Real Madrid’s ultra-attacking left back and Liverpool’s mega-star right winger will answer some of soccer’s biggest questions on Saturday.
Marcelo is the most attack-minded fullback playing at the highest level of soccer, which lends itself to lots of predictions that he will be exploited in big games. Watch any Real Madrid game and you’ll see Marcelo — left back in lineup placement only — bursting forward in a way more befitting a true attacking player, seemingly without regard for his defensive responsibilities. This leaves lots of space behind him for the opposition to exploit, so, the pundits surmise, good teams will take advantage of that.
Except they haven’t.
In three consecutive years of Real Madrid runs to Champions League finals, the club has managed to handle teams that attempted to exploit this alleged weakness. They have definitively shown that this tactic is working, yet it’s still brought up before every game, as if Marcelo’s ultra-attacking mindset is new information.
And now this tactic will get its ultimate test.
If any team can make Marcelo pay for his aggressive forays into the attacking third, it’s Liverpool, coached by Jürgen Klopp — the man who made top speed, high-pressure “Heavy Metal Football” famous. The Reds’ best player, Mohamed Salah, has also been the world’s best this season. He’s world renowned for his speed, and he plays on the right wing, meaning — in theory — he’ll be in position to run into the space that Marcelo vacates.
One of two things must happen as a result of Saturday’s Champions League final match between Madrid and Liverpool: Either Salah shows the world how to execute a tactic that the rest of Europe’s big clubs have failed at, or we can finally understand that this whole “exploit the space behind Marcelo” thing isn’t really a thing at all.
Marcelo’s style is about a conscious choice, not indiscipline
It’s a common misconception about Marcelo that he’s incapable of holding his position and playing conservatively. We know Marcelo can play conservatively because he played under Jose Mourinho. During the Special One’s reign at Madrid, Marcelo was an important fixture in aesthetically appalling teams that did everything they could to hold Barcelona to 0-0 draws.
This season at Manchester United, Mourinho dropped Paul Pogba for the completely nondescript Scottish youngster Scott McTominay, who has no discernible creative skills, in order to ensure maximum boringness. Mourinho has zero tolerance for players who don’t listen to his instructions, and Marcelo learned to play a way that Mourinho tolerated.
Zinedine Zidane and other Real Madrid managers have chosen to use Marcelo another way. They give him creative freedom to make plays from a role that usually demands positional focus. They do this because they think it helps Real Madrid win games.
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A left back who can do stuff like this is such an incredible weapon. It’s really difficult for any team to account for a defender with Marcelo’s level of skill and creativity. The rewards of letting Marcelo cook usually outweigh the risks of teams attacking the space behind him.
How does Madrid cover for him?
There’s no way for a team to cover completely for a vacated left back spot. An attacking team that makes the perfect decisions and executes those decisions perfectly will create a scoring chance on an attack where the opposing left back is absent. But even the best teams in the world often make decisions that are half-second slow or passes that are six inches off the mark. Real Madrid is good enough to shut down counter-attacks that have the slightest errors.
One way they shut down counters into space that are executed with less than surgical precision is one most readers will be familiar with — a goalkeeper coming off his line. While Madrid’s Keylor Navas isn’t quite as famous for this as some of the world’s great sweeper keepers, but he’s still pretty good at it.
Here’s an example from last season’s Champions League, where Marcelo gets caught up the pitch on a Madrid turnover.
It looks like Bayern has a ton of space to attack into, but their window for creating a clear chance is actually very small. Thiago thinks he can play the ball well ahead of Arjen Robben, but Navas is ready. Before the through ball is even played, Madrid’s keeper is rushing off his line. The result? An easy clearance.
Madrid is also good at reacting to turnovers as an entire unit to cover the space vacated by Marcelo. Here’s another example from the Champions League final, where Paulo Dybala of Juventus is running forward with Marcelo trailing behind. Madrid reacts instantly, with left central defender Sergio Ramos stepping up to challenge, defensive midfielder Casemiro running towards Marcelo’s left back spot, and right central defender Raphäel Varane preparing to track a run by striker Gonzalo Higuain.
Because Ramos saw the Juve attack developing quickly, he was able to step up and commit a foul on Dybala before they could get going. Even if Dybala had been able to skip past Ramos, Varane and Casemiro were ready to get into good positions.
Casemiro, Ramos and Varane are three of the most athletic defensive players in the world, and they’re all superb one-on-one defenders as well. Having the three of them together to slow down a counter-attack is as good as having four serviceable players, even in odd-man situations. When that trio is on the same page, they make huge attacking spaces disappear very quickly.
Madrid’s central midfielders, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos, are also excellent in getting in positions to restrict opponents’ passing lanes after possession is lost. They’re not on their defensive counterparts’ level athletically and don’t press aggressively, but they know where to stand to delay a pass that could spring a counter attack for a brief moment.
The little bit of extra time Modrić and Kroos’ positioning provides to Madrid’s defensive central trio is often all they need to remove any danger. There may be a dozen great opportunities to attack the space behind Marcelo in a given match against Real Madrid, but the window to take those chances is only open for a second at a time.
Klopp understands this, and doesn’t anticipate that it’ll be easy to score against Madrid. Here’s what he said to former Liverpool player Robbie Fowler in an interview with The Mirror.
Fowler: I look at Madrid, and think, ‘Marcelo brilliant’, but maybe a weakness for them too, as it leaves space where you have strength?
Klopp: You saw it, everybody saw it, seems obvious: ‘Marcelo, what an offensive player, but… he can’t defend’. They won the Champions League twice, they are again in the final! Bayern Munich thought they were the better team in the two games, but what is better at the end?
Real need four chances to score twice. Bayern needed eight to score one. They are experienced from head to toe. There is no weakness. Football is not so easy that you can say, ‘If Marcelo makes that run, and we leave Mo Salah there in that space, Salah gets in against Ramos’.
But if you watch Mohamed Salah, it’s easy to understand why so many people are predicting he’ll exploit Marcelo on Saturday.
Salah is Madrid’s biggest challenge yet on their left
TEKKERS BREAK #2!
Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, while good, have average pace. A peak Arjen Robben might have beaten Keylor Navas to the through ball above, but post-peak Robben isn’t quite as quick. It’s easier to win pure athleticism battles against those players than it is against Salah, who combines pure speed with top-notch anticipation better than anyone not named Cristiano Ronaldo. His 44 goals this season are no fluke — he gets off four shots per game, most of them from central positions inside the 18-yard box, and he gets over half of his shots on target.
Salah has been the perfect fit for Klopp’s high-pressing tactics and has formed a near-telepathic partnership with forward mates Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. When Liverpool creates a turnover, Salah is always ready to pounce. He moves early enough and runs fast enough that passes into his general direction do not have to be perfect. Play it into the right 10-foot radius and Salah usually wins the battle for the ball.
The Champions League final will be perhaps the only game this season where Madrid’s track star defensive players do not have an athletic advantage over the attackers they’re trying to contain. If Zidane is going to utilize his normal strategy, with Marcelo pushing high up the pitch to create scoring chances, the trio of Casemiro, Ramos and Varane will need to be sharper than ever.
One of soccer’s big questions will be answered definitively
Does Marcelo’s ultra-attacking mindset hurt Real Madrid?
Is Mohamed Salah the best attacker in the world right now?
We should be able to put at least one of these questions to rest after the Champions League final. If Salah truly has ascended to the Messi-Ronaldo plane of footballing existence, then surely he’ll force Marcelo to change his style or punish Madrid in the space behind their left back. And if Madrid contains Salah with Marcelo marauding forward as usual, becoming champions of Europe for a third consecutive season, it will be clear that his playing style isn’t a weakness for Los Merengues at all.
This makes Saturday’s final a rare treat — it’s a chance to see one of world soccer’s biggest questions answered with one game.