Liverpool became European Champions for the sixth time following their 2-0 win over Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid. Goals from Mohamed Salah and Divock Origi put Klopp’s men’s name on the Champions League trophy, but this was far from the classic that was billed.
In a cagey affair, the ‘Rock and Roll Football’ that has captured the football world’s imagination was put to one side by the German coach and pragmatism topped the menu with a side dish of conservatism and discipline to get their hands on the most sought-after trophy in domestic football.
Targeting of Trippier
Liverpool did their homework and took a similar approach to that of the semi-final second-leg against Barcelona – as long, diagonal balls were raked towards the left – knowing full well that Sadio Mané would have the beating of Kieran Trippier in every department. The England full-back had a torrid time of it and was constantly beaten in the air, overwhelmed for pace, and bullied in the physical department.
The Reds wasted no time in revealing the gameplan which led to them taking the lead in the opening seconds after the Spurs backline was caught too high from the kick-off and the Senegalese winger got in behind Tripper, seeing his cross handled by Moussa Sissoko. Salah converted the spot-kick and the initiative was well and truly with Liverpool.
Taking the initiative
It was a perfect start for Liverpool and Spurs resembled a boxer hit with a sucker punch in the first round; Mauricio Pochettino’s backline knew that the Liverpool front three had the beating of them for pace but didn’t want to surrender yards for the likes of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino to find spaces in between the Spurs midfield and defensive line.
Both Fabinho and Wijnaldum began to drop deep to offer and collect the ball from the Liverpool defence, attracting Harry Winks into places he didn’t want to be and, all the while, setting traps for Sissoko to drift into high areas, leaving gaping spaces for the ever-marauding Andy Robertson to drive into.
Central, compact and contained
Having successfully completed 112 crosses over the Premier League season, Spurs have only managed to convert 10 into goals, and with no Fernando Llorente on the pitch until the final 10 minutes, and a half-fit Harry Kane as a lone striker, Liverpool rolled the dice and fancied their chances.
Vacating wide areas and allowing Spurs to overrule the wings, Liverpool bombarded the centre of the pitch, cutting out forward passing lines into central areas and forcing the Londoners to look to their full-backs. With an aggressively high backline, Liverpool invited Spurs to play wide and in behind, trusting both Joël Matip and Virgil van Dijk to dominate aerially and also with their raw pace over the ground to recover.
Defending the half-spaces
Pochettino demands his team to play out from the back, inviting the opposition onto them and Liverpool were more than prepared for this, positioning themselves perfectly to win these battles.
Without man-marking, each Liverpool player would attract the pass into the man in front of them whilst also being ideally located to react and cut out the pass to the man behind them if the ball went over their head. Either one of two Spurs players who were receiving the ball were pressed as Liverpool players placed themselves in half-spaces, able to travel at the same time as the ball to intercept longer passes.
Every player dreams of scoring in a Champions League final and the Liverpool midfielders are no different. Klopp’s teams are recognised for their mouth-watering counter attacks and with the clock ticking on and spaces starting to open up as Spurs committed men forward in search of an equalizer, Liverpool might have got carried away and flooded bodies up the pitch in order to overload Spurs and put the game to bed, but not here.
With opportunities to turn 4v4s int 5v4s, the Reds always passed upon on it and never once over-committed to leave themselves vulnerable. Henderson was the one making the lung-busting runs and when he went, Fabinho, Wijnaldum, and then Milner would stay.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was conservative on the night and stepped in as an ‘inverted full-back’ when Spurs won the ball following a Liverpool attack.
Sacrifice and shape
Origi came on for Firmino with over half an hour to play and as well as clinically finishing to put the game to bed late on, the Belgian played a huge role in thwarting Spurs counters and sacrificed himself for the cause, ‘shift-swapping’ with Mané (who would seldom drift inside) and adopting a left-wing position in order to occupy both Trippier and Toby Alderweireld with his huge presence.
With 10 minutes left on the clock, Klopp beckoned for his team to take on a 4-4-1-1 system, remaining narrow and compact, and continuing to block and put their bodies on the line in the central, key areas inside their own half.
In hindsight, Pochettino would do a lot differently, probably giving more time to Llorente and semi-final hero Lucas Moura as Spurs played with a direct approach throughout. But Klopp won this battle and showed how he has matured over his years as a coach. The early goal was a gift, making for a dream start, and although Liverpool were far from their usual enthralling selves on the night, managing only 35% possession, they were always the more dangerous as they attacked with pace and remained defensively disciplined throughout.
By Alex Clapham