Champions League Tactical Preview: Four key battles in Liverpool v Real Madrid
Alex Keble looks at four tactical battles that could define the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid...
"Marcelo might be tempted forward by the supposed vulnerability of Liverpool's right flank in a similarly narrow 4-3-3 (with an inexperienced right-back in Trent Alexander-Arnold), which would open a huge space for Salah to burst into."
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Mohamed Salah could attack the space behind Marcelo
Liverpool's main weapon, of course, is their blitz of attacking football. Jurgen Klopp will hope to score an early goal in Kiev by winning the ball high up the pitch and surging forward into the spaces behind the Real Madrid full-backs. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Mohamed Salah will look to isolate the two centre-backs as often as possible.
The most important player on the pitch for Real, then, is Marcelo. The Brazilian is a magnificent footballer but he is expected to contribute heavily to attack, particularly if Zinedine Zidane plays in a narrow 4-3-1-2 formation (see below). He might also be tempted forward by the supposed vulnerability of Liverpool's right flank in a similarly narrow 4-3-3 (with an inexperienced right-back in Trent Alexander-Arnold), which would open a huge space for Salah to burst into.
Real will probably be happy to sit back for the early stages to stop Liverpool from blowing them away, meaning Marcelo will start deep. Either way, across 90 minutes the head-to-head between Salah and Marcelo is undoubtedly going to be the most fascinating battle of all.
Zidane's narrow 4-3-1-2 will create space for Liverpool's full-backs
It is difficult to predict Real's formation, but generally speaking Zidane uses two strikers, making a 4-3-1-2 probable. The biggest issue with this system is that it leaves big gaps either side of the outer central midfielders; the Real forwards rarely track back and defend, which will become a big problem should Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo both start.
This hands an advantage to Liverpool's full-backs Andrew Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, both of whom have become crucial elements of Klopp's attacks since Philippe Coutinho left the club. The excellent crosses of these two overlapping players has injected width into the side, and although they will both be weary of overly committing to attack Klopp teams tend to be very courageous.
Real's formation will create a narrow square in midfield, leaving Robertson and Alexander-Arnold with a fair amount of room 30-yards out to whip crosses into the area. Roberto Firmino will play a big indirect role in this tactical feature. The Brazilian's work dropping off the front, and thus sucking the Real midfielders inwards towards Liverpool's number nine, is what will prise open the space for the full-backs.
Isco to cause havoc behind Milner and Henderson
Isco has started both La Liga matches since returning from injury, suggesting Gareth Bale's excellent end of season form has been in vain now Zidane's preferred playmaker is back. This is not good news for Liverpool fans. Klopp's 4-3-3 does not include a traditional defensive midfielder, and while his side are excellent at shifting their block up and down the pitch this lack of cover in front of the defence could be seriously problematic in the early exchanges of the contest.
James Milner and Jordan Henderson will press high onto Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the hope of shutting down the Real counter, but if they fail Isco should dominate the number ten space between Liverpool's defence and midfield. As the game wears on and Liverpool begin to drop off, Isco won't be quite so much of a threat - but in the first half hour Klopp must have a plan to stop the Spaniard.
The most obvious solution is to instruct Henderson to stand off and occupy space between the lines, but this is a final in which Liverpool must be brave; the centre-backs might be asked to step up to meet Isco.
Ronaldo will test Van Dijk to his limits
Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 15 goals in 12 Champions League matches this season and netted in every single game bar the second leg of Real's semi-final. The Portuguese will probably be kept quiet for much of the contest, only to spring into life in the penalty area, making his personal tussle with Virgil van Dijk one of the game's most interesting.
Van Dijk is an exceptional leader but not necessarily the most alert last-ditch defender, which is often what's needed to close Ronaldo down in the box. Aerially, the Dutchman should come out on top more often than not, although Van Dijk will probably struggle when Ronaldo drives towards him in possession. Liverpool must remain on the front foot as much as possible.