Y Blair Newman
The first round of the all-English European finals is done and dusted, with Chelsea hammering Arsenal in the Europa League final on Wednesday night. This Saturday sees the second and final round, as Liverpool meet Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final.
Few saw this contest coming. Barcelona and Ajax won the semi-final first legs against their Premier League opposition and looked set for a riveting, and historically satisfying, clash. But the second legs didn’t go to plan, and now one of Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino will lift Europe’s elite club trophy for the first time.
Here, we at Tribal Footballbreak down Liverpool and Tottenham’s upcoming match from a tactical perspective.
KANE AND FIRMINO FITNESS IS KEY
Ahead of this weekend’s final, both teams are unsure of the fitness of two star men. Tottenham are hoping their attacking talisman Harry Kane will be ready to start, while Liverpool will want their false nine Roberto Firmino to be fit for their usual attacking setup to assemble.
If the Brazilian is available, Klopp will likely start him within his preferred 4-3-3 system, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane on either side of the front three. Behind them, Naby Keita will miss out, so Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho will probably be the chosen trident.
Tottenham got to the final without Kane, but his goals are hard to ignore. It’s probable – but not certain – that he will start if fit, with semi-final star Lucas Moura and the in-form Heung-min Son also vying to start.
There is a possibility that all three start, with Pochettino going for a 4-2-3-1 shape. The Argentine coach is extremely flexible tactically, and in previous games with Liverpool this season he has chosen 4-3-1-2 and 3-5-2 shapes, but the 4-2-3-1 would allow him to get all of his best forwards on the pitch. Additionally, there are solid tactical reasons as to why he may choose this system, which we will now analyse.
HOW THE MATCH MIGHT PLAY OUT
Based on the two Premier League games these two played this season, it is likely that Tottenham will have the majority of the ball this Saturday – in their home clash against Liverpool they had 60 per cent possession, while away they had 51 per cent.
However, having the ball against Liverpool isn’t necessarily a position of strength. Klopp’s side are an exceptional pressing outfit, defending in a fairly narrow 4-3-3 in which the wide forwards do not drop back fully but stay on roughly the same line as Firmino and try to block passes out to the full-backs.
The presence of Liverpool’s front three discourages or prevents opponents from trying to play through them and instead going wide or long. As seen below in an example from their away win over Spurs this term, the front three move well to cover shadow passing options behind them whilst simultaneously pressing the man on the ball. Any turnovers here can kick-start immediate counter-attacks, with Salah and Mane utilising their pace to attack the spaces available and get in behind.
Building up with a back three would be difficult for Spurs, as Liverpool could simply have their front three press their opposite men while they’d have a 3v3 in midfield and their full-backs – Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold – pushing up to close down their opposite wing-backs. A back four may be a better option, but a diamond midfield may not give them enough attacking width, meaning Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose advancing and leaving more space for Mane and Salah to potentially counter into.
With all of the above in mind, Pochettino may choose the 4-2-3-1 as a sensible attacking system. His full-backs wouldn’t have to push on too early and risk being open in defensive transition, while they would have two players at the base of midfield moving behind Liverpool’s front three and offering a passing option, as opposed to one.
This system would also give them good width should they wish not to play through, but around Liverpool’s press. Lucas and Son could start on the wings and look to make runs behind their full-backs. Alternately, they could do what they did in the second leg against Ajax and go over the top of the press with long balls from back to front for Kane (or Fernando Llorente) to secure. However, it is worth noting that the centre-backs they are up against here, namely Virgil van Dijk, are much better aerially than Ajax’s Daley Blind and Mathis de Ligt.
Another benefit of Spurs going with a 4-2-3-1 is that it can easily become a 4-4-2 out of possession. The wide men – perhaps two of Lucas, Christian Eriksen and Son – can drop back onto the midfield line and press or track Liverpool’s full-backs, who are extremely attack-minded, outstanding crossers and need to be covered.
Liverpool may want to target the left-hand side, getting Robertson forward and Mane inside, as Spurs’ likely right-back Trippier has been out of form for much of this campaign. However, in the main, Klopp’s side will probably be fairly direct, employing long diagonal switches from Van Dijk out to the right side or balls over the top and in the channels for Salah and Mane to run onto. If the ball is given away, after all, they can simply apply intense pressure – as they tend to do fairly successfully – in defensive transition in a bid to force mistakes by Spurs in their own third.
Progressing through the pitch, Firmino will be key. His movement off the ball is not that of a normal line-leader – he drops back into the middle third, overloads the opposition midfield and offers a passing lane. Should he receive he then looks to turn and lay off to a runner or play one of his forward partners in behind.
Tottenham might struggle to deal with him as having a centre-back follow him leaves gaps that cannot be afforded against Salah and Mane. The answer, therefore, must be excellent communication between central defenders and midfielders to pass the Brazilian on once he moves into deeper zones.
Spurs are adaptable, and that is crucial for this match. Against a formidable pressing team that has already bested them twice in two encounters this term, they will probably need to be comfortable adopting more than one system or of play. Ultimately, though, the flexibility might not be enough to down an organised and intense Liverpool side high on confidence.