As current holders Liverpool returned to the Estadio Metropolitano where they won their sixth European Cup in June, victory against Atletico Madrid was being treated as a foregone conclusion in the British media. With Liverpool undefeated domestically having dropped just two points all season, an Atleti side in transition after a massive turnover of players in the summer would have little chance.
It always seemed naive though. While they haven’t set La Liga alight this season, Atleti have hardly undergone the collapse that Tottenham for example suffered and, although they have struggled for goals, Diego Simeone could turn eleven mannequins into a solid defensive unit. He set up his team in their usual 4-4-2 shape.
Atletico took the lead from a corner before the match had the opportunity to settle into any established patterns. Saul Niguez and Stefan Savic made runs towards the near post but the ball sailed over their head and deflected off of Fabinho towards goal. Saul landed from his leap in the six yard box and turns just as the ball rolls towards him, making it a simple tap-in.
Being harsh, you could argue that Liverpool should have been more alive to the threat of the dropping ball, but in truth they didn’t do a lot wrong: the squash at the near post meant Fabinho can’t really see the ball before it bounces off of him, while Roberto Firmino quickly spins to see where the danger is and Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk react quickly, only for the deflection to be too perfectly placed for Saul.
With the lead, Atleti went about defending it. Nothing they did will be new to anyone who’s ever watched them play before: a narrow, very compact 4-4-2, men behind the ball and lots of hard running. It was now down to Liverpool to break them down.
Easier said than done. Liverpool found it easy to work the ball forward, playing around Atleti’s attackers by having Fabinho or Georginio Wijnaldum drop back alongside the centre-backs to form a back three and find a passing angle around them.
While entering Atletico’s half was easy, carving out chances was not. Their narrow 4-4-2 is designed to congest the centre, forcing the opposition wide. When the ball is played out to the flanks, they will rush out to trap the wideman against the touchline and, even if the opposition can squeeze a cross through or carve out a chance, Atleti get so many players back in defence that they outnumber the opposition so defend them with ease. Even the strikers drop back into the final third.
There are weaknesses to this strategy. Firstly, Atletico stay so compact that when the opposition go down the flank their full-backs and wide midfielders are required to sprint out to meet their men. Switch the ball out to the opposite flank and those Atleti widemen will be forced to sprint back inside. Repeat this enough and they will tire.
This seemed the perfect strategy for Liverpool, as full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold constantly do this anyway, however it was infrequently used against Atletico. This was probably because the few times they did do it wasn’t very effective. Liverpool would play down one flank then switch play with a long ball out to the other, only to have the Atleti full-back right on top of them as they went to control them. It’s easy to see why this discouraged Liverpool, however this level of running wouldn’t have been sustainable for Atletico: no matter how much they will themselves into running, nobody can sprint for 90 minutes.
If Liverpool had constantly switched play, Atleti might have been comfortable with it for 30 minutes but by the 70th minute mark would have been aching. Liverpool didn’t utilise these switches often though, making the running more manageable for Atleti.
The Atleti full-backs moving wide also left significant gaps between the full-back and centre-backs for a Liverpool player to run between. This was an obvious target on the right, where Alexander-Arnold was usually positioned higher than Robertson on the opposite flank and Jordan Henderson would join the attack while Wijnaldum stayed deeper with Fabinho. Liverpool would pass out to Alexander-Arnold on the right, baiting Renan Lodi into sprinting out to meet him, then pass into the gap behind him for Henderson making a run.
This was also effective down the left, where Sadio Mane was dropping off into midfield, drawing Sime Vrsaljko forward, only for Robertson to overlap or Firmino to attack the space. In the second half, Wijnaldum was also granted more freedom to get forward and attack this space like Henderson was on the right.
Liverpool never seemed to be able to quite carve out a chance from these attacks though. Sometimes players would attack this gap and then just not receive the pass through; sometimes the pass would be misplaced; and sometimes Atletico simply got across and covered well to smother the attack.
Liverpool also lacked the technical players comfortable in tight spaces needed to make passing combinations around the box a possibility in this game. Firmino was a bright spark, always finding gaps to pick up the ball, however Atleti’s defence was so packed that whenever Liverpool tried to work their way through them, one slightly off touch would let them down.
Klopp’s decision to play Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho made sense from a defensive point of view, ready for a battle against Atleti’s dogged midfielders, however they were found lacking when it came to breaking down Atletico’s defence. Keita and Oxlade-Chamberlain offer more creativity through the centre and were badly missed here.
Klopp appeared content to leave the game as it was though, willing to take the goal deficit back to Anfield, as each of his substitutions made the creativity issue worse. Mane was replaced by Divock Origi, Oxlade-Chamberlain came on but in place of Mohamed Salah, and Henderson made way for James Milner.
Despite being focussed on defending their lead, Atleti looked the most likely to get another. There wasn’t much complicated about their attacking strategy, they simply looked to get men forward and overload Liverpool’s backline when the opportunity arose – doubling up at the back post on crosses and some coming short and some going long as they dropped passes in behind Liverpool’s high line.
Atletico showed exactly why many thought they would be one of the worst draws Liverpool could get in the Champions League. They are mean, they waste time, and most importantly they know how to defend. Klopp and Robertson’s sarcastic comments post-match come across as sour grapes (show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser), but Atletico won’t care. So much of Liverpool’s success over the past two years has been about sacrificing being entertaining in order to do what wins them games though – Simeone and his players are smart enough to know their job isn’t finished.
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