Why the Champions League final will be a tactical battle
The Road to Kyiv was filled with surprise and drama. Of the 32 teams who started the journey, Real Madrid and Liverpool are the only survivors. Both are worthy squads capable of winning the trophy, but this final won't be an ordinary game. It will be a tactical duel.
Making it to the Champions League final is never easy. No one expects it to be. Liverpool and Real Madrid successfully navigated their way to Kyiv made it as a result of immensely talented players carrying out well-implemented strategies. Football has changed over the years. Sport and nutritional science produce top athletes at every position. As squads become steeped in ever more talent and the margin between very good and great becomes increasingly fine, tactics grow in significance. That's why managers have much less time to make things work before the sack comes.
It's not either/or
Different managers approach the game differently. Some believe in pretty football with short passes, possession and attractive finishes. Some look to smudge the makeup and rip the skirts of those teams.
Both the beautiful and ugly teams fell by the wayside in this competition. Manchester City played the most enticing football the Premier League has seen but lost to Liverpool three times. Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus all lost to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid; Barcelona fell before Eusebio Di Francesco’s strategy in Rome and threw away their 3-goal first-leg advantage; Tactics had their way in the Champions League this season.
Liverpool and Real Madrid have set themselves apart by, albeit late on, striking perfect balances between attack and defence.
This season began horribly for the manager who could do no wrong. Zinedine Zidane's squad couldn't score or defend and kept losing to inferior teams. While Cristiano Ronaldo's atomic blast of form in January had something to do with it, Zizou quietly made adjustments that turned Los Blancos into a balanced, flexible, adaptable eleven. They can now adjust to every situation.
The array of talent at the Frenchman's disposal suggests to many that he should win no matter who he picks, but it's easier to make mistakes when you have more choices. Zizou has made few mistakes. When he has, the appropriate corrections are quickly made.
Real Madrid can play any formation or pattern. They don't worry about playing beautiful football like Manchester City and Barcelona do. Real are happy to score ugly goals. Whether it's a set-piece, a tap-in, a counterattack or the occasional golazo, the Merengues are deadly. It's not easy to mould superstars into a unit, each knowing and accepting their role. Zidane has done an excellent job.
Jurgen Klopp's season began similarly to his counterpart's. The Reds lost games they should have won, but more due to deficiencies at the back than up front. Virgil van Dijk's acquisition in January proved the remedy.
Before the Dutchman arrived and in the few weeks it took for him to settle, some critics railed against Klopp's tactical rigidity. Liverpool change their style for no one. They press high and hard from the opening whistle against everyone. Klopp has built Liverpool on a single rock, but it's hard granite, not shale. “Jack of all trade, master of none” may very well be the German's motto.
Liverpool's counterattack is relentless. They focus on the defenders and holding midfielders, not allowing opponents to build their attacks. When teams try to move forward through the fullbacks, the Reds pin them to the touchline. Then, once Liverpool break loose, there's no stopping.
Man management goes hand-in-hand with tactical nous. Knowing how to sell the players on what you're doing, drawing the best from them, is critical. Klopp is Zidane's equal in this aspect. That's why Mo Salah has seemingly come from nowhere. It's why the team didn't suffer from Philippe Coutinho's loss or his replacement Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's late-season injury. Players were prepared to step into a new role because they fully understood how Klopp's strategy worked. It's not rocket science. In fact, it's so simple a child can do it. Nineteen-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold has filled in for Ox admirably when asked.
In Kyiv, these two intelligent, well-drilled teams will face off. Liverpool's counterattack can make any strategy appear impotent. Real Madrid have the patience to unravel any problem. When on song, Liverpool tend to score early. Real Madrid come on late.
Last year, Juventus, hardly the attacking force Liverpool is, surprised Madrid with an early goal through Mario Mandzukic. Zidane's side didn't blink. They kept working until they found their way through, then hit the Old Lady for four. Will a similar plot be written today? I can't wait to find out.