The space behind Alexander-Arnold
It has become one of those saws wheeled out on social media every time Liverpool concede a goal, or every time they come under pressure: Trent Alexander-Arnold can’t defend; he can be got at. And, worryingly for Liverpool before Saturday, Exhibit A in the case against him is the away leg of last season’s quarter-final against Real Madrid when Vinícius Júnior repeatedly got in behind him, leading to the opening of two goals.
Vinícius, as he showed against Chelsea, is good at exploiting that space high up on the flank but, while acknowledging Alexander-Arnold is not the most adept in one-on-one battles (there was another moment, early in that quarter-final , when Ferland Mendy wobbled past him with disconcerting ease), the broader issue is not really Alexander-Arnold.
His role is to push forward. He is a supremely gifted crosser, registering 12 league assists this season, and linking up superbly with Mohamed Salah. To do that, he has to play high. That risk is mitigated not by him running back more or dropping deeper but by Liverpool’s press, which should prevent opponents measuring passes into that space behind the defense – which is always the vulnerability for teams who operate with a high line.
Both goals last season came from passes launched by Toni Kroos, who on each occasion had time to calibrate. That is what Liverpool have to prevent. Perhaps Kroos or Luka Modric can pop a 50-yard pass perfectly into Vinicius’s path under pressure, but that is essentially unavoidable; the point is to make it as hard as possible. Last season Liverpool’s press was far less efficient than it is now. Although the midfield three in that game in Madrid looks relatively strong – Fabinho flanked by Naby Keïta and Gini Wijnaldum – their starting positions were affected by a lack of confidence in the central defensive pairing of Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak, which in turn probably had an impact on Alexander-Arnold.
The importance of Van Dijk
It was striking last Sunday how often Wolves got in behind the Liverpool defensive line, particularly in the first half. To an extent that is an inherent risk in how Liverpool play, but this was extreme. Ibrahima Konaté, perhaps, was rattled after his early mistake, but the bigger issue is Van Dijk, who is so good at judging just how high the line should be and when it should push up. He was an unused substitute in the last two league games after being forced off after 90 minutes of the FA Cup final with a hamstring twinge and the assumption is that he will be fit enough to start. Liverpool need him.
Can Madrid deal with Liverpool’s physicality?
It’s always something of surprise when a cliche of English footballing self-aggrandisement turns out to be true. Two seasons ago, when Manchester City beat Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League, it was startling just how rattled Madrid were by the City press. These foreigners really didn’t like it up ’em. Madrid have developed since then and won’t be caught unawares again but, still, that midfield of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro – combined age 98 – could be physically overwhelmed.
The 4-0 home defeat by Barcelona and the first hour of the game at the Etihad this season show how susceptible Madrid can be to the press. There is then, perhaps, an argument for Carlo Ancelotti to start Eduardo Camavinga, probably in place of Kroos, given what he would add in terms of energy. But Kroos was instrumental in Madrid’s victory over Liverpool last season, and Camavinga has been extremely effective coming off the bench in the knockout phase. It may be that, as at Chelsea, Federico Valverde is used in a more withdrawn role on the right.
The likelihood is that there will be a period of the game in which Liverpool’s greater physicality will give them an edge. Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and City all had those spells. What is essential is that they take advantage of it.
Memories of last season will make Liverpool wary of the threat of Mendy getting forward on the left, but he has only three goal involvements in the league this season and will probably be engaged largely in stopping Salah, although he could be exposed if Vinícius stays high in a game of chicken with Alexander-Arnold.
On the other side, though, Dani Carvajal could represent a real opportunity for Liverpool. He looks an old 30, sluggish on the turn, and while there is no great shame in being exposed by Kylian Mbappé, he has also struggled against Riyad Mahrez and Chelsea’s Timo Werner / Marcos Alonso axis. The likelihood is it will be Luis Díaz who starts on the Liverpool left, but there must be a temptation for Jürgen Klopp to get Sadio Mané running at Carvajal.
The chaos protocol
Madrid’s progress through the knockout rounds has to a large extent defied logic. They have been outplayed for long phases, but have then, thanks to the brilliance of Karim Benzema, Thibaut Courtois and Modric, been ruthless when they have been able to break the game from the control of the opposition. They have won their past five Champions League games by an aggregate of 14-10. They have thrived on disorder. Liverpool may have been moving away from the heavy-metal football that used to characterize Klopp sides but still, they’re better equipped to manipulate chaos than the vast majority of superclubs.