Liverpool’s title challenge has meant this game has been left somewhat overshadowed in England, although German supporters are apparently treating it with the grandeur it really deserves. Ten European Cups between them, eighteen finals, yet, the 2001 Super Cup aside, the pair hadn’t played each other since 1981, when Liverpool were on their way to their third European Cup.
This should be massive, but has ended up as a little bit of an afterthought – at least on one side – as Liverpool’s attention is stolen by the possibility of a first league title since 1990.
Jurgen Klopp has his own history with Bayern, two of his former charges at Borussia Dortmund lining up in this match for the Bundesliga giant, and he returned to the 4-3-3 formation he has generally used against bigger sides here. Niko Kovac looked set for the sack early on in his Bayern career but now looks safe as they have gotten back into the title race, going for a 4-2-3-1 shape with Javi Martinez dropping in alongside Thiago Alcantara to replace the injured Leon Goretzka.
The early stages of the game were very much defined by the two sides’ pressing.
Liverpool had set up somewhere between a mid and high-block, not getting high and tight to the Bayern centre-backs however not falling back close to the midfield either.
This left Thiago and Martinez in space as Georginio Wijnaldum and Naby Keita were sitting off them, acting as obvious bait for Bayern’s defenders to play into them, which would trigger Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Wijnaldum to all surround Thiago if he received the ball and Firmino, Sadio Mane and Keita would do the same if Martinez received it.
Bayern refused to take the bait though. Their centre-backs came very deep and spread wide, passing between themselves and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and ignoring the obvious passes into the midfield. Salah and Mane would initially position themselves between the centre-backs and full-backs to block the pass wide, however they would be forced into pushing up and getting tight to the centre-backs to stop them from just passing it amongst themselves, opening up the possibility of a pass out to David Alaba or Joshua Kimmich at full-back – Neuer’s feet easily good enough to make those passes.
With Liverpool’s forwards dragged up to the centre-backs, Wijnaldum and Keita would be forced to rush out and defend against the Bayern full-backs. They actually exposed a slight weakness in Liverpool’s defending here: with one of Liverpool’s outside midfielders forced wide, there tends to be some gaps in the centre due to there only being two players left there.
Bayern were able to play the ball out to the full-back, up the line to the winger and then backwards into Thiago or James Rodriguez so that they received the ball in space facing play. This was far less dangerous than playing it straight from the centre-back into the midfield as the midfielders were now receving the ball facing forward, making it harder to press them without them being aware of it.
This was largely wasted though. Most of the time the wingers would simply keep the ball, and when they did pass back to Thiago or Rodriguez the midfielders generally recycled the ball back to the defenders rather than driving forward with it or attempting to pick out a pass ahead of them.
Bayern’s attacks generally came through the wingers receving the ball down the line from the full-backs. Kingsley Coman had little joy against Trent Alexander-Arnold – the local lad defended excellently, keeping his distance and his feet on the move to not get caught out by Coman’s quick footwork. Andrew Robertson found it much tougher against Serge Gnabry, whose willingness to constantly switch from driving inside to out and back again with the ball made it difficult for the Scot to keep his eyes on the ball and get his body shape right.
Gnabry created a few half-chances and long balls up to Robert Lewandowski also worked fairly well in a way it’s unlikely to see repeated when Virgil van Dijk returns for the second leg, but Bayern didn’t really threaten Liverpool.
Liverpool initially struggled to create anything too though. Bayern pressed them high up the pitch: Lewandowski got close to Joel Matip, Rodriguez to Jordan Henderson, Coman to Alexander-Arnold and Gnabry would intially stay around Robertson but close down Fabinho when he was on the ball, curving his run to block off the pass into Robertson. Alisson looked nervy early on and while both Matip and Fabinho can pick out great passes, they can find it difficult to get the ball out of their feet (in Fabinho’s case, much of his trouble was having to play on the left side as a right-footer) which made it easy for Bayern to put them under immediate pressure.
Part-way through the half Liverpool simply started hitting it long instead. It wasn’t the most effective tactic but their ability to press the second balls meant they were often able to win the ball in Bayern’s half and put them on the back foot. Mane in particular was pulling into the space off the back of Martinez to pick up the ball and driving through the centre at speed with the Spaniard not agile enough to catch up.
There were some great individual moments: Alexander-Arnold half-volleying a perfectly-weighted cross over to Salah with the inside of his foot, Firmino’s little lay-offs and cut-backs, Keita pushing through the middle, but no one could quite get it over the line. It didn’t help that most of these chances fell to Mane, who is undoubtedly a key part in Liverpool creating chances and a decent finisher but nowhere near as lethal at finding the net as Salah or Firmino.
Back playing against a Bundesliga side he’s used to facing, it should come as little surprise that Keita excelled here. Even though he’s struggled to adapt straight away, the Guinean is important to Liverpool in the absence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as none of the other midfielders are willing to carry the ball or pass forward in the same way. This game was one of his better performances in a red shirt but even though he’s looked a little lightweight defensively, held onto the ball too long or misplaced passes in the Premier League, his willingness to attempt these dribbles and forward passes, even if they are unsuccessful, is necessary for Liverpool to break down more stubborn defences.
In the second half, Bayern stopped pressing so high, although Rodriguez continued to follow Henderson around. This allowed Liverpool to build up from the back with far more ease, but it also gave Bayern more cover at the back and the chances that had been coming thick and fast at the end of the end of the first half dried up.
The additions of Divock Origi and James Milner for Firmino and Keita helped freshen up Liverpool for the final ten minutes of the game, pressing more effectively and passing slicker. Liverpool nearly scraped a win with a few chances, mainly from corners, but Bayern managed to hold out.
It was a good performance from both sides. Liverpool will feel unlucky not to have come away with a lead, but are in a good position for the second leg, especially as Bayern didn’t manage an away goal, while the away side will probably fancy their chances on their own turf.