Atletico Madrid ground out a tough 1-0 victory over Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano to ensure that the Spanish outfit remained in the driving seat, ahead of the return leg at Anfield.
The game began at a frenetic tempo with the hosts looking to assert their dominance. They were rewarded in the 4th minute when Saul Niguez showcased enough awareness to stab a loose ball in the penalty box beyond Alisson.
Thereafter, Liverpool kept pushing and probing but never really threatened as Atletico held firm and eventually, came away with a scrappy 1-0 triumph.
Here is a look at the three reasons why the Reds lost.
#3 Atletico create situations of numerical superiority in transitions
Before the clash against Liverpool, Atletico had won only a solitary game from their previous seven encounters. Thus, many were skeptical of the Los Rojiblancos’ chances against an irresistible Liverpool side. However, the Spanish outfit dug deep into its tactical reserves and unfurled a wonderful performance at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday.
For large stretches of the game, the hosts were pinned back as the Reds dominated possession. Yet, whenever the visitors lost the ball, Atletico were quick to pounce together and they ensured that they accorded their defence the requisite respite to reset.
On numerous occasions, the Los Rojiblancos created situations of numerical superiority in transitions, courtesy the narrow nature of their midfield. Thomas Lemar began the match on the left flank and despite being a natural winger, he was content to venture in-field. On the other wing, Saul also cut inside and allowed the home side to control the ball whenever it was turned over.
Consequently, there were plenty of instances wherein the Atletico players doubled up on the Reds’ midfielders, thereby enabling the former to work the ball past their counterparts. In the process, Roberto Firmino was also forced to drop deeper into midfield, thereby leaving Liverpool without much of a focal point.
Similarly, whenever the ball was spread wide, one of the Los Rojiblancos’ central midfielders shunted across to create a 3v2 circumstance, meaning that the shape of Liverpool’s midfield ultimately suffered.
Before the clash, Saul, one of the hosts’ midfield lynchpins had opined how Liverpool’s midfielders tracked back mercilessly and barely allowed the opposition a moment’s peace on the ball.
Thus, rather fittingly, the Spaniard, alongside his teammates, conjured a similar trick, a gambit that laid the platform for a brilliant victory.
#2 Atletico deny Liverpool space in the attacking third
Liverpool arrived at the Wanda Metropolitano having scored 61 goals in 26 league matches, roughly averaging more than two goals per game. Thus, the Reds’ attacking edge, coupled with the Los Rojiblancos’ recent defensive shakiness painted a promising picture for the visitors.
Unfortunately, though, nothing of that sort materialized, meaning that Liverpool, rather uncharacteristically, drew a blank.
Jurgen Klopp’s men began the encounter with their usual front three of Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. However, none of the trio was able to impose itself on proceedings.
For a major chunk of the game, the triumvirate was rid of any space behind Atletico’s rear-guard. The hosts were happy to employ a relatively deep defensive block and that allowed their midfielders to retreat too.
Subsequently, the Reds were forced to explore attacking avenues on the flanks, with Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold enjoying plenty of the ball. However, the lack of space in behind meant that the full-backs only fed the defenders with their crosses.
In fact, the only time the hosts accorded the visitors a touch of space was in the 52nd minute when Salah peeled in between Sime Vrsaljko and Savic. Luckily for the Los Rojiblancos though, the Egyptian nodded his effort wide of the near post.
Over the course of the current season, there have been question marks over Atletico’s ability to buckle down, absorb pressure and keep their opponents at an arm’s length.
Yet, in perhaps their biggest game of the campaign so far, those facets came to the fore rather emphatically.
#1 Atletico’s early goal helps them execute their game-plan to the tee
Ever since Diego Simeone took over the reins at Atletico Madrid, the Spanish outfit has represented a team capable of withstanding the most adverse of circumstances and coming up trumps courtesy a combination of grit, determination and perseverance.
However, over the 2019 off-season, the Argentine tried shaking things up a tad and brought on board players that were capable of preaching a slightly more expansive brand of football. Unfortunately, that experiment hasn’t worked out as planned, meaning that Atletico have reverted to their tried and tested formula recently.
And, for Liverpool’s visit, the Los Rojiblancos stuck to their preferred ideals and produced arguably their most complete performance of the season.
In the fourth minute, Saul capitalized on some slack defending in the box to put Atletico ahead, meaning that the hosts then boasted the luxury of sitting deep and inviting the Reds to attack.
The visitors kept trying to prize open the Los Rojiblancos’ defensive door but failed as they kept lacking the adequate imagination. A lot of their build-up play seemed pedestrian and at times, they also looked devoid of ideas.
On countless occasions, Liverpool shifted play out wide before coming back inside, due to a lack of options further ahead. Elsewhere, Fabinho was also not accorded the time and space to pick out his passes.
Moreover, Atletico kept breaking up the tempo of the match to ensure that the Reds never generated a head of steam.
Thus, the goal in the fourth minute had effectively made it easier for the hosts to execute their game-plan. In fact, it only made Liverpool’s task steeper and enabled Simeone to dream of another Champions League quarter-final, just weeks after being written off by many.