Champions League: Jurgen Klopp has masterminded Liverpool evolution since 2018 Real Madrid defeat

Four years on from their crushing failure in Kyiv, Jurgen Klopp will lead Liverpool into another Champions League final against Real Madrid on Saturday. But he will do so with far greater resources at his disposal.

Klopp’s men have come a long way since that sorry night in May 2018, when a couple of disastrous blunders from goalkeeper Loris Karius resulted in a 3-1 defeat on European football’s grandest stage.

Though while Karius’ gaffes ultimately proved decisive, the Reds were an incomplete, greenhorn side with little experience on the top stage back then. Trent Alexander-Arnold had only made his senior debut 18 months prior, Andrew Robertson played for Hull City less than a year before and Virgil van Dijk was merely five months into his stint at Anfield.

Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool were beaten by Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final

Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool were beaten by Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final

Gareth Bale scored twice as Madrid ran out 3-1 winners on that sorry night for the Reds in Kyiv

Gareth Bale scored twice as Madrid ran out 3-1 winners on that sorry night for the Reds in Kyiv

Two disastrous howlers from goalkeeper Loris Karius contributed to their downfall in that final

Two disastrous howlers from goalkeeper Loris Karius contributed to their downfall in that final

But the 2018 final perhaps came too soon for a Liverpool side with little big-game experience

But the 2018 final perhaps came too soon for a Liverpool side with little big-game experience

It was a final which perhaps came too soon for Klopp and a set of players lacking big-game wisdom at that time, however the same cannot be said ahead of Saturday’s showpiece in Paris.

Liverpool have evolved significantly over the past four years, beating Tottenham in the 2019 final and becoming Premier League champions the following season. They are also bidding for a historic Treble this term after already capturing the FA Cup and League Cup.

Real are therefore locking horns with a completely different Red beast in the French capital this weekend, but how has Klopp managed it? Sportsmail takes a look at his rebuilding job since the 2018 final. 

Defence

Klopp didn’t waste any time replacing Karius after his pair of howlers against Madrid, brutally discarding the German by sending him out on loan to Besiktas the following season. After two years in Turkey and one with Bundesliga club Union Berlin, he returned to Liverpool last summer but is still yet to feature since that calamitous showing in Kiev.

He can’t have any complaints about that, either, given his replacement is a clear upgrade who quickly emerged as one of the best goalkeepers in European football after heading to Merseyside.

Alisson’s £67million arrival from Roma that summer was a game-changer for Klopp. Since then Liverpool have conceded a mere 123 goals in 152 Premier League matches, working out as 0.81 goals per game. In Klopp’s first two seasons as manager, the Reds conceded 80 goals in 76 outings (1.05 goals per game) with Karius and Simon Mignolet in between the sticks.

Loris Karius has not featured for Liverpool since the 2018 final

Alisson has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the world at Liverpool

Klopp brutally discarded Karius after the 2018 final and replaced him with Alisson in goal

The Brazilian shot-stopper is a clear upgrade who has made a seismic impact on Merseyside

The Brazilian shot-stopper is a clear upgrade who has made a seismic impact on Merseyside

While not meaning to tempt fate, he needs not worry about his goalkeeper heading into this weekend’s final. Alisson has proven himself a reliable pair of hands on numerous occasions, playing a crucial role in their recent Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup triumphs.

Klopp replacing Karius with the Brazilian, one of his greatest moves as Liverpool boss, has paid dividends and will give his side a safety net at the Stade de France.

Elsewhere at the back, the Merseyside club will likely line up with three of the same four who slumped to defeat back in 2018. The difference this time around, though, is that Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk and Robertson are serial winners who have been there, seen it, done it when it comes to Champions League finals.

Van Dijk now stakes a claim to being the world’s leading central defender after taking his game to lofty heights under Klopp, while Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have been two of the Premier League’s stand-out full-backs in recent seasons.

Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold are serial winners this time around

Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold are serial winners this time around

Klopp now has both Joel Matip (left) and Ibrahima Konate (right) at his disposal this weekend

Klopp now has both Joel Matip (left) and Ibrahima Konate (right) at his disposal this weekend

The one change from Liverpool’s defence in Kyiv comes in the shape of Dejan Lovren, who Klopp slowly shifted out of the side over the next two campaigns before his departure in 2020.

Nevertheless, Joel Matip would almost certainly have got the nod over the Croatian had he not picked up a season-ending thigh injury earlier in the campaign. Matip remains an integral member of the side, featuring 43 times this term, yet his place in the starting line-up this weekend is not as definite.

Ibrahima Konate has improved more and more as the season has gone on, and to nullify the speed of Vinicius Jr on the left flank he may be preferred to Matip in Paris. Regardless, Klopp is blessed with stronger defensive options this time around.

Joe Gomez, also unavailable for the 2018 final through injury, is likely to be on the bench at the weekend along with one of Matip or Konate. Left back Kostas Tsimikas, who scored the winning penalty in this month’s FA Cup final, will also join them.

In contrast, Klopp had Ragnar Klavan, Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno amongst his substitutes back then. It speaks volumes about the improvement of his squad depth four years on. 

Dejan Lovren was the centre-back who started alongside Van Dijk in the 2018 showpiece

Dejan Lovren was the centre-back who started alongside Van Dijk in the 2018 showpiece

Midfield

Should Thiago Alcantara pass a late fitness test, Liverpool’s three-man midfield on Saturday may look completely different to the one which came up short last time out against Madrid.

Klopp has strengthened in the middle of the park since, adding Fabinho, Naby Keita and Thiago Alcantara to his ranks while also blooding young academy graduate Curtis Jones. 

Georginio Wijnaldum departed last summer, yet even before his free transfer to Paris Saint-Germain Klopp had already bolstered his midfield. Fabinho and Keita’s arrival in 2018 coincided with Emre Can leaving to join Juventus, a departure which was quickly forgotten.

After a slow start to his Liverpool career, Fabinho soon cemented himself as an integral member of the side at the base of Klopp’s midfield, with his tough tackling, clever reading of the game and underrated passing ability making him the perfect anchor.

Keita, on the other hand, has not proved as consistent or reliable as the Brazilian, yet he is a much more mobile option for Klopp than veteran James Milner, who got the nod four years ago.

Klopp has also strengthened in midfield, with the addition of anchor Fabinho a masterstroke

Klopp has also strengthened in midfield, with the addition of anchor Fabinho a masterstroke

The tough-tackling midfielder has been a mainstay in his side over the past four seasons

The tough-tackling midfielder has been a mainstay in his side over the past four seasons

Naby Keita has not been as consistent but he is a mobile option in the middle of the park

Naby Keita has not been as consistent but he is a mobile option in the middle of the park

Thiago Alcantara's classy presence also gives Liverpool the perfect blend of styles in midfield

Thiago Alcantara’s classy presence also gives Liverpool the perfect blend of styles in midfield

Add to that Thiago, one of the classiest ball-playing midfielders in world football, and Liverpool now have the perfect blend of styles in midfield. That is without even mentioning captain Jordan Henderson, whose engine and leadership qualities remain vital for Klopp.

Henderson, another who started the 2018 final, will not be guaranteed to get the nod at the weekend if Thiago is available. The latter hobbled off during Sunday’s final-day win over Wolves with an achilles injury but is making better progress than anticipated.

Klopp has appeared to favour a Keita-Fabinho-Thiago axis of late, though even if Henderson earns a place in the side there is no question that Liverpool’s midfield has come on tenfold over the past four years.

The addition of Fabinho as a holder has changed the dynamic of the team, allowing his midfield partners greater freedom to push on and join in attacks. His ability to prevent counter-attacks and retrieve possession is also all the more crucial given Alexander-Arnold and Robertson’s tendency to bomb on out wide. 

Henderson was tasked with sitting deep alongside Milner and Wijnaldum in 2018, however the Liverpool skipper is better suited to a box-to-box role and has reaped the rewards of playing alongside Fabinho.

Thiago’s race against time to be fit may tempt Klopp to stick with his fresh captain at the weekend, especially given Fabinho has also only just recovered from a knock of his own.

Jordan Henderson is the only midfielder from the 2018 final in with a chance of starting again

Jordan Henderson is the only midfielder from the 2018 final in with a chance of starting again

But even if he does so the German will still have the luxury of being able to turn to Thiago, Milner or Jones – who has shown plenty of promise since his burst onto the scene in 2020 – during the game. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is also available.

Four years ago, Can and Adam Lallana were his only options from the bench against Madrid. Liverpool’s midfield has been bulked out with much greater quality since the Kyiv shortcoming. 

Attack

Liverpool’s front line remains just as deadly as in 2018, yet the main difference once more is the depth Klopp has given to it.

Mohamed Salah, who was enjoying a record-breaking debut season at Anfield, and Sadio Mane, the Reds’ goalscorer that night, are still two of the first names on their team sheet four years on.

While he has not come close to replicating his breathtaking return of 44 goals in the 2017/18 campaign, Salah has surpassed the 20-goal mark in each of the four seasons which have come since, with 31 under his belt this term.

Mane, meanwhile, has continued to fire in goals on a consistent basis, producing a tally of 87 over the next four seasons.

Though the same cannot be said for Roberto Firmino, who was sandwiched by the pair at Ukraine’s Olympic National Sports Complex. After registering 27 goals and 17 assists that year, Firmino followed it up with 16 goals and eight assists in 2018/19. Since then, his goal contributions have decreased season by season.

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane remain crucial members of Liverpool's attack four years on

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane remain crucial members of Liverpool’s attack four years on

But Roberto Firmino has slowly declined and is now playing more of a bit-part role at Anfield

But Roberto Firmino has slowly declined and is now playing more of a bit-part role at Anfield

Only 32 more goals and 27 more assists have come in the next three years, and over the last two in particular the Brazilian playmaker has lost his place in the starting XI to new recruits Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz.

The latter duo have proved inspired signings on Merseyside, breathing new life into Klopp’s attack and leapfrogging Firmino in his attacking pecking order.

Jota, a £41m purchase from Wolves, scored 13 goals in his first half-season at Anfield and has produced a return of 21 this term. 

As for Diaz, the tricky Colombian did not need any time to settle into English football after completing a £54m move from Porto in January, already racking up 11 goal contributions while providing a constant threat on the left flank.

His arrival has seen Mane take on more of a central role in recent months, which has brought 14 goals for the Senegal international, with Salah positioned over on the right.

It would be a surprise if Klopp doesn’t stick with the same trio in Paris, though if he was to spring one change Jota would likely replace Diaz.

Diogo Jota has moved ahead of Firmino in the pecking order since arriving in January 2021

Diogo Jota has moved ahead of Firmino in the pecking order since arriving in January 2021

Luis Diaz has hit the ground running and is now in contention to start this weekend's final

Luis Diaz has hit the ground running and is now in contention to start this weekend’s final

Firmino, a mainstay in the Reds attack four years ago, now plays more of a bit-part role at Anfield, which again indicates how much Klopp’s team has evolved since 2018.

Dominic Solanke was the only forward option Klopp had on the bench when they last collided with Real. The English striker now plies his trade with Championship runners-up Bournemouth. And if he was afforded more than seven substitutes, as is the case in today’s competition, Danny Ings would have been the other attacker included.

In comparison, this time Liverpool have a mouthwatering choice between Diaz, Jota and Firmino to join Salah and Mane up top. And the Reds’ arsenal doesn’t finish there, as Divock Origi – scorer in their 2019 final triumph against Tottenham – Takumi Minamino and youngster Harvey Elliott are also waiting in the wings.

Simply put, Klopp’s Liverpool evolution has seen him add more layers of quality to a world-class spine.

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