182 minutes into Liverpool and Atlético Madrid’s round of 16 battle of the UEFA Champions League, the Spanish outfit were awarded a free-kick from roughly 30 yards out. With the game otherwise going to extra-time, Renan Lodi sent the ball into the Liverpool penalty area where Saúl Ñiguez was waiting to head home for victory. The goal was ruled out for offside but, whether they knew it or not, this was the moment Liverpool lost the Champions League.
Until March of 2020, Liverpool were all but locked-in to become the next team to aggressively mark their place in the annals of footballing dominance. Soon to be rubbing shoulders with other historic teams such as Sir Alex Ferguson’s Treble winning side of 1999 and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, everything they touched turned to wins. Every few years, a team shows up on the main stage and displays such a terrifying dominance that a Continental Treble looks, all things considered, an inevitability. For the majority of this season, Liverpool looked to be that team. So what happened?
From the very start of the 2019/20 season, the Reds appeared to play every game – Premier League or otherwise – in the shadow of a generation of being that team. The team that never won the league, a team that would always find a way to slip up. Such was their ability to be the perfect second best, their performance in the 2018/19 Premier League season saw them set a record for the highest amount of points accrued by the runners-up. It could only have been them.
Even this season, with the title more or less guaranteed by November, the entire world, save for the Belarusian Premier League, came to a halt amid the Covid-19 crisis. Despite calls for voiding the entire season, Liverpool were able to confirm their spot at the top of English football once “normal” programming had resumed and are still within reach of breaking several records. But their dominance, up to point, was so impressive that one cannot help but feel that the lone trophy that they will be bringing home is a somewhat diluted prize for this year’s work.
No Liverpool fan will be kicking themselves thinking “what could have been” as they celebrate on the streets of Merseyside; the first Premier League trophy for Liverpool was always going to be monumental regardless of context. But from the outside, it can be argued that this team, despite all the records, has still underachieved on a larger scale.
The level that Liverpool have maintained for the past two years is the zenith of what Jürgen Klopp and the decision-makers behind the scenes have been working on for a number of a years. A swift but necessary period of rebuilding based on smart and astute footballing decisions saw Liverpool quickly and aggressively (the only way Klopp knows how to do things) reinvent themselves from a slow but technically able group of regular second-bests into a collective even greater than the already impressive sum of its parts. The team almost instantly started playing with a venom and speed so quintessentially Klopp that they are almost unrecognisable from the team that reached the final of the Europa League just four years prior.
There is nothing tactically groundbreaking about how Liverpool play; inverted wingers, attacking full-backs and fast counter-attacking was a major feature of the Bayern Munich team that beat Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in his first Champions League final in 2013. What has held Liverpool a firm head and shoulders above their opponents all season has more to do with a previously unseen intensity and determination than it does positional play and the notorious Klopp trademark of gegenpressing.
Klopp’s reputation for creating an almost cult-like affinity between him and his players is perhaps best demonstrated by the Champions League semi-final victory against Barcelona in 2019. Needing four goals without answer (and with several key players missing), he famously said to his team “this is impossible… but with you we have a chance”.
To over-simplify Liverpool’s historic Premier League victory and immense form, they simply want it more. And thanks to Klopp and their improved mentality, it was theirs for he taking. They were virtually indestructible.
Before their Champions League matches against Atlético Madrid, Liverpool had only lost one game all season: a group stage match against Napoli in the same competition. By the time they had played their final match against Atléti, however, they had racked up five defeats, four of them coming within the previous month.
The biggest challenge that Liverpool faced in the two European games was that they were facing a team that had such a similar drive and determination that meant no matter how many times this match was played, drawing a winner was always going to be difficult.
In Liverpool, you have an irrepressible attacking prowess that has only gotten better since it was formed. As for Atlético, the collective team spirit is highlighted in their pressing and jarring ability to defend as if their lives depended on it. It is clear from watching them that manager Diego Simeone spent a large part of his playing career in Italy. This fixture was a very real representation of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
After Atlético won the first leg 1:0, they travelled to Anfield where Liverpool were always going to mount attack after attack. The game-plan from the very start was simple for Atléti: defend at all costs and hang on as only they could. The match lasted 120 minutes but thanks to Madrid’s grit and resilience, it was over after 92.
Giorginio Wijnaldum’s goal before half-time would have, in normal circumstances, acted as the confidence boost that Liverpool needed to simply go about their normal routine. Sadly for them, facing Atlético is never normal.
Maybe the most defensively secure team in Europe, their backline is hard enough to break through before having to face Jan Oblak, a goalkeeper who has long been in contention for the mantle of “best in the world”.
The scoreline remained a stalemate throughout regular time but the game largely consisted of Liverpool throwing everything they had at Atlético but to no avail. Much like Liverpool, but perhaps to an even greater extent, Atléti are not a tactically complex team; Simeone appears to prioritise not losing ahead of going for the win. Route one.
Much like Klopp’s connection with his players, what Simeone has built with Atlético is a group of players who are prepared to give anything they have for him and the club. No one embodies this ideology more-so than midfield-talisman Saúl Ñiguez.
After suffering an injury to his kidneys in 2015, Saúl trained and played for the club whilst having to use an internal catheter. He cites the pain as being so excruciating that he would vomit after every training session and frequently urinate blood. Only when your manager is Diego Simeone and your club is Atlético Madrid does that become something you would consider tolerating.
After experiencing this whole ordeal, Saúl seems to be the perfect player to not only score the goal that gave Atlético the win in the first leg but also to execute what could be one of the most clever examples of psychological trickery seen in modern football for quite some time.
With the clock running 13 seconds past the two minutes of stoppage time allocated, Atlético’s lef-back, Renan Lodi, took a free-kick from an innocuous if slightly cautions position. He would not be able to go for goal but there was maybe someone in the box that could put the ball in the net themselves. A successful aerial attack was unlikely against Liverpool – only centre-back Felipe is as tall as the opposing defenders Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk. Despite this, it was Saúl Ñiguez – all 6ft of him – who put the ball in the back of the net. The Atléti bench swarmed the pitch and the celebrations began. The caveat, though, was that Saúl and four of his teammates were all stood offside, none more-so than him.
The goal that was scored was disallowed. This, in itself, is not noteworthy as goals getting disallowed is no longer a rarity. What makes this case so significant is the sheer ridiculousness of it. A player of Saúl’s calibre – a player commended for his ability to suit just about any style of football, capable of doing just about anything on a pitch – is simply too intelligent to make this mistake.
Saúl is too intellgent to make this mistake. The wager being offered here is that this was not a mistake but a perfectly executed plan set out by El Cholo Simeone himself.
By ensuring that the ball ended up in the net – regardless of whether it was disallowed or not – Liverpool were forced to witness the real possibility of them conceding, losing and being knocked out. It did not count, but for a moment it could have.
This was the only way that Atlético were able to guarantee any sense of advantage going into extra-time. Simeone’s men could have made legitimate attempt at goal but, if Liverpool recovered possession, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah were in prime positions to break on the counter. The risk was too grave to take and Saúl opted to take as much of an advantage as he could. By standing so far offside, he ensured that he would reach the ball before a defender had the chance to clear to safety (or worse to a waiting Liverpool attacking). Heading the ball in, whether it stood or not, meant that Liverpool conceded a match winning goal. By planting this seed of doubt, Simeone, Saúl and Atlético had Liverpool right where they wanted them: heading to extra-time.
Four minutes into the extra thirty minutes, Roberto Firmino’s header was volleyed back into the net and Liverpool were in familiar territory, a two goal lead against a team who were unlikely to get a goal back. It did not matter though. The doubt was already there. And, unfortunately, for them, all Atlético needed was just one goal. Enter Marcos Llorente, a defensive midfielder that Simeone has begun to transition to second-striker.
The way that Atlético waited and waited all match was reminiscent of how Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in their 1974 Rumble in the Jungle. The rope-a-dope technique in boxing is when a fighter absorbs all attacks before pouncing on their tired and vulnerable opponent. If there was ever a team to execute this technique on a football pitch, they would be managed by Diego Simeone.
A mistake from goalkeeper Adrián was enough for Llorente to put Atlético in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the game. Liverpool were forced to commit players forward in attack and left acres of space in their half which Llorente and then Alvaro Morata were able to fully exploit.
The match finished 3:2 to Atlético but it could be argued that it was already over before extra time began.
In a little over a week, Liverpool went from an unbeatable and perfectly balanced outfit walking calmly towards the glory of a Continental Treble to a team only capable of winning the league. They did that with flying colours but they should have achieved so much more. And why didn’t they? They met a team with a stronger mentality. Old habits…