Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos in total control mode to expose Liverpool’s soft centre
With 35 minutes gone at the Estadio Alfredo di Stéfano, Toni Kroos was yet to misplace a pass, or indeed, break into a jog. He looked fresh. He looked unhurried. At times he seemed to be carrying his own respectful green space around the pitch with him, ringed by discrete royal protection, like Edward VIII having a game of golf.
With 36 minutes gone Kroos finally missed his mark. Unfortunately for Liverpool his diagonal pass was met with a terrible defensive header by Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the ball nodded straight to Marco Asensio, who bundled it past Alisson to put Madrid 2-0 up on the night.
And in that first half Liverpool didn’t just invite Kroos to toy with their backline, they beseeched him, implored him, came on bended knee carrying vellum-bound instructions, the midfield bowing and scraping its way back out of the room as Kroos stirred in his sedan chair.
By half-time Kroos had done nothing but pass. No tackles, no dribbles, no headers. Instead he just ran the game, swirling that luminous white leather orb through the empty skies, hanging it up there, fizzing it, fading it, transforming the same ball everyone else was using into a malevolent thing imbued with its own weird intelligence.
And yes, Kroos will do this to you. It’s really not a secret. Nine minutes before the Asensio goal he produced a sublime long pass to create the opener for Vinícius Júnior – but this time it was almost too cinematic, angling his foot to get elevation and dip, but launched under absolutely no pressure at all. Kroos had so much time he might have wondered if the game had stopped, perhaps taken a minute to check with the referee the clock was still running. Vinícius, also given a free run, waited for the ball to drop before clipping it into the far corner.
Liverpool did wake up after half-time. Roused by Jürgen Klopp, they were more aggressive, less fretful on the ball. They looked like what they are – a match for Madrid when they play without that weird sheen of respectful anxiety. Mo Salah scored a significant away goal, made by his own speed and hustle. But by then this game was already running one way.
In the buildup there had been suggestions Liverpool’s “running power” would be too much for this ageing Madrid team. The talk after Arsenal – yes, Arsenal: there is a clue here – was optimistic.
Here they were faced with a midfield made up of the ageing midfield-witch Luka Modric and Kroos, who lets the ball do the running, walking, standing and pretty much everything else in between. The thing is, though, this wasn’t Arsenal.
Instead Liverpool looked horribly open from the first minute. Zinedine Zidane is often cast as an overlord rather than a tactician. But he had enough here for this intransigent, fixed-gear Liverpool team, as time and again his midfielders looked for those spaces in behind the full-backs. Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold surged forward gamely from the start. Where was the old swarming midfield cover? Gini Wijnaldum spent the first half chasing ghosts. Naby Keïta was a star-struck tourist.
When Liverpool play this way – like a bad Liverpool, Liverpool with the throttle closed – it is hard to think of a more perfect opponent for Kroos, who has spent the last decade in his own Star Trek-style exploration of space, chiefly the space behind your full-backs. Those spaces are his muse. That’s his talent, his career, right there. The first half alone brought five accurate diagonal long passes and three crosses. Give him time, let him look up and fix his coordinates and he will sink your battleship.
The questions kept bubbling up. Had Klopp not warned his men about the spaces behind, or simply turned their eyes on the spaces in front? How does a team whose defending quality is heat and pressure become so slack, so lukewarm? How does a team built on heavy metal energy – always a line, but still – become this cowed in the presence of some white shirts on a training pitch? Deprived of Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool seemed to have no grown-ups on the pitch at all.
Vinícius made it 3-1 on 65 minutes, helped by an unfortunate error from Alisson. The game settled into a more even balance after that brief spurt of energy, although Madrid always looked to have control. With an entire second leg to come, Liverpool are very capable of winning this tie. But whatever the score at Anfield this was a chance missed, a high-class opponent given too much time and space, allowed to measure this game out in unhurried passes.
With Raphaël Varane and Sergio Ramos out there was always a tender spot at the heart of these Meringues. The thing is, you’ve got to get near them first, and right from the off Liverpool looked startled, sleepy, half-cut.
They had no time, no space to hold the ball as Madrid pressed hard on Wijnaldum and Fabinho. At one point Liverpool’s full-backs were reduced to pinging hasty cross-field passes just to find some space to breathe. This was a seasoned old champion team playing without fear and finding hesitation in return.
There is still time for Liverpool to alter the energy in this tie, to assert their own game of sprints. But this was a lesson in craft from Kroos.