A Liverpool side looking to avenge their loss in the final last year and a Tottenham side looking to win their first ever European Cup landed in Madrid, both seeking to make history.
There were no surprises in Liverpool’s line-up, with Jurgen Klopp going for his usual 4-3-3 formation and Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah finding fitness in time. Mauricio Pochettino tends to switch shapes a lot more but he went for a 4-2-3-1 formation that Liverpool had expected, practising for it in a friendly against Benfica B. The gap between games gave enough time for Harrys Winks and Kane to recover from injuries in time for the match, meaning semi-final hero Lucas Moura dropped to the bench.
It’s impossible to tell what the teams’ starting stretegies were because Liverpool took the lead so quickly. Joel Matip sent a long ball forward from kick off, Kieran Trippier headed it away, the ball was headed back and forth between the two teams for a few moments before Jordan Henderson lifted a bouncing ball behind Spurs’ backline. While Sadio Mane got the drop on Spurs’ backline, the bounce of the ball required him to slow and they could recover. He held up the ball then attempted a cross, which bounced off the arm of Moussa Sissoko.
The Frenchman has every right to feel aggrieved at conceding the penalty, but it’s also understandable why the referee gives it, which showcases some of the grey areas in the rules that make the sport less simple than many would like to admit. Sissoko’s hand is away from his body and it moves towards the ball when Mane plays the pass, however he is pointing to his defenders and this movement towards the ball is natural – it would be far weirder if he had flung his arm over his head once he was done communicating to his teammates. My preference is for handballs to be given only when the offender is making an obvious attempt to cheat, such as Luis Suarez’s against Ghana – we have such little indication of intent in these split seconds and the punishment is generally so severe I think a more lenient interpretation of the rule is more in fitting with its intention to stop deliberate play with the arm. However, we have several incidents from this season that Europe’s best referees don’t tend to agree with this view, and so Liverpool took the lead before the game had even got going.
Already in front, Liverpool didn’t have to go chasing goals, which partly explains why they weren’t particularly inventive in attack. Spurs’ forwards often wouldn’t close down Liverpool’s centre-backs, but Spurs’ backline remained high up the pitch, so Liverpool’s defenders would generally look to hit long balls over the top for Mane to run onto, trying to take advantage of Trippier’s lack of pace.
Tottenham have often been nervous trying to pass out from the back against Liverpool, wary of their press, however they did better here than usual.
Their centre-backs would drop back close to Hugo Lloris, while Sissoko and Winks sat in front of them. With two holding players, Firmino’s pressing was less effective as he couldn’t block the pass into both of them, which had knock-on effects for his teammates. As Firmino couldn’t block the pass into both men, if he wanted to close down a centre-back either one of the midfielders behind him had to push up and get tight to the back of the holding player or one of Salah and Mane had to tuck inside.
In Liverpool’s press, Salah and Mane also like to close down the centre-backs, curving their runs to block the pass out to the full-backs. Spurs spaced their full-backs effectively though, leaving a large gap between them and the centre-backs, which meant that if Salah or Mane pressed the centre-backs, it would be very difficult for them to recover if the ball was played out to the full-back.
This isn’t an unusual problem for Liverpool, but usually that flank’s outside midfielder would move out to cover the full-back. Spurs’ double pivot required that that midfielder was often having to step up and get tight to Sissoko or Winks, meaning he wasn’t readily available to cover on the wing. Either Liverpool’s midfielder didn’t step up, leaving Winks or Sissoko free, or they did and Rose or Trippier were left free.
Alternatively, the full-back could push up and cover, however Spurs were leaving Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min high up the pitch against their back four, making it very risky for a Liverpool defender to leave the backline. Spurs’ best chances came when one of Liverpool’s defenders were forced out and a forward attacked the space they left.
This issue probably could have been solved by switching to a 4-4-2. When protecting leads this season, Mane has often dropped back next to the midfielder while Salah tucks inside – Firmino and Salah could close down the centre-backs while covering the passes to Sissoko and Winks, Henderson and Mane could stay narrow to stop passes through the middle and then move out to press the full-backs, while Fabinho and Wijnaldum could protect the centre (Fabinho was often left outnumbered by Eriksen, Alli and Kane dropping off to join them when Henderson or Wijnaldum moved forward or wide).
This doesn’t fit Klopp’s style though: the press is designed to guide the opposition into the centre, where Liverpool can then swarm them and win the ball back, whereas flooding the centre with players would only force the opposition wide. Pulling Mane back would also make it harder for him to attack the space behind Trippier, which was Liverpool’s main attacking strategy.
Although this strategy meant Tottenham were dominating, they couldn’t convert this possession into goals or even significant chances. This was because, while they were often able to break through Liverpool’s press, they would then give the ball away sloppily. The defenders would often draw Liverpool’s press then pass the ball back to Lloris, who doesn’t have the quality with his feet to find the free men with a pass. Several times the outfielders played around Liverpool’s pressure superbly only to then play a soft pass or take a bad touch when they tried to actually exploit the gap they had opened up, enabling Liverpool to snatch back the ball. Tottenham need bolstering in midfield, however these problems could also be blamed on the lack of match sharpness that comes with not having played a game for three weeks.
The stifling heat of Madrid clearly came into play in the second half. Perhaps, aware the press wasn’t really working, Klopp had Liverpool drop off more after the break rather than pressing high to protect their lead, or perhaps it was heat that made it difficult to continue. Liverpool had dropped back into a 4-5-1 when the need arose in the first half but now the forwards rarely engaged the Spurs centre-backs or goalkeeper, while Mane often moved back to form a 4-4-2, especially after Divock Origi replaced Firmino in attack. They continued with their attacking strategy of just hitting the ball in behind Spurs’ backline, although they focussed less on trying to get Mane going against Trippier and just instead tried to get anyone through on goal.
Fatigue was playing more obvious havoc with Tottenham though as they had the harder task. With Liverpool no longer taking the bait to press, they had to now break them down. Lucas Moura came on for Winks, with Eriksen dropping back alongside Sissoko, who was himself replaced by Eric Dier. Rather than continuing to play through the middle, they played out to Trippier on the right flank, who would either try to slide a through ball down the line for Son (he and Alli had switched sides at half-time) or loop a cross into the box for the other attackers to attack.
The strategy wasn’t particularly great but as the game drew on and Liverpool began to drop deeper and deeper, they were able to get the ball into dangerous areas more frequently than they had with their more patient build-up. They were looking leggy though and while the ball was getting around the box, Liverpool were generally winning it and when they weren’t Alisson was saving anything Spurs could muster.
With minutes left to go, Spurs were unable to clear a corner and the ball fell to Origi to finish. Knackered, Spurs were barely managing to create proper chances anyway, so there were few nerves as the clock counted down to confirm Liverpool as the winners of their sixth European Cup.