Liverpool – Bayern Munich: Both Teams’ Unique Defensive Styles Lead To Stalemate (0-0)
Liverpool and Bayern Munich approached the game in aggressive defensive stances that made the first half a high-octane affair. Things settled down in the second period of play as Bayern Munich became much more passive, which proved to be an even more effective method at stymieing Liverpool’s offense.
Tactical analysis and match report by Om Arvind.
Liverpool’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation this season is no longer news. It has been well-documented for months and most casual fans will have glimpsed a differently structured attack that sees Salah at the tip of the spear and Firmino playing as a number ten. Due to this, it becomes noteworthy when Liverpool decide to play in the 4-3-3 shape of old, which is something manager Jürgen Klopp has done selectively in certain games.
The aforementioned games are often “big” ones, because the 4-3-3 structure enables Klopp to control an opponent’s buildup in an extremely effective manner. Hence, it was not a surprise to see the German manager go for that formation against Bayern Munich, selecting the usual strike-force of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah. The midfield was fairly typical too; Naby Keïta and Georginio Wijnaldum played as central midfielders ahead of defensive midfielder Jordan Henderson.
It was in defense where Klopp had to shake things up, as center-backs Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren were out due to injuries and star defender Virgil van Dijk was suspended. As a result, central midfielder Fabinho and backup Joël Matip started at the back, flanked by Andrew Robertson and the returning Trent Alexander-Arnold. Alisson Becker started in goal.
Bayern Munich were also plagued by a number of injuries, though Niko Kovač was still able to feature a strong attack: Robert Lewandowski, James Rodríguez, Kingsley Coman, and Serge Gnabry. Leon Goretzka’s injury did force fringe player Javi Martínez into a double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. with Thiago Alcântara, however, and fitness issues with center-back Jérôme Boateng brought Mats Hummels into the lineup.
Liverpool neutralize Bayern Munich’s buildup
Klopp’s approach was predictable – given his decision to go with the 4-3-3 – but extremely effective. Off the ball, Liverpool set up in a medium-high block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. A medium-high block means the team is positioned somewhere in between a medium block and a high, pressing block. that maintained the natural shape of their formation.
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 medium-high block versus Bayern Munich’s buildup.
Mané, Firmino, and Salah prowled five to ten yards outside the penalty box, deliberately failing to cover the passing lanes to Bayern’s double pivot. Keïta and Wijnaldum also stood off Thiago and Martínez by a couple of yards, while Liverpool’s fullbacks and central defenders marked the opposition’s front three. To someone who has never watched Liverpool, such a strategy would appear to be downright suicidal, but there is truthfully nothing scarier for an opposing team than seeing Klopp’s men set up in this way.
If Bayern were to attempt to pass into midfield like Manchester City tried last season, Liverpool’s front three would have engaged in furious backwards pressing to funnel possession into a congested area where turnovers could be created.
Kovač and his center-backs were no fools, though, and refused to take the bait. Instead, Bayern’s defense took their time on the ball and prioritized safety over everything, neglecting the middle of the pitch and opting to play through the flanks. At times, one of Mané, Salah, or Firmino would feign a press to try to coax a pass into central midfield, but Bayern largely held their nerve. The Germans consistently tried to build from wide areas or through direct passes into Lewandowski.
For the former, Liverpool simply collapsed on the wing, with either Keïta or Wijnaldum closing the net alongside the relevant fullback and wide forward. Stopping Lewandowski from winning aerial duels was more difficult, but Liverpool’s midfield generally won their fifty-fifty battles and thus limited Bayern to one good chance in the twelfth minute, when Gnabry beat Robertson one-versus-one and created a point-blank effort for Lewandowski that was saved.
Bayern Munich neutralize Liverpool’s buildup
Despite Liverpool’s effective defensive strategy, they failed to create much for most of the first half. A lot of that was down to Bayern’s high press, which had an asymmetric look to it.
Bayern Munich’s asymmetric high press versus Liverpool’s buildup.
This was because Bayern started out in a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 formation, with the wide players guarding the fullbacks, the central midfielders marking their counterparts, and James Rodríguez shadowing Henderson. In order to create a three-versus-three against Liverpool’s buildup, someone needed to step up and help out Lewandowski and James, which created the asymmetric look.
Bayern’s press switched through a couple of combinations – sometimes Thiago created the three-versus-three – but it was generally Gnabry who stepped onto Fabinho while making sure he also blocked a pass into Robertson. The organization and positioning of Kovač’s players was such that Liverpool found it very difficult to play out from the back. In the end, Klopp’s men ended up going direct a lot of the time, which was a largely fruitless endeavor.
One of the few exceptions came in the 32nd minute, when Liverpool played a long ball, won the fifty-fifty duel, and a deflected shot fell into the path of Mané, who spun towards goal and skewed a big chance wide.
It looked like the first half would end in a stalemate until Liverpool received three decent opportunities in the final minutes of the game. The first, again, came off a deflected shot and fell to Mané, who sent a difficult bicycle kick attempt off-target. The second arrived when Henderson stopped a counterattack off a corner kick and punted a pass out wide to Salah. The Egyptian wizard skipped past his man and back-heeled a pass to Firmino, who squared a ball to Matip only for the shot to miss. The third shot came right at the end of half-time, when Firmino scuffed an Alexander-Arnold cross.
Overall, Liverpool’s play in the last phase of attacking could have been better and more decisive, as they did have significant opportunities to penetrate the box within the final seven to eight minutes. Bayern’s defenders all played good individual games, though, as they stopped multiple attacks with well-timed tackles and interceptions.
The intensity dies down thanks to Bayern Munich’s more cautious approach
Notwithstanding the lack of high-quality chances in the first half, the intense and combative approach from both teams produced a blood-pumping affair. There was a sense that a single move could blow the game wide open and that neither team was safe when building out from the back.
Unfortunately for the neutrals, this exciting match transformed into a more low-key contest thanks to Kovač’s half-time changes – the Bayern manager simply called off the high press and asked his team to sit in a medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half.
Consequently, Liverpool found it much easier to hold onto the ball and enter the middle third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the middle third is the most central area. of the pitch. However, Bayern’s passive stance still prevented the opposition from producing good chances, as their defensive structure was well-organized and blocked off passes to the center of the field; James continued his man-marking job on Henderson and Thiago and Martínez were very solid defensively.
From minute 45 to minute 80, Liverpool produced a grand total of zero shots, while Bayern managed five – though the latter’s efforts were either blocked or originated from corners, long-range, and poor angles.
Liverpool rally late but fail to make a dent
Whether it was the substitutions of Divock Origi and James Milner, the increased sense of urgency as the final whistle drew nearer, or Anfield’s encouragement, Liverpool clicked into a higher gear in the closing ten minutes. Their passing became swifter and more accurate, their midfield counterpressed After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. with greater success, and Robertson and Alexander-Arnold became a threat again.
Due to Liverpool’s increased offensive potency, they pinned Bayern in their own defensive third If you divide the pitch in three horizontal zones, the defensive third is the area closest to a team’s own goal. and created corner after corner. Three shots came from these set-piece situations; the best of which materialized from a Matip effort in the 86th minute. That Matip shot was preceded by a Mané header, which arrived from a Robertson cross.
Mané’s open play chance was Liverpool’s best of the second half, but it was not nearly enough to beat Manuel Neuer at the end of the day, and the game thus ended at 0-0.
There is no such thing as a perfect defensive structure, but surely Jürgen Klopp’s 4-3-3 medium-high block comes closest. There simply seems to be no way to utilize a short buildup to progress past Liverpool’s pressing traps A pressing trap is a predefined plan to leave a particular player or zone open, to invite a specific pass. Upon a pass to that player or into that zone, a rapid coordinated team press on that player or zone is exerted. – even the passing king Pep Guardiola has had to modify his approach to survive against his title race rival.
Perhaps the best option is to go direct, like Bayern did in this encounter, but that potentially creates the very chaos that Liverpool thrive in. It is also worth asking whether Lewandowski would have won as many of his duels if van Dijk was on the pitch.
Having said that, there do appear to be ways to stop Liverpool’s attack, as Niko Kovač showed with his high press and medium block. If Bayern manage to replicate some of their defensive feats in the second leg, it would not be a huge shock to see them progress to the quarter-finals.
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