One year on — the tactics behind how Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool won it in Madrid

After a season of beautiful, highly-entertaining football, everyone expected Liverpool to try the same stuff in the 2019 Champions League Final. Little did the world know, Jürgen Klopp had a surprise up his sleeve for everyone.

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A lot can happen in a year. From the UEFA Super Cup, becoming champions of the world to a global pandemic delaying that elusive Premier League title.

However, one memory shines above them all — for now at least, until Jordan Henderson recreates his trophy shuffle with English football’s greatest prize.

Today marks a year to the day since the Champions League Final of 2019.

I think we can all agree that the 2018/19 edition of the Champions League was easily one of the most enjoyable to watch — unless you’re an Everton or Arsenal fan — since its creation. Not only for Jürgen Klopp’s eventual triumph, but for the unpredictable 180 minutes of football played prior to the final in Madrid.

90 minutes into the tie, Lionel Messi had all but decided on his own that Barcelona would be playing in Madrid on June 1. Liverpool went into the second leg three goals down thanks to the Argentine’s genius. Yet, by 10pm, the world’s greatest player was heading down the tunnel defeated, unsatisfied and with a wild look in his eye.

Liverpool thought they had written the book on the subject of unlikely comebacks in the Champions League, with their most successful chapter coming 14 years earlier in Istanbul. But what occurred on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, may just be the best of the lot.

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The day before, Manchester City had edged the Premier League just a little further away from Liverpool’s grasp, and then came Tuesday night. The response at Anfield was something only Liverpool were capable of. 90 minutes later, Liverpool were packing their bags to do battle in the Spanish capital.

Along with Liverpool’s toppling of Barcelona, their eventual opponents had recreated a comeback of their own.

Coming back from 2-0 down away to Ajax to win 3-2, Tottenham Hotspur set up an all-English Champions League final for the first time since 2008, when Manchester United beat Chelsea in Moscow. Two of the best games that the Champions League has ever seen, back to back, with many envisaging a final that would live up to the semi-finals showcase.

As the final approached, the memories of Kyiv lingered still. Despite this, they were strong favourites going into the game — they had been superb in the league all season and were narrowly, cruelly pipped to the title by Manchester City.

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The big difference from 2018 to 2019 was that Liverpool were in a better position to deal with adversity. As soon as events unfolded against them in Ukraine, they didn’t have the answers. The loss of Mohamed Salah early on and the untimely errors from Loris Karius were critical in deciding who won that game of football.

Going into the game against Tottenham in Madrid, it was the other way around.

‘The Tactical One’

Immediately from kick-off, one of the most influential moments took place which ultimately shaped the rest of the match. A common tactic for most teams is to play the ball back from kick-off for a defender to play long towards the strikers. Early on, Klopp had identified Kieran Trippier as an area for both Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané to exploit.

Liverpool felt as though utilising this tactic throughout the game would allow possession to be regained quicker from the second ball, rather than trying to play through the Tottenham midfield and defence.

As the ball was played over by Joël Matip, Trippier won the header unchallenged, but returned the ball back to Liverpool and, eventually, Jordan Henderson.

Due to the agitated nature of the final, Tottenham’s defence were caught out of shape early on, allowing Sadio Mané goal-side of Trippier. This allowed the Senegalese a free run in behind both Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen as both were occupied with the presence of Roberto Firmino.

Jordan Henderson was able to get on the ball with space in midfield just 15 seconds into the final. Photo: BT Sport

Henderson was then able to exploit the space and loft the ball over the high defensive line. After this, it was down to the skill and speed of Mané, coupled with the awkward positioning of Moussa Sissoko’s hand, that resulted in Mohamed Salah stepping up and firing the Reds into an early lead.

The theme of Liverpool’s style of play was something fans were not accustomed to. The Reds, capable of producing fast-paced, intricate football, opted for a more straightforward approach which resulted in some fans becoming frustrated with their tactics in European football’s most illustrious final.

As highlighted previously, Liverpool were drilled to build their attacks from long balls and picking up the pieces from the second ball. As a result, Liverpool’s tactics were highlighted after the game, when a lot of their passing statistics were significantly lower than what they had produced throughout the season.

On average during the season, Liverpool played 5.73 passes per possession, but in the final it was down to 2.23. Their average pass length was 19.94m, was upped to 22.75m in Madrid. They had a total of 70pc pass accuracy when their average throughout the season was 85.7pc. They only completed 177 passes during the game when, on average, they were nearing the 600 mark.

This isn’t to say that Liverpool completely abandoned the football that attracted so many adoring fans as they still managed to play short from goal-kicks. Tottenham decided against pressing from the front, allowing both Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho time and space on the edge of the box should they have chosen to play through the centre of the pitch.

Spurs opted to play a man-orientated style press, leaving the two Liverpool centre-backs free. In Liverpool’s win over Bayern Munich, Virgil van Dijk’s range of passing was something that Spurs would surely look to eliminate early on. However, minimal pressure was applied on him, allowing the Dutchman to either look to play through midfield or look long.

Due to this, Sissoko was attracted to the ball and pressed on the two defensive midfielders. Firmino saw this as a chance to drop deep and receive the ball. With Henderson advancing ever so slightly, Sissoko’s midfield partner, Harry Winks, was left 2v1 in the middle of the pitch.

Roberto Firmino was able to drop into midfield and find a lot of space. Photo: BT Sport

Liverpool utilised this strategy well, enabling their star assets up top the freedom to attack the defence they knew they had the beating of.

Divock at the double

Having stepped up on numerous occasions, many expected Divock Origi to try and replicate his heroics from the semi-final game against Barcelona. During increasing Tottenham pressure, Origi replaced Firmino just before the hour mark on what was a quiet evening for the influential Brazilian.

As the game neared its conclusion, the Belgian managed to find space on the left-hand side of Tottenham’s penalty area, before lashing home the trophy-sealing goal in front of a sea of adoring Reds supporters.

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Despite an element of good luck being present when the ball found its way to Origi’s feet, it was the third time in three games that Liverpool had scored from a set-piece against Tottenham.

During Liverpool’s 2-1 win at Wembley, Wijnaldum found himself unmarked at the back post much like Origi to head home. Like this, Jan Vertonghen’s own goal at Anfield was a result of Tottenham failing to deal with the second ball, allowing Salah the chance to ghost in at the back post before forcing the error.

The initial corner was a poor one, but Origi remained alert to the fact that the ball may eventually find him. Following the half-clearance, Tottenham’s focus instantly turned to forcing the counter-attack — understandable as they were 1-0 down in the clubs’ biggest game in decades.

Albeit offside, Mané’s presence in the middle of the box once again exploited the disorganisation that had been present throughout the entirety of the game within Tottenham’s defence. Four defenders remained fixated on retrieving the ball as quickly as possible following the corner, but are blind to Origi’s presence, which proved to be fatal.

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It was a fantastic finish from a player who has become so popular among Liverpool fans, but I’m sure Pochettino would have been pulling his hair out after conceding once more to a situation they had faced during their previous meetings during the season.

A final to remember?

For Liverpool fans, most certainly. Jürgen Klopp had finally overcome that dark cloud hanging over him. Defeats in Basel against Sevilla, at Wembley against Manchester City and in Kyiv against Real Madrid may have affected some, but served only to motivate the German further.

For the neutrals and Tottenham fans, maybe not so. Many hoped for the high-scoring, end-to-end football that had been on show in the rounds previous, but it was tactically interesting to see how each side approached the game.

Given how impressive Liverpool were throughout the season, it was ironic that what was their least entertaining performance of the season rewarded them with European football’s biggest prize. Try to argue with a Liverpool fan about the manner in which they won the Champions League, you’d be there all night.

Klopp has instilled a winning mentality among his players, further adding to his trophy cabinet since with wins in the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup. Despite the best efforts of a global pandemic, the German is set to get his hands on the most prized possession, the one yet to grace the Anfield trophy cabinet.

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