The game between Atletico Madrid and Liverpool may not have been the most entertaining in Champions League this season, but there were lots of lessons to be learned. Atletico manager Diego Simeone got what he wanted by using his strictly defensive system and destroyed Liverpool's invincibility in the most humbling way.
Simeone, after finding the crucial first goal from a corner kick, basically pushed his team back into their half with 10 men. Whenever the ball was in Liverpool's defense, they pressed in the middle third and when the ball crossed the midfield the whole team gathered around the penalty box in perfect shape. Liverpool simply could not find the gap in this defensive masterpiece, and the team, which seemed like one of the best in the last decade, performed no different than a regular Spanish side visiting Wanda Metropolitano.
Liverpool's most important attacking channel, the connection between the wing-backs and the wingers was interrupted by at least three men on all occasions. For instance, Lodi marked Salah, Lemar marked Alexander-Arnold and Niguez came close to narrow the space even further.
By doing so, Atletico practically blocked all the short passing opportunities between the wing-backs and the wingers. This forced Liverpool to play long passes to shift wings, hoping to find a gap in Atletico defense while they were repositioning.
Nevertheless, these balls were mostly not good enough to create enough time and space for the other wing-back or the other winger to dribble inside the penalty box or send a decisive pass to the center. Thus, Liverpool's offensive scheme failed to produce opportunities to score at Wanda Metropolitano and take advantage before the return leg in Anfield.
However, as we saw last year against Barcelona, Liverpool can dramatically turn tables at home. Surely, it will press Atletico fiercely and create more opportunities in Anfield, but it still needs to shift the wings effectively to throw the Atletico defense off balance.
Simeone, in the meantime, will more or less play with the same strategy, with Alvaro Morata being the only offensive threat. This allows Liverpool to take more risks and bring their defenders even closer to the opponent's penalty box.
At this point, it is crucial that Liverpool center, Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Henderson is actively involved in shifting the wings. In the first leg, Fabinho was left behind to help the defenders against counterattacks and Wijnaldum was lost among the crowded Atletico center. It was only Henderson who tried to deliver good balls to the wings, but his efforts were either too slow or too inaccurate.
Jürgen Klopp must train his team to create set-pieces that will allow Liverpool to change wings quickly and accurately. If it can also find an early goal like Atletico, that would make life much easier for Klopp, but in case it wastes the first 20 minutes without finding a goal, it has to come up with set-pieces that it can use in a possession game. Overall, it will be a good test for Liverpool to see how versatile it is, after dealing with the entire Premier League with pretty much the same strategy.
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