Remembered for their Brilliance
Bonus chapter from Paul Tomkins' 'This Red Planet - How Klopp's Liverpool FC Enthralled and Conquered The World'
With Liverpool taking on Real Madrid again next week, albeit three goals down and away from home, this feels like a perfect chapter to look at again. Especially after the magic of last weekend smashing Manchester United by SEVEN, so as we know, this club is capable of anything … imagine if we pull this off?
By Paul Tomkins
“Of course, congratulations should be made to Real Madrid and Ancelotti, because then the trophies speak for themselves and they brought home the Champions League. In 10 years this will count, the showcase and the cup victory. But then I go into detail to analyse: Liverpool had 26 shots, Real Madrid only two. And Vinicius’s goal came from a error of Valverde. I repeat, I congratulate Real and Ancelotti, because that’s right, but from my point of view, it seems clear to me how lucky they were in the previous matches. I don’t know Courtois, who was crazy, how he managed to make certain saves. The thing I really don’t understand is why no one pointed out to Ancelotti that they had a bit of luck.”
Former Italy striker Antonio Cassano
I’ll repeat it yet again:
Teams are not always duly rewarded for their brilliance, but they are remembered for their brilliance
Some days you do everything right, and someone or something gets in your way. Luck always plays a part in sport; up to 50%, it is believed, on average. Liverpool did everything to make their own luck, but the other half deserted them.
Jürgen Klopp did not have the ideal preparation for Paris in terms of injuries and the ultra-demanding end to a tough league campaign, with a 120-minute FA Cup final thrown in for good measure, in a season that seemed to go on forever. Then the Champions League final itself was delayed by 36 minutes by the shocking treatment of the club’s fans by French police hiding behind black masks and riot gear, teargassing with impunity as if they themselves were a bunch of unruly extremist protestors; only for UEFA (and French officials and police chiefs) to yet again blame the innocent.
What an astoundingly unacceptable pre- and- post-match experience for fans. Thankfully we’re not talking about another Hillsborough, but there were near-Hillsboroughs in the years before 1989, when fans of other clubs were caught up in crushing bottlenecks that didn’t lead to deaths.
It can’t have helped Liverpool win the game, either. There was no time for the usual pre-match singing, as no one was there to sing. Many who did get in had throats full of pepper-spray, eyes glassed by teargas, and hearts full of fear. The atmosphere was understandably muted. Liverpool’s famous travelling Kop was silenced by French bully-boy brutality.
With the post-mortem (not a literal one, thankfully) still taking place, I won’t delve into that near-disaster, other than to say much of France was rightfully shamed by the actions of their police force and politicians. It must never happen again, but UEFA – dear old caretakers of the game – only seemed to get agitated and apologetic once it was clear than many sponsors were caught up in the treating of honest fans like rabid cattle.
The game, as it belatedly unfolded, could be described as Liverpool attacking versus Real Madrid defending, with one meaningful breakaway deciding the game, as one keeper produced the performance of his life, and the other spent the evening trying to keep himself warm. Once an attacking coach – his Chelsea team were a joy to watch 12 years ago – Carlo Ancelotti’s team looked slow, dull and predictable, but managed to defend with skill (and luck), keep possession fairly well in deep areas, and score completely against the run of play.
Post-shot xG is discussed elsewhere in the book, but the difference to standard xG is as follows: xG bases the likelihood of a goal from where the shot is taken (maybe 0.99 if tapping in on an empty goalline; 0.01 from 40 yards). But post-shot xG ranks the difficulty of where the ball goes within the frame: central would be low value, top-corner (‘postage stamp’) would be incredibly high (closer to 1.0 expected post-shot goals).
According to TTT analyst Andrew Beasley, the giant Thibaut Courtois has, in his career since 2017 (when the metric was first introduced), just three times faced post-shot xG of 3.5 or more in a game: one for Chelsea against Watford (3.5), once against Barcelona, in 2022 (3.8), with the third being his first Champions League final, against Liverpool (3.5). Both other times he conceded four goals, right in keeping with the difficulty of the shot placement.
In Paris he conceded zero.
It makes no sense, but an agile 6’7” keeper can obviously reach the places most other keepers can’t; certainly if he’s having one of those days, which he didn’t on the previous two occasions he faced such difficult shots. Courtois likes to stay on his line, sweeping outside his area about 25% as often as Alisson Becker, so he wouldn’t suit Liverpool’s high defensive line. Alisson is far superior at one-on-ones, and the best all-round keeper in the world. But Courtois is 6’7” and played a blinder. Like David de Gea, he suits a low-block team, which the best teams no longer use.
A (rare) criticism I have of Mo Salah when the striker is either off form or blindly intent on scoring is that he doesn’t go outside his man on his right side enough. He did so when scoring a brilliant goal against Manchester City, which rightly won the Premier League goal of the season for 2021/22. But that day at Anfield he was on top form, and even then it’s rare for him to take the outside route. There are times when he’s low on confidence or high on desire, and you know he’ll try and cut inside, relying on jinks and close control to work a space on his left foot. It can work, but too often it’s predictable. But when he goes right, it really opens up. The shooting situation is tougher, because he has to use his weaker foot; but it usually buys him the time and space he needs, as defenders don’t expect it. A shot with the ‘swinger’ from a great position is often better than a shot with the stronger foot into a crowd of players.
My maxim has always been that even if you lose the ball, try to go on your unfavoured side at least once each match, to then buy more time by putting doubt in the defender’s mind. In some games Salah will cut inside six times in a row and be blocked six times in a row. Only when he’s truly on-song will he go outside. In Paris, he did just about everything right, and could have ended the night with four goals.
In the second half, as he turned into the space on his right and hit a shot that was about the same height and power as the one against City, it looked a certain goal. It had that unstoppable appearance, fizzing from his foot. When Courtois blocked it, it flew away – and agonisingly wide – at a weird angle; it had hit the keeper’s upper forearm, which still made it a great save (as even if it hit his enormous nose – speaking as someone who knows a thing about those – it would have been a great save), but an uncontrolled one: the ball could have gone anywhere, off the part of his body he wasn’t intending to use (the aim is still always to try and get hands to it, but to take whatever part of the body it strikes if it stays out). Courtois had skill to stop the ball – just to get close to it – but it didn’t necessarily merit the luck of still sending the ball wide. If it had instead hit him a fraction to the right, it could have gone in off the hard point of his elbow. You can’t say that he got lucky, as his job was to make himself big (and he’s 6’7” to start with) but you can say that Salah was mightily unlucky.
Increasingly in the run-in it seemed like Luis Díaz – perhaps told to up his goals tally – also started to cut inside too predictably, doing the same from the other flank. More so than Salah, he can go outside his man with comfort and perhaps greater speed. That said, cutting inside will see Díaz get plenty of goals.
When he cuts inside, Díaz has a better shooting technique than the Egyptian, in terms of whip and power, so the goals should follow.
Above all else, Díaz provided dynamism, assists and created havoc, even if, as the player to play the most games in world football in 2021/22 (close to 70), he ran out of steam in the final. Cutting inside remains vital to the way Liverpool play with inverted wingers, but going outside some of the time has to be considered.
Though he scores a lot, Salah can end up tamely side-footing a high percentage of his chances into the middle of the goal where the keeper is, but the sheer volume of chances he creates by cutting inside means that, if he isn’t blocked off, he can get those shots away – but when on form, he sets them wider, and with sufficient power. After AFCON, up until Paris, he either tried too hard or looked mentally frazzled.
Yet by the time of the final, after a much needed break (due to a minor injury) he was raring to go, and Madrid’s outfield players could not handle him. His first-half near-post flick was denied low down by the big Belgian; his race to the near post in the second half was also blocked on the line by Courtois. A second rasping drive in the second half was also tipped wide, even before the one saved by the forearm. There was one tame first-half header straight at the ex-Chelsea keeper, but it was a snap-chance, made with no time to add any deft direction. In total Salah had six shots on target in the game, the most for any player not to score in the competition’s final, and the most he had ever had in a match for Liverpool.
While generally an excellent team player, who always tracks back and makes countless runs off the ball (and sets up chances for others), Salah can have selfish, blinkered periods in games, where he takes too many shots instead of passing; there’s a level of ‘greed’ (or single-mindedness) that’s required to be a top striker, but also, times when it can be taken too far. Yet in Paris, every effort was clearly the right decision when it came to going for goal. This was the Egyptian at his absolute best.
Then, to add to the opposition goalkeeper’s showreel, there was Sadio Mané’s fierce low drive early on, that Courtois tipped onto the post and which, again on another day, may have bounced in off his backside.
That day was not this day, as this day was Courtois’ day.
Ancelotti said after the game that “…it helped that Liverpool were easier to decipher than the others because they have a very clear identity and we could prepare the way that we did. We knew what strategy to take – don’t give them space behind the defence to run into. Perhaps our football wasn’t extraordinarily beautiful on an aesthetic level, but playing out from the back to incentivise their pressing wasn’t a great idea.”
While true, to a degree, it was still a game where his keeper made huge saves, including from runs/dribbles in behind.
Ian Ladyman wrote in the Daily Mail: “… there have been some strange observations since Real somehow found a way to beat Liverpool in the Stade de France. Some have said Klopp was ‘out-coached’ by Ancelotti. Others have made much of Liverpool’s failure to score in each of the three finals they have played in this season. They beat Chelsea on penalties in the Carabao Cup and FA Cup finals, of course.
“But here is the truth of what happened in Paris: Real found a way to blunt one of Europe’s most ferocious attacking teams but only to a degree. The best player on the field was Real goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and that – as Klopp pointed out himself – says much about the game.”
Klopp knew this only too well. “They scored a goal, we didn’t. That’s the easiest explanation in the world of football. Harsh, but we respect it of course. When the goalkeeper is man of the match something is wrong. Something is going wrong for the other team.
“I think Madrid had one shot on target and it was a goal. But I understand 100% and respect it 100% that the reason for playing football and having competitions is to win the game.”
Sometimes, however, you cannot force the win.
With pure irony, John Muller of the Athletic wrote that, “On another day, in some other timeline, maybe Real Madrid could have won the 2021/22 Champions League final.
“It would have been improbable in any universe, with the way Carlo Ancelotti’s team played, but you can imagine some alternate reality where the movements of bodies and balls are just a little less orderly, where football is a little less fair – who knows, maybe stranger things have happened in a world like that than a smash-and-grab 1-0 win.”
The article was entitled: Only in an alternate reality should Real Madrid be Champions League winners – that’s the beauty of football.
It ends with Muller stating a 5-1 win for Liverpool played out in the real universe: “No one could argue the result was unfair. Liverpool had the better of possession, field tilt, shots, and expected goals. They’d played the game in an organised 4-3-3 and pushed into Madrid’s half, while Ancelotti’s lopsided shape, meant to test the space behind Alexander-Arnold with the Vinicius-Benzema pairing, never really created much threat.”
As such, it’s slightly worrying to discover that, according to official reports of the game, we live in an alternate universe, but clearly it had been a weird season.
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