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Three observations from Bayern Munich’s gritty 0-0 draw with Liverpool

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For the first time this season, coach and players came together to create something beautiful.

Liverpool v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Niko Kovac’s defensive masterclass

For the first time since the treble season in 2013, Bayern Munich put up a proper defensive performance against a strong opponent. If the team can keep a clean sheet against Liverpool at Anfield, then they can do it against anyone, and coach Niko Kovac deserves a ton of credit for what he has achieved.

Javi Martinez was key to the entire setup. The Basque defensive midfielder put in a vintage 2013 performance to keep Liverpool’s forwards at bay. Whenever Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane went inside to find space, they instead found their passing channels closed down by the indomitable Martinez.

Mats Hummels also showed up in a big way. The German has been under fire for some shocking displays as of late, but he looked like a rock against the Reds. Wave after wave of attack washed over the Bavarian defense, and Hummels seemed to be in position for every single one — not a mistake in sight.

Not to be outdone, Joshua Kimmich, David Alaba, and Niklas Süle all had great defensive performances, and the rest of the team joined in. It was truly a collective effort to keep Liverpool at bay, and Niko Kovac clearly got his tactics right. There was nothing Jurgen Klopp could do.

Michael Caley may call it a fortunate result, but we’ve seen enough evidence to tell us that this is not true. Bayern Munich have been on the receiving end of such lopsided xG scorelines in the past — from Atletico Madrid in 15/16 and Real Madrid 17/18. This team was not fortunate, they were disciplined, focused, and had a great tactical setup.

These are the performances that bring home Champions League trophies.

James Rodriguez had a shocker

While almost the entire team had a good performance in one way or another, James Rodriguez did not. His night can be summed up by a pathetic shot attempt in the second half, where he sent the ball skimming wide of goal.

It’s rare for the Colombian to have two bad performances in a row, but it’s now a reality. James did not contribute much (if at all) to Bayern’s offense, so Serge Gnabry had to pick up the slack. Defensively, James was not much of a factor, and incredible performances from the players around him helped keep the Reds at bay. At times, James was even a liability. A few errant passes found the feet of Liverpool forwards, leading to unnecessary counter-attacks.

In truth, it wasn’t a game for a player like James. Kovac’s setup demanded a sky-high work-rate and movement off the ball, which do not play to the Colombian’s strengths. A player like Thomas Müller or Leon Goretzka was severely missed, as James really didn’t seem to adjust to the pace or physicality of the game.

Perhaps Kovac might have to bench him for the return leg at the Allianz Arena.

Bayern’s forwards must be more clinical

Liverpool fielded a makeshift back line, so it was disappointing to see that Bayern Munich couldn’t capitalize on it. Alisson Becker moreover showed signs of nervousness, making two potentially costly errors early in the first half when he lost possession right in front of goal. The Bavarians couldn’t capitalize on either chance, and truthfully they did not create much else over the course of the game.

Still, when trying to put on a counter-attacking performance at this level, two or three chances should be all you need to score a goal or two, especially against such frail opposition. It’s not as if the chances weren’t there; the players simply could not capitalize on them. A set-piece goal from one of the six corners would have also been appreciated.

Now Joshua Kimmich will be suspended for the second leg, and the Reds expect to have both Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren back and ready to play, all of which is bad news. On the other hand, Leon Goretzka should be back from injury by then, and Kingsley Coman (who was clearly not 100% fit) will have had more time to recover.

Niko Kovac will need to figure out a more balanced setup for the team in Munich; otherwise, a single goal from Liverpool could put the entire tie out of reach.

Further observations

  • Did Kovac give the team acting lessons? There were moments when Bayern players — mainly Kimmich and Javi — went down with seemingly no contact, and they looked hurt. However, after play was stopped, both immediately got up, limped around a bit, and then went on their merry way. If this was a planned bit of tactical acting by Kovac to slow down the play, then it worked wonders.
  • Robert Lewandowski managed only a single shot over the course of 90 minutes, which sounds bad, but his work rate and holdup play was as exceptional as ever. The loss of Müller seemed really apparent, no one was feeding service to Lewandowski or drawing defenders away from him. Hopefully, Goretzka’s return in the second leg fixes this issue.
  • Joshua Kimmich really can defend. His performance was unlike anything we’ve ever seen from him before. It’s a shame he’ll miss the second leg due to a yellow, because he was really showing a new side of himself that we’d never seen before.
  • Jordan Henderson was a real thorn in Bayern’s side. Out of all the Liverpool players, he disrupted our midfield the most.
  • Franck Ribery showed a good account of himself in his cameo, keeping defensive shape and trying to drive the ball up the pitch. It was a short but valuable contribution by the Frenchman.
  • Bayern showed signs of a very aggressive defensive press in the final third and, more often than not, dispossessed Liverpool’s forwards. Some more polish from this system is needed, but it could become a great weapon for the team going forward.