The dust has settled a bit after Bayern’s first clash with Liverpool at Anfield. While most agree that 0:0 is a good result, there are voices complaining about it being the objective. What should we make of it?
Bayern’s tie with Liverpool is arguably the most attractive in the Round of 16. When UEFA announced the draw, it reminded me of the clash against Juventus in 2015-16.
If the first leg is to be any indication of what remains, this tie will be equally enthralling. However, there is a distinct lack of goals. Between them, Bayern and Liverpool only got two 0f their 25 shots on target. There is also the fact that back in 2016, the players threw Pep Guardiola’s tactics overboard to bring Juventus to their knees. This time, they are embracing Niko Kovač’s thorough playbook to keep Liverpool on a tight leash. But is that a good thing?
The DNA question
There was much speculation about how Bayern should approach the game in Anfield. Four years ago, Liverpool were still a team of days past, unable to return to the glories of the late seventies and eighties. They failed to keep their steam going after the 2005 triumph. However, five years under Jürgen Klopp have brought about a profound restructuring. Today, Liverpool are a team to be feared. They boast one of Europe’s strongest attacking trios in Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino. And with defenders like Virgil Van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, they’re not bad at the back either.
But you knew that. We all did.
Bayern’s history dictates that the team should seek to dominate and win every game. Recent years have all but cemented this philosophy back into the fans’ collective imaginary after a period of being behind in the 2000s. Indeed, when Juventus looked poised to push Bayern down a cliff in 2016, die Roten responded by ruthlessly running them over.
And yet, that’s not what happened in Anfield. See, Kovač isn’t afraid of having his team play conservative football. He doesn’t mind taking a page from Zinédine Zidane’s handbook, or even José Mourinho’s. Many would contend that this goes in direct contradiction of what Bayern is supposed to be about. This isn’t Real Madrid – simply winning isn’t enough. You have to do it in style, and dominating the opposition.
But just how feasible is that in today’s game? We have seen football shift from being dominated by possession-based teams like Guardiola’s Barcelona to being under control by teams who are quite content in relinquishing initiative to the opposition – Zidane’s Real Madrid. It was this philosophy of “take whatever is thrown at you” that brought Real Madrid no less than three Champions League titles in a row.
By comparison, you need only remember Germany’s World Cup campaign last year to be reminded of the current state of high-pressure possession football.
Ezequiel Daray, an Argentine journalist stationed in Germany covering the Bundesliga for Fox Sports, has long asserted that Kovač is beneath Bayern. Under the Croatian, says Daray, the Record Champions are playing lukewarm football. They lack a real gameplan, and their defensive solidity crumbles in the face of genuine pressure of teams with trace amounts of quality.
After the Liverpool game, Daray reiterated his view that Kovač is not a good fit with die Roten. However, he recognised that the gameplan had been the right one and that the players had executed it to perfection. “I’ve never liked the way Kovač’s Bayern plays”, he tweeted. “But then it doesn’t have to appeal to me”.
Looking in the mirror
For some people, Kovač’s playbook against Liverpool was based upon the idea that Bayern would be steamrolled by Liverpool if they game them spaces. Our own editor, Michel Munger, recognised this as practical realism on our Twitter account:
Smartest tactical approach for FC Bayern in this match?
Play more defensively. Liverpool are far more dangerous at home than away.
Accept the underdog status. Limit damages, play for a draw and bring this one back to the Allianz Arena if you can.
— Straight Red (@straightredblog) February 19, 2019
“Play for a draw” triggered a lot of people. What kind of decline is Bayern sunken in that such a statement is realistic and practical?
Context, context, context
Regardless of whether you like Kovač or despise him, there is a crucial fact that we have to weigh in this matter. I will throw it at you in the form of a question:
Do you think the manager would have formulated the same tactical playbook with the squad Bayern had in 2015?
2018-19 is the year Bayern are shedding the skin of 2013 and (hopefully) setting the bases for another era of greatness. To Michel, and to many others, Kovač has to work with the tools he’s been handed this year. This pragmatic approach enables Bayern to sustain some momentum while the new generation is hurried in. To pretend that the team can still assert the sort of offensive dominance they did under Guardiola or Jupp Heynckes would be suicidal. Let’s not forget that Bayern’s ability to attract signings and youth prospects is directly tied to their position in Germany and Europe.
That means having the humility to recognise when you’re the underdog. And then playing accordingly, to try to get the result.
A looming threat?
Hopefully, Bayern’s wound-licking season won’t spill over to next year. For now, we shouldn’t expect much flair. Kovač has signalled that he is a pragmatist and that he is not interested in playing offensively for the sake of it. We will know whether this is a consequence of context after Bayern’s much-hyped summer shopping is completed.
Still, both the manager and the club should ask themselves a crucial question. Is Bayern a club that wants to win through whatever means? Or does the nature of those means matter? Do we want to play well and get titles? Or are the titles enough?
I know where I stand.