Football Features

The Country for Old Men: How Real’s ‘experienced’ trident dominated the midfield battle vs Liverpool

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 10:01, 8 April 2021

Real Madrid’s first-leg domination of Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-final was truly impressive on so many levels.

The younger stars in the squad played their part, with Ferland Mendy and Eder Militao holding the fort further back, while Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio scored the goals. But the game, as a whole, was decided in the centre of the pitch, with Liverpool’s famously energetic midfield struggling to get near the ageing trio of Luka Modric, Casemiro and the imperious Toni Kroos.

Ah, Toni Kroos, what more can you say about this man? He feels like some ancient relic slowly probing about the pitch, yet he’s only 31 years old. Though, paradoxically, he’s always felt like some ancient relic slowly probing about the pitch, hasn’t he?

Just as Raven McCoy was said to be the most dangerous woman in the world with a knife in her hand, Toni Kroos is (one of) the most dangerous men in the world with the ball at his feet. Kroos’ seeming distaste for physical work makes him a problem defensively (more on that later) but also ensures that he’s pretty much always standing in space, away from the hustle and bustle.

And when Kroos is in space with the ball at his feet, bad things tend to happen to Real Madrid’s opponents.

Kroos is so dangerous with the ball that even 20 yards inside his own half, you have to mark him. Diogo Jota declined to do that 26 minutes into last night’s clash, standing there as Kroos looked up and swung his mighty boot. Perhaps we’ll never know why the Portuguese, a famously ferocious presser, declined to do that very thing, but he surely regretted it seconds later as Kroos bafflingly ICBM’d the ball 60 yards over the entire Liverpool team straight onto Vinicius’ chest, and the Brazilian did his duty and scored.

What’s most amusing is that Liverpool just didn’t learn their lesson. Less than 10 minutes later Kroos was at it again, collecting the ball on the other side of the pitch, only about seven yards inside his own half this time, and Naby Keita just sort of stands there looking at him.

Kroos literally controls the ball and looks up for a good couple seconds (honestly it’s not a surprise Keita got subbed off soon after, you just cannot make that mistake twice) and then pings a ball over the top for the onrushing Mendy. Trent Alexander-Arnold stretches to get in the way but only ends up making it worse as his header takes everyone out and leaves Asensio one-v-one, and Alisson’s panicked rush out makes the Spaniard’s finish easy.

Two magnificent, magisterial passes just carved Liverpool open and set Real Madrid well on their way to victory. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, because as much as Kroos opened them up with the ball, without the ball Los Blancos were just as impressive.

After all this was a Real Madrid side that didn’t have either of their first choice centre-backs in Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, yet stand-ins Militao and Nacho weren’t exactly troubled. Why? Because the two men next to Kroos were absolutely ferocious, that’s why.

Luka Modric is, at 35 years old, a living legend. The 2018 Ballon d’Or winner is an incredibly elegant player like Kroos, but unlike the German, he is a masterful defender with a great understanding of passing lanes and how to get in them.

He’s also a superb passer himself, although his assist on the night couldn’t have been simpler (a square pass to Vinicius), it was his defensive play cutting off Liverpool’s attacks with alarming frequency that so thrilled. Summed up by a moment late on when Sadio Mane tried to drop the shoulder and skip by him in the open field, and Modric read it perfectly, sticking out a leg to rob the ball from the Senegalese. The third of his three tackles on the night.

But you can’t mention tackles and leave out Casemiro. The youngest of the midfield at a sprightly 29, he is an absolute animal when it comes to winning the ball back. He’s a strange player in that he’s not much of a passer, but excels at shooting, running and tackling, and so, is a perfect foil to Kroos’ strolling decadence.

The Brazilian just annihilates anything that moves ahead of the Madrid defence. He prowls the pitch looking for opponents to rend asunder, and he usually finds them too. The Brazilian registered eight tackles on Liverpool (just one less than they managed as an entire team) and constantly stifled their attempts to bundle their way back into the match.

With Casemiro mopping up defensively, Modric doing a little bit of everything and Kroos the pass master spraying the ball around the pitch, it was no wonder that Liverpool were totally dominated in the middle of the pitch. Even when Jurgen Klopp sent for Thiago Alcantara from the bench, there was no stopping the Madrid men.

They may be old, but this Madrid midfield won the Champions League three years in a row. They can dominate knockout rounds of this competition off muscle memory alone. Now they will go to Anfield looking to protect a 3-1 lead, a prospect Casemiro and Modric are surely relishing while Kroos is already likely to be preparing himself to launch 30 yard passes over Liverpool’s high defensive line and punishing the Reds with devastating counter-attacks just like he did in Madrid.