Real Lessons for Aging Liverpool


Nine months after a near-perfect season, Liverpool are staring at an uncertain future. Real Madrid, who thrashed them 5-2 at Anfield on Tuesday night, merely reinforced the importance of planning ahead.


It hasn’t even been nine months since Real Madrid and Liverpool met in the Champions League final in Paris. That night, Liverpool had 54 per cent of the possession, and nine shots on target to Real’s two. But Vinicius Junior scored the goal that mattered and Liverpool’s quest for an unprecedented perfect season ended in heartbreak, just a week after Manchester City had pipped them to the English Premier League title in the final few minutes of the season.


On Tuesday night at Anfield, Liverpool needed just four minutes to do what they couldn’t in Paris – put the ball past the imposing Thibaut Courtois in the Real goal. Thanks to a hideous mistake from Courtois ten minutes later, they were soon 2-0 up. After defeats to Real in the 2018 and 2022 finals, and a quarterfinal exit at their hands in the Covid-affected 2020-21 campaign, the Reds were threatening to repeat the incredible 4-0 scoreline from March 2009.


What followed was scarcely believable. Ever since the great Bill Shankly built Liverpool up to be one of Europe’s great clubs, Anfield has had this mystique and intimidation factor on European nights. Great coaches like Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Fabio Capello and Pep Guardiola have arrived on Champions League nights and left beaten, muttering about ‘that place’. Guardiola’s view on the atmosphere borders on the reverential.


But the fans can only do so much. When Liverpool lost the 2022 final, and even in the weeks leading up to it, one of the things they had done was chase Aurilien Tchouameni, the Monaco midfielder who was earning rave reviews for his midfield work at such a young age. Liverpool saw Tchouameni as the logical successor to Fabinho in the defensive midfield role, but days after the Paris final, he signed for Real.


It would have been especially galling for Liverpool supporters that they were swept aside so contemptuously in the second half without Tchouameni being anywhere near the action. That, in a nutshell, summed up the awesome calibre of this Real team. A couple of decades ago, their transfer strategy was based on the Galacticos model. Every year, Madrid would go out and buy a star. The list was seemingly endless. Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo (the Brazilian original), David Beckham, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Luca Modric and so many others.


But in the recent past, there has been a significant change in strategy. Federico Valverde was signed from Penarol in Uruguay when just 18. Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo also arrived from Brazil when just 18. The Angola-born Eduardo Camavinga also arrived from Rennes months before his 19th birthday. Tchouameni, a veteran signing by comparison, is still only 23.


These five have learned their trade alongside serial winners like Modric and Benzema. When Real let Casemiro go to Manchester United last summer, after he had been such a big part of their Champions League dominance since 2014, any gasps of surprise were tempered by the realisation that in Valverde, Camavinga and Tchouameni, Real have a midfield trio that could boss European football for the best part of a decade.


At present, the most coveted youngster is European football is England’s Jude Bellingham, another all-action midfielder who grew up idolising Steven Gerrard. Bellingham will certainly leave Borussia Dortmund this coming summer, and it has always been assumed that Liverpool would be first in the queue to sign him. But after this debacle, don’t rule out the possibility of Bellingham following Tchouameni’s route to Real. If they do get him, most other clubs on the continent can forget about the biggest prize for the next decade.


As for Liverpool, where do they go now? Their defences of the two domestic cups they won last season are already over. They are slumming it in eighth place in the league, with Champions League qualification far from certain. For the moment, Manchester United, Tottenham and even Newcastle look better equipped to push for the two spots behind City and Arsenal.


It wasn’t just Tchouameni that Real were missing at Anfield. Toni Kroos, their German midfield pass master, also didn’t start. For more than half a decade, Kroos, Modric and Casemiro were the pre-eminent midfield in world football. It’s a measure of Real’s foresight that they have transitioned even as Modric and Kroos are still around to pass on their matchless experience.


Liverpool have paid the price for not moving on. They may have revitalized their forward line in the past couple of seasons with the arrivals of Diego Jota, Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez, but big games of football are usually decided in midfield. Liverpool haven’t signed a starter there since Thiago arrived from Bayern Munich nearly three years ago. Fabinho looks spent, Naby Keita has never been trusted in the big games, and Jordan Henderson and James Milner no longer have the legs to match it with the likes of Valverde and Camavinga.


In Paris, Liverpool could count themselves unlucky. The fact that Courtois was man of the match said as much. But there was nothing fortuitous about the manner in which Real ripped Liverpool apart in the second half at Anfield. Liverpool’s midfield has been embarrassed by the likes of Brighton, Brentford and Wolves in recent times. To expect anything different against the champions of Europe was merely wishful thinking.


The microscope will always fall on defensive mistakes. But the way Jurgen Klopp’s teams play, with the full-backs constantly providing an attacking outlet, the centre-backs need to be protected by a hard-working midfield. When those midfielders no longer have the legs to press as they used to, rebuilding is the need of the hour.


You’ll never walk alone, Liverpool’s iconic anthem, urges you to walk on through the wind and rain, through the storm. But the problem right now is that the midfield has slowed to a walk. Unless they find a couple of new faces who can run and harass the opposition in the manner of Klopp’s teams of the past, the gulf with sides like Real will only widen. Nine months is enough time to birth a new life. But as we discovered last night, it’s also long enough for a once-great team to fade into irrelevance.

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