ARDA ALAN IŞIK – Daily Sabah
The UEFA Champions League (CL) final was frustrating for most fans around the world. The game was slow and dull, as Liverpool and Tottenham tried to control each other first. Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino opted for strategies vastly different from their usual strategies. In the English Premier League, these teams mostly played with an offensive approach, prioritizing attacking before defending. Nevertheless, this time they did not take any risks and let the individual talents on the pitch determine the result. In the end, Liverpool enjoyed the comfort of their early goal and easily controlled the game without pushing forward.
First, I think UEFA made a mistake by scheduling the game three weeks after any official game in the English Premier League. Any player who does not play a game for three weeks starts to lose their form, as their muscle-memory requires match experience to stay fit. Thus, players on both sides were not that comfortable with the ball, and the defenders had an easy day controlling attackers. If the game had been scheduled one week after the last official game in the Premier League, both teams would be fitter to play offensively.
However, this is only a side issue, and the real problem with the game was the decisions of the managers. With their early goal, Klopp positioned Liverpool deeper than usual after the 2nd minute, and we could not actually see what he planned offensively. After Mohamed Salah’s goal, it was all counterattacks and long-balls for Liverpool, and Divock Origi’s goal from a corner-kick was the icing on the cake. Liverpool was in control of the game throughout the 90 minutes and did not allow Tottenham to play their usual game.
Nonetheless, the reason why Liverpool was so comfortable with its archaic defensive approach was that Pochettino did not plan anything other than long-balls to Harry Kane. After three weeks of preparation and going one goal down in the 2nd minute, this was the only strategy Tottenham had: Whoever intercepts the ball directly plays it to Kane. But Kane was marked flawlessly by Virgil van Dijk, who made the lethal striker disappear from Tottenham’s offensives. Then, Tottenham were clueless, trying to cross all the balls into the penalty box, hoping that Kane would lose his marker and finish the cross.
It was obvious that this strategy was not an effective one, and Pochettino saw this after the 80th minute and put Fernando Llorente into the game to win some aerial balls against van Dijk. But it was too late to recover after that moment. If he had opted for Lucas Moura and pushed the game into Liverpool’s half with short passes, like Barcelona did in the first leg of the semifinals, Tottenham would have had more chances against a long but slow Liverpool defense. Also playing long, direct balls eliminated the threat posed by Heung Min Son, as Tottenham could not stretch their opponent’s defense to create time and space for him. They kept kicking the ball to Liverpool’s defense, and the Liverpool defense kept collecting the ball.
I think Klopp did what he had to do to win; he took no risks and waited for Tottenham to make a move. But that move never came; Tottenham basically had no plan B to react to Liverpool’s defensive approach. They did not even push their center-backs forward to push the game into Liverpool’s half, and that created time and space for Liverpool to launch counterattacks with Salah. In the end, Liverpool got what they wanted, but the rest of the world was frustrated.