Against the Odds: Explaining Atlético Madrid’s smash-and-grab win over Liverpool

It’ll remain a curse of Liverpool’s 2019/20 season that, not only has the lockdown for the coronavirus put their Premier League title victory on hold, but that their last match before the world stopped was elimination from the Champions League. 

It wasn’t just that the 3-2 extra-time home defeat to Atlético Madrid dumped them, the holders, out of the competition, but the fact that it was a true smash-and-grab.

The smash-and-grab quality is summarised neatly in the expected goals (xG) stats. Expected goals is a measure of chance quality modelled on thousands upon thousands of previous shots, and in the long-term, it’s more predictive of goalscoring than most other stats. 

In the short-term, like a single match, it loses a bit of that predictive power, but it’s a very neat and tidy way of describing games. And in that Champions League second leg, Liverpool had chances worth 3.58 expected goals while Atléti’s opportunities were worth just 1.11 expected goals. 

This victory for Atlético, despite being so soundly outdone at creating chances, is the biggest xG-based smash-and-grab in the Champions League this season.

Partly to blame was Liverpool’s wastefulness in front of goal: they failed to hit the target from a number of close chances…

And many of the chances that did hit the target went straight at Atléti goalkeeper Jan Oblak…

Imprecise finishing hurt Liverpool a little, but even when you take this into account, the value of their chances didn’t go down that much. It dropped by about 15 per cent, which is noticeable but not as dramatic as you might imagine, and it had been a pattern for Jürgen Klopp’s team for the month prior to this match.

In the five Premier League and Champions League matches before this second leg at Anfield, Liverpool’s chances from open play were worth 7.00 expected goals. When you factor in where those shots were placed, that dropped to 6.07 ‘post-shot’ expected goals (‘post-shot’ because we’re now adding in information that we learn after the shot was hit), a drop of 13 per cent. 

This had only been a trend during that month, from mid-February onwards, though. Across the season as a whole, Liverpool’s shot placement didn’t lower (or raise) the quality of their chances — post-shot expected goals numbers were dead in line with the regular, ‘pre-shot’ figure.

On the night, a big culprit of this shot placement problem was Mohamed Salah. The forward took the most shots in the match with seven, but most looked pretty speculative. Only two of these attempts were on target, and neither of those were good enough to beat Oblak in the Atlético goal.

It’s the usual problem of a team’s superstar when their side desperately needs to score: how much should they take everything on themselves, with their incredible talent, and how much should they share the load with teammates who may not be quite as special?

The value of Salah’s shots more than halved when you factor in his shot placement, from 0.43 expected goals to 0.21 post-shot expected goals. The team around him created enough to win the game outright, but those stats from the Egyptian, with the status he has at the club, feels emblematic of the wider result.

Liverpool losing some of the value of their chances through missing the target, or only forcing easy saves from Jan Oblak, is one thing. The real swing in this match, though, came from the boost that Atlético Madrid got out of their shots with good finishing.

We saw in the shot placement graphic earlier that six of Liverpool’s 11 shots on target were down the middle of the goal. But, if Adrián gifting the ball to Marcos Llorente for Atléti’s crucial first goal wasn’t enough, and if Simeone’s team getting an incredible 60 per cent of their shots on target wasn’t enough, Atlético then went and put half of those shots on target in the bottom corner, two of which became goals.

That’s certainly making the most of what comes your way, in a manner that Liverpool just couldn’t quite manage during the game. 

As for Adrián, this certainly won’t be a match that he will want to look back on often, but those two goals from three shots in the bottom corner to his left prompts a question: is that part of a wider pattern?

Compared to most back-up keepers, the Spaniard has played quite a lot this season, and we can see that he’s conceded five of the six shots that have gone to his left-hand side in the Premier League this season.

Although we don’t have the years and years of data that we’d like to have in order to check this properly, this is the kind of information that would be worth bearing in mind coming into a crunch match like a Champions League second leg. Adrián looks shaky to his left? Ok, that’s where we’ll shoot if we can.

Good shooting from Atlético, a weak showing from Adrián, and some wastefulness from Liverpool — along with a whole slice of luck — look like a good list to explain how this result happened, but it’s worth remembering that because this was a second leg this was no ordinary game. 

Atlético Madrid were going through while 2-1 down on the night because of the away goals rule, which meant they could sit back while Liverpool needed to attack, and this opened things up for the Spanish side’s second and third goals. The match might have turned in that last twenty minutes, but Liverpool’s real opportunity to win it had been in the first 90.