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BFW Film Room: Breaking down Bayern Munich’s stifling defensive display vs. Liverpool

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In Bayern Munich’s biggest match of the season, Niko Kovac concocted a defensive masterclass for the ages. Even better yet, some of the squad’s most stubborn players executed it.

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

An expected goals tally of 2.2xG to 0.4xG is not a flattering split for Bayern Munich on a famous Anfield European night. Despite an overwhelming statistical deficit, the Bavarian giants left Merseyside with a 0-0 result. Exceptional displays from Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich, and Javi Martinez specifically (he will have a film room dedicated to his performance very soon) held the dynamic Liverpool attack at bay in the face of relentless pressure.

Although Bayern seemed outmatched on paper, the defensive game plan conceived by Niko Kovac was executed to perfection and ensured that the Reds couldn’t gain a substantial advantage on friendly territory. The Croatian boss kept his full backs deep and narrow, used his midfielders as destroyers, and waited for counter attacking opportunities. The compact defense pushed Liverpool wide and mitigated dangerous situations.

Let’s take a look at the disciplined performance.

Compact Positioning

The compact and disciplined defensive shape was maintained like a well-oiled machine all night. Wingers dropped deep, while midfielders picked up deeper runners. The back 4 remained in line and communicated effectively. In only the 11th minute The Bavarians sloppily lost possession, but immediately dropped to ensure a numerical advantage in their own half. By the time Mohamed Salah receives the ball wide, Bayern have 9 players behind the ball, with Lewandowski and James dropping to contribute to the press.

This paid dividends as Bayern were prepared to shut down counters and defend in banks.

Narrow Back Line

A key aspect of Kovac’s tactical approach was a narrow back line to force Liverpool wide with the ball and pack the box with defenders. Early in the second half, Liverpool reversed field and found Trent Alexander-Arnold with time and space on the wing. The English right back played an accurate pass to Salah in the box, but the Egyptian winger had no time or space to maneuver. At the time the pass was struck, Kovac’s men had 7 players in the box that were prepared to pounce.

The efforts to force Sadio Mane and the Liverpool full backs wide helped to limit meaningful opportunities. In the 16th minute, Jurgen Klopp’s side sprung a counter-attack, resulting in Joshua Kimmich isolated against Sadio Mane just outside of the box. Niklas Sule recovered centrally as Kimmich offered Mane space down the channel, effectively reducing the winger’s shooting angle. Crisis averted.

Kimmich came up big just minutes later. With Keita charging forward, the German right back first cut off the passing lane to Mane running centrally. Once Sule arrives in support, the German international bursts out to Andy Robertson and gracefully pokes the ball away. Smooth is an understatement. Kovac set his defense up to guarantee Liverpool couldn’t dissect them down the middle with Salah and Mane cutting inside. Relying on crosses and long balls offensively played right into the hands of the Bavarian defense.

Finally, Kimmich artfully shut down another Liverpool attack, in the 80th minute no less. Liverpool sparks another quick counter with Mane charging at Sule. The full back hedges towards Sule to keep Mane from dashing by his compatriot. When Mane plays Robertson in, Kimmich cuts off Robertson’s angle to the goal and blocks a potentially dangerous cross.

Although keeping Liverpool in wider areas was an effective approach to limit opportunities, Kovac empowered the defense to suffocate attackers in possession in and around the box.

Danger Limitation

Mats Hummels, having rediscovered positional discipline, was perhaps the biggest benefactor of this approach. When Mane and Salah received the ball in a situation to cut inside, immediate pressure was applied from various directions to ensure neither of the talented wingers could truly find space to operate.

Early into the second half, Hummels and co. frustrated Salah, who could not find an inch of daylight in the box. The Egyptian international receives a through ball from Keita and turns to find Alaba, Hummels, Sule, Thiago and James within 5 feet of him. Hummels and Thiago take turns poking the ball free and the Bavarians are off on the attack.

Later in the match, Salah received the ball wide and began probing for a lane to cut onto his stronger left foot. A line of Bayern defenders emerged to thwart the attempt. Hummels, with Thiago and James on each side, put in a masterful tackle to stop the attack in its tracks. Defending in groups of 3 and 4 made it nearly impossible for Liverpool to get off good shots on the night.

The best example of this team defending came in a pivotal moment late in the match. Salah fends off David Alaba, while both Javi Martinez and James Rodriguez bear down on the Egyptian. As the world-class winger cuts to his left, Hummels and Thiago are waiting for him. Hummels keeps Salah in front of him and pokes the ball away, winning possession.

In cases where shots were even taken, the match was a story of quantity over quality.

Poll

Niko Kovac’s tactical master class set Bayern up for a return leg for the ages. Do you think Bayern should maintain a defensive approach?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Yes, all the time!
    (145 votes)
  • 72%
    Yes, but only for the biggest games.
    (610 votes)
  • 9%
    No, Bayern should never play like this.
    (81 votes)
836 votes total Vote Now