On another day, in some other timeline, maybe Real Madrid could have won the 2021-22 Champions League final.
It would have been improbable in any universe, with the way Carlo Ancelotti’s team played, but you can imagine some alternate reality where the movements of bodies and balls are just a little less orderly, where football is a little less fair – who knows, maybe stranger things have happened in a world like that than a smash-and-grab 1-0 win.
But yesterday was not that day, and this is not that timeline.
Of course Liverpool are champions. That was never in doubt, not after Sadio Mane scored the fastest goal in Champions League final history 49 seconds in.
It was not exactly a shock that the goal came from a high-pressing situation. Since the start of the group stage, Liverpool ranked third out of the 16 teams who ended up advancing to the knockout phase for how well they disrupted opponents’ build-up play. Real Madrid last night were no exception.
The staggered front five in Liverpool’s 4-3-3 high block denied access to Madrid’s midfield long enough that David Alaba turned and passed back to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
That was Mane’s trigger to jump forward from his new center-forward role. He first closed down Courtois – who’s a rarity at the top of the game right now for his relatively clumsy feet – and then swerved to chase the keeper’s return ball to Alaba.
At the same time, Mohamed Salah hurried around to the other side of Alaba to deny the easy outlet pass to the left-back, Ferland Mendy. The pressing trap was sprung.
By the time Salah succeeded in squeezing Mendy against the sideline on the ball, Liverpool’s midfielders and their right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold, had each jumped about five yards in front of any potential passing options.
That aggressive positioning not only blocked would-be receivers in Liverpool’s cover shadows (a fancy German name for the inaccessible space directly behind a defender), it also left each defender close enough to step up if Mendy tried to chip a pass over the guy in front of them – which sure enough, he did, overhitting a ball that Alexander-Arnold cut out.
Some teams’ first instinct when they win the ball suddenly like that is to pass backwards, secure possession and recover their shape before launching an attack. Liverpool did exactly the opposite, rushing straight for goal in transition like a good German-coached team, so that the opponents’ defense wouldn’t have time to get organized.
It took four seconds from the interception to a ball through the Madrid back line.
Alaba lunged to cut out the through-ball, and on another day maybe he would have got a toe to it. Instead, Mane tapped the ball around both him and Casemiro and fired a one-on-one shot against Courtois, who never stood a chance. 1-0. Liverpool fans, who had found their seats hours ahead of kick-off thanks to well-run security and streamlined crowd management, cheered.
Fifteen minutes later, they struck again.
This time it was the new and improved features of Liverpool’s passing game that bagged them a goal.
Thiago, distributing from his preferred deep-left role while moving to his right, played a comfortable diagonal out to Jordan Henderson on the right wing.
Henderson headed the ball back to Alexander-Arnold at the corner of the box. In past seasons, maybe Alexander-Arnold would have looked for a shallow cross here, but in this one he’s been getting into the cutback zone to set up higher-value chances.
Alexander-Arnold’s low cross found Salah, who put a shot on target with a post-shot expected goals value of 0.53 – more likely to score than not. On another day, maybe Courtois would have got a hand to it, but since football is a mathematically exact sport and the probabilities were against him, it’s only fair that he did not.
And so on it went for Madrid, who did manage a deserved goal involving Karim Benzema and some befuddling VAR metaphysics about what Fabinho did or did not intend to do, but Ancelotti’s team could not seem to accomplish a whole lot else in this best of all possible worlds.
It did not help that their answer to Liverpool’s press was to drop Toni Kroos below Casemiro. It might have made sense, in theory, to link their best deep passer with their center-backs instead of their worst one but, in practice, it kept stretching the midfield into a diagonal shape best described as, uh, avant-garde.
I know we’re pretending Valverde is a winger but Madrid’s diagonal midfield is very entertaining pic.twitter.com/isUA2vW0KS
– John Muller (@johnspacemuller) May 28, 2022
Meanwhile, Liverpool could not stop scoring.
Sadio Mane’s low heater of a shot in the 21st minute grazed Courtois’ glove, bounced off the inside of the post, and made it three.
A Salah curler from his favorite zone at the top of the box slipped under Courtois’ reaching arm for the fourth.
Diogo Jota headed a ball across a gaping net to Salah, who had an easy tap-in at the other post.
Of course he scored that. This sport is not random. It’s not cruel.
When the final whistle blew, the score was Liverpool 5 Real Madrid 1 – a little wider than the xG difference, but only because Real Madrid were credited a big chance off a scuffed Fede Valverde shot that surprised everyone, including Vinicius Junior, who tripped over what might have been a tap-in at the back post.
Liverpool 0-1 Real Madrid #UCLFinal
Liverpool come up against an inspired Thibaut Courtois – unlucky for them.
Real Madrid pick up their 14th European Cup / Champions League title, which is the same as every English club combined. pic.twitter.com/vtD7wJDQKm
– The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) May 28, 2022
No one could argue the result was unfair. Liverpool had the better of possession, field tilt, shots, and expected goals. They’d played the game in an organized 4-3-3 and pushed into Madrid’s half, while Ancelotti’s lopsided shape, meant to test the space behind Alexander-Arnold with the Vinicius-Benzema pairing, never really created much threat.
If you’re blessed with an active imagination, maybe you can conceive of some other universe where a game that lopsided might come out the other way.
But here in the real world, football – like life – is fair, and Liverpool have won their seventh Champions League, level with AC Milan for second-most ever behind only Madrid’s 13.
(Top photo: Catherine Ivill / Getty Images)