win the ball in areas in which there is minimal defensive cover.

For more analysis on transitions, in particular, take a look at @DistanceCovered’s article “Organising Chaos against Real Madrid“, as there’s no need for myself to cover content that has already been written on so thoroughly.

As for the fullbacks though, there are other considerations, as for when Marcelo pushes up high, to win aerial balls from goal kicks, there is also an issue of the second ball or loose balls here. Additionally, Marcelo, as wingers often do, effectively pinned the right back, when he played against Juventus, restricting offensive output on that flank. Liverpool already have the tools to cope with this, as they set up in an off-ball 4-5-1, however, Liverpool will likely need to bring back Firmino to fill in on this side, which means one less player on the counter-attack (providing Firmino does not instigate it via pressing Marcelo), so the long-passes of Alexander-Arnold to release Salah may be extremely important in this regard.


As we already know, Liverpool are one of the finest counter-attacking sides in the world, with the pioneer of gegenpressing, Jürgen Klopp running the show. This is no false or weak imitation of counter-pressing and sparking counter-attacks, indeed, this is the real deal. And counter-attacking Madrid, either on set pieces, such as corners or in open play will play to Liverpool’s strengths and pry on Madrid’s weaknesses. Liverpool are one of the best transition sides in the world, and Madrid leaves themselves open to certain types of attacks. When the Madrid fullbacks push on, the six is left with the two centre-backs. Admittedly, neither of the CBs are slow, and when Madrid lose the ball, the CMs attempt to fill in as the fullbacks; however, should it come to a foot race between one of the CBs or the CMs filling in as fullbacks against Mané or Salah, there is only going to be one winner. Furthermore, set-pieces offer a rare opportunity for Liverpool to break into the opposition half with Varane and Ramos not in their defensive positions: goals against West Ham and Arsenal this season – both from corners – stick out as examples of how Liverpool could break on set-pieces.

What we saw in Liverpool’s most recent match against Brighton, but also to great success against City and Roma were long passes in behind the defensive line. Both City and Roma players criticised it, but it’s very much what we’re likely to see, the question is though, whether Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner will be able to do so when under pressure, or with the quality required.

Key areas

The Liverpool midfield, as we would expect, is going to play a huge role in this game, and will have to not only press Real Madrid’s talented CMs backwards but also deal with their press too. Although, when Madrid press, it’s in a 4-4-1-1 shape, with one player from the midfield four stepping out, which leaves a space which they’ve vacated, which can be exploited if the passing is precise. i.e. if Liverpool’s six is pressed, Liverpool need fastball speed, into the second CM, in order to exploit space – Wijnaldum’s circulation and Henderson will be extremely important in this regard.

Breaking through the Real Madrid midfield with passes may be extremely hard, especially as it is often packed. But on the occasion Liverpool do need to work centrally, Van Dijk’s passing range and ability will need to be utilised to break through the first Real Madrid defensive block. From there it’s simply a question of Liverpool getting the ball to Firmino who can link up with the wingers on either side of him. Indeed, Bayern Munich used this tactic to good effect, as they received the ball centrally and sent it wide immediately; unfortunately for Bayern, the injuries to Coman and Robben, alongside the poor finishing of the team, in general, cost them, but their tactics nonetheless were both correct and fairly successful in exploiting those wide areas and creating chances from them too. Liverpool may certainly miss the impact of Oxlade-Chamberlain, and at first glance this may seem a crippling loss, however, Wijnaldum’s performance in the first-leg against Roma, as a box-to-box midfielder offers some hope that Liverpool may still have some central penetration, but Firmino will still need to drop and come short to create passing channels in order to break through the Madrid defensive line, and he will also likely need to do so when Madrid are in possession too, to ease the numerical central advantage they usually enjoy.

The fullbacks, whilst briefly mentioned earlier, will certainly have to do defensive work, but their offensive work will very much be dependent upon the scoreline – should Liverpool take the lead, we will likely see a similar performance to the first-leg against City, where both fullbacks largely stayed in the Liverpool half and stayed tight to their winger. If Liverpool do go behind though, Liverpool will need them to push up in order to provide width and support attacks. What they must do in defence though, is be proactive and slightly advanced in their positioning to try and cut off outlet balls to the Real Madrid fullbacks, in order to spring counter-attacks. Importantly though the Liverpool fullbacks have to block crossing opportunities, as for it’s not just a question of just heading ability (i.e. can VVD or Lovren compete for the ball against Ronaldo) it’s also an issue of movement, and Ronaldo’s movement is second to none in the box, hence Liverpool must stop the ball getting into the air in dangerous areas by bringing back Mané and Firmino to support the Liverpool fullbacks when under pressure.

With regard to pressing, it’s clear Liverpool can and should target the Madrid six (likely Casemiro), their fullbacks, and even a centre-back. However, when it comes to pressing Kroos, Modric or Isco, there’s a greater risk to the pressing. Kroos is one of the best retainers of the ball in the world, and he averages less than one dispossession per game (0.6), with the ability to pass through or beyond a press with his short and long range passing. Modric and Isco, on the other hand, have the ability to dribble through challenges and then spring directly onto the space vacated by those pressing players, thus against these players, the press should be less orientated towards winning the ball, instead being a defensive and discouraging press, forcing them away from key central areas, and backwards towards their own half.

To beat Real Madrid then, Liverpool are going to have to focus on breaking high and quickly, catching Madrid on the transition, and putting in an unbelievably disciplined midfield and defensive performance. For the defence, it’s largely an issue of concentrating and staying compact, for the midfield moreso reducing spaces between one another, pushing Madrid back, and seizing upon a player when they smell blood. Pressing relentlessly against all of the Madrid midfielders won’t work, so they have to choose when to press aggressively, and when to press defensively. For the forwards, they simply need to position themselves in those pockets around the six and behind the Madrid fullbacks. Providing the Liverpool midfield can get the ball into them, they really should be able to take advantage of those spaces. Juventus and Bayern both identified those spaces, but in the case of Bayern, were wasteful, whilst Juventus found themselves unfortunate in the first-leg, and in the second-leg where they almost stunned the world, struggled a little on the counter, as Manduzkic on the left side could not replicate the work, positioning and speed of Costa on the right. Liverpool, however, with two fast and in form wide men, paired either side of one of the most intelligent players in football certainly should be able to correct the mistakes of those two sides.

Oh, and Liverpool need to foul Real Madrid on the break. A lot. There’s a reason as to why clubs pick up a high number of bookings against Real Madrid… Disrupting their counter-attacks is crucial, and having two substitute midfielders in Lallana and Can is fantastic not just for energy and pressing, but also for the ability to make those fouls that need to be made, to stop the ball getting to players like Ronaldo on the break.

Liverpool face the sternest of tests on Saturday, but they certainly have the tactical tools to take Real Madrid apart if the plan is executed well. Wayne Smith, the assistant coach for the All Blacks, mentioned four key aspects to performance, “physical, technical, tactical and psychological”; Liverpool appear to have the first three nailed down, it’s now just a question of whether the team can cope in moments of pressure, and which team will make the fewest errors, or at least get away with them. It’ll be a fascinating, pulsating and, above all, memorable game, but Liverpool certainly have got it in them to expose Real Madrid’s weaknesses, and indeed, it seems to suit them to do so too.

I appreciate this has been a rather detailed piece that may be a bit hard to digest, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I hope to make a few more of these in the coming season too. I’ll (hopefully) be back with a tactical breakdown of the final, and also of Liverpool’s tactical progression this season, and if you’d like some more analysis on the game (in a more friendly and consumable format) please do head down onto the AI site, grab the one week free trial, and have a listen to the A-Eye Scouted pod, with myself and Dave, which includes all this analysis and more. Thanks for reading, and please do leave comments and questions.

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