As their clash with Liverpool draws ever closer, Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac seems to have begun final preparations for the game at Anfield. It accordingly appears that the coach’s two most recent lineups practically confirm what his starting XI will be in the Champions League next week.
These two lineups — one against Hertha Berlin and another against Schalke 04 — shared one key feature: they both lacked Thomas Müller. As we all know, Müller is suspended for both games against Liverpool because of the red card he received against Ajax on the final matchday of the group stage. The fact that Muller has been dropped from the lineup despite not being injured tells us that the coach is field-testing his final XI before the game.
It makes sense — given all the injuries Bayern have had, you’d want to give the intended starters some time to gel before the biggest game of the season. Therefore, while not all players were available in each game, we can get a very good idea of what Kovac is thinking just from his team selection.
A fast, dynamic front-three
Against both Schalke and Berlin, Kovac chose to start Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry, despite the fact that Alphonso Davies and Franck Ribery were both available. Since Arjen Robben is still injured, this likely means that the coach considers Coman and Gnabry to be his starting winger duo, much to the relief of Bayern supporters worldwide.
Provided that both players actually stay fit until the game rolls around, this could be the first time since 2016 that Bayern have had a fast, dynamic winger duo manning the flanks in a Champions League knockout tie. Kingsley Coman played on the left both against Schalke and Berlin, showing some strong chemistry with David Alaba, while Serge Gnabry was lethal on the left.
Of course, Robert Lewandowski will start up top (again, injuries permitting). The Polish striker will be key to breaking down a Liverpool defense that will be without Virgil van Djik in the first leg.
The good news is that all three have been on fire recently. Just from the last two games:
Coman: 1 goal
Lewandowski: 1 goal, 4 assists
Gnabry: 3 goals
Hopefully, they stay fit.
A creative, control-oriented midfield
While some expected Javi Martinez to return to the side to help Bayern defensively, Niko Kovac has instead opted to bring in James Rodriguez for the suspended Thomas Muller. The Colombian was always the natural fit to slot into the attacking midfield position, but in his two most recent games he has played more like a central midfielder — similar to how he played under Jupp Heynckes.
Against both Berlin and Schalke, James could be seen dropping back and helping Thiago Alcantara in the buildup, while Leon Goretzka marauded forward and joined the attack. This is potentially the role they are expected to reprise against Liverpool, and it’s a far more offensive setup than one might expect from a coach like Kovac.
Potential issues with this midfield? The pressing still needs work, as seen against Schalke. Bayern failed to chase down a simple loose pass from James, and Schalke’s ensuing counter allowed Kutucu to score. Since Liverpool boasts a lineup of quick, clinical goalscorers like Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino, Kovac’s midfield needs to work on its defensive press.
One big question in defense
Practically the entire defense was set in stone ages ago, so let’s just recap what we know:
Left back: David Alaba
Right center-back: Niklas Süle
Right back: Joshua Kimmich
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer (if fit, or else Sven Ulreich)
Hummels’ weaknesses are well-documented, most notably a lack of pace and a tendency to get caught far too high up the field. However, he is a natural left center-back and a strong aerial presence (more so defensively than offensively). His forward passing has moreover been Beckenbaueresque lately.
Jerome Boateng meanwhile finds himself on the outside looking in, but he could be a better choice than Hummels for this particular game. Boateng is much faster than his compatriot, and his long passing could potentially bypass Jürgen Klopp’s famed pressing game. However, Boateng’s propensity to make catastrophic errors is a worry, given the importance of the tie.
Opinion time: I think Boateng should get the nod over Hummels. Hummels has been making mistakes left and right recently, and starting him against Salah, Mane, and Firmino is like signing your own death warrant. Boateng isn’t that much better — to be honest, this is why we should’ve bought Lucas Hernandez in the winter — but he is far more suited to the game than Hummels might be.
However, I’ll leave it to a poll and the fanbase can decide.
Which defender should start against Liverpool?
This poll is closed