It seems odd even to think so now, but these four Liverpool full-backs had started together four times before this Champions League loss to Real Madrid and had not conceded a goal. Any confidence that had been restored in those matches was shattered when the 13-time European Champions passed through Jurgen Klopp’s side in the Spanish capital.
It’s hard to think of a more unhappy half of football by Klopp’s Liverpool in Europe. The first 45 minutes of their 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in the first leg of this Champions League quarter-final were miserable. Passes got lost, players were caught on the pitch, and static defenders were easily outmaneuvered by Vinicius Junior and the others.
Liverpool are not yet out of competition. Mohamed Salah’s away goal is enough to give some hope. But the feeling is that of a wasted opportunity. A chance to collect the biggest trophy of all of this most difficult season eludes them. The draw had been nice but it was nowhere near as generous as the Liverpool defenders.
The irony is that it was Real Madrid and not Liverpool that should have been hit the hardest by key absences deep in their back line. Separated from two greats of the match on the eve of the draw, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, both World Cup winners and having won this competition four times, the chance was there for Liverpool to really head to Madrid.
It seemed to be on Klopp’s mind with his team selection. The direct run of the fit Diogo Jota was preferred over Roberto Firmino, while the more controversial Naby Keita was chosen ahead of Thiago Alcantara in midfield. It was a huge call to pick a player whose only previous start since Christmas had come in a home loss to Fulham. It backfired on him.
“Naby brings special things,” Klopp said beforehand. “We need dribblers. That’s Naby’s job tonight.” But Keita may have caused few problems. The intensity that could have troubled the experienced couple of Toni Kroos and Luke Modric was absent. Thiago replaced Keita before half-time, but at this point Liverpool already had two points.
Where was the pressing that could have revealed the flaws surely present in what many had considered a relatively disappointing incarnation of Madrid? Liverpool had surely expected this. Not exactly to save energy but mental reserves, knowing that only the Champions League has offered these players the opportunity to glory this season.
The problem, perhaps, is that it takes more than the enthusiasm and appetite of the willing Jota to maintain a consistent pressing game. You have to trust those behind to step up, believe that the movement is coordinated and that the space left behind will not be ruthlessly exploited by the quality of the opposition. All faith has been undermined within that first half.
The speed with which it all unfolded was alarming. In the opening minutes, there was a powerful header from Nat Phillips to clear the opening corner of the game. Ozan Kabak swept the ball confidently over the cover to put the ball out of play. Liverpool were holding on.
But then Phillips and Trent Alexander-Arnold started to be exposed, not once but over and over again. The goals flew in. Kabak incorrectly timed a back pass. Klopp had his head in his hands. Fabinho gave it to a danger zone. Halftime ended with technically flawless Thiago attempting an ambitious cross pass that was intercepted. It was chaos.
Phillips’ limitations should come as no surprise. His lack of rhythm makes him vulnerable. It’s just that – other than Callum Wilson – no one has really been able to expose this weakness. Here, in perhaps the greatest game of his career, he hasn’t been so lucky. A small step out of place and Vinicius was able to run behind and open the scoring for Madrid.
Liverpool might have escaped punishment had Alexander-Arnold provided significant cover behind him, but the England pair’s failure to face the Brazilian was a feature of the game. The first goal wasn’t even the first time Vinicius had found a space between them. Unfortunately for Alexander-Arnold, it wasn’t the last either.
There was no real excuse for the misdirected header that allowed Marcos Asensio to double Madrid’s lead just nine minutes after the opening game, but that was in keeping with the mediocrity of Alexander’s defensive work -Arnold for much of the evening. He had already been skinned by Ferland Mendy and allowed a counterattack with a loose pass inside. It was nervous.
The argument, of course, is that the young right-back offers so much the other way around and there was evidence of that even when lost. His long pass to Sadio Mane seconds before his mistake should have given Liverpool a free kick on the edge of the Madrid zone and maybe the night would have taken a very different turn if it had been given.
It must also be said that this is a tactical choice to encourage Alexander-Arnold to attack forward and leave space behind him. But that was not the story of this game. He was in position at key moments. It was just that he had made mistakes when he was there.
In the second half, there was a brief moment when the momentum changed after Salah’s goal – the result of branded conduct led by Jota. Alexander-Arnold was even applauded for his excellent defensive work – a vital block to cut off Asensio’s pass on the counterattack.
But within moments, Alexander-Arnold was on his heels as this man, Vinicius, pulled away from him and Phillips couldn’t get close enough to produce the block. Madrid’s two-goal advantage has been restored and it is the deficit that Liverpool now need to reform at Anfield.
Do it and the glory is only three games away. But for this Liverpool team that seems to be waiting too long. There is always quality in the squad, but in key areas of the pitch it is lacking too. Most often, this does not turn out to be costly. On the biggest stage, these weaknesses are revealed. As Liverpool discovered in Madrid, it can undermine the budding belief in no time.