Under normal circumstances, a trip to the Allianz Arena to face Bayern Munich in a Champions League match would be at the bottom of your list during a title run-in.
But these aren’t normal circumstances.
The Bundesliga champions are in transition right now.
Niko Kovac is still trying to put his stamp on the team following on from his arrival in the summer.
The Bavarians are five points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund and, with 13 games still to play, have already lost the same amount of matches in the German top flight as they did throughout the entirety of the 2017/18 campaign.
Granted, the former Eintracht Frankfurt manager has been without a number of key players due to injury. Manuel Neuer, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Corentin Tolisso have all missed periods of action.
He has failed to settle on a formation and a style and he’s still yet to find homes for Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry in his starting XI. While his use of James Rodriguez has been questionable at best. To put it bluntly: this Bayern are very much beatable.
Their recent 3-1 loss to Bayer Leverkusen was their first defeat in 11 matches. On paper at least, Kovac had seemingly turned it around.
But a run of five games without a clean sheet, a run which has seen them concede eight goals, shows there are still issues there. And when you look closely at Bayern you start to understand why they’re having problems.
Kovac’s men are dominant in the Bundesliga. They average 63.7 per cent possession, the highest in the league while allowing the opposition just 7.01 shots per 90 minutes, the lowest out of the 20 clubs competing in the German top flight.
Their xGA (expected goals against) total is also the lowest, coming in at 19.71. However, they’ve conceded 24 this season coming in behind Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach and RB Leipzig in the goals-conceded table.
Both Neuer and Sven Ulreich, the Germany No.1’s understudy, are essentially conceding goals they shouldn’t be conceding, whereas between the sticks for Liverpool, Alisson is outperforming his xGA. The Reds have conceded 15 in the Premier League this season and have an xGA of 20.56.
This suggests the German’s have a better defence due to their xGA being better than Liverpool’s. But then you have to consider the fact English teams have played six more league matches this term. When broken down to a per-90 basis, Liverpool’s xGA is 0.79 while Bayern’s is 0.93.
The Bundesliga club are conceding more chances and their goalkeepers are conceding softer goals, and this is in a league many deem to be monopolised by the Bavarians.
So why are Bayern conceding chances and goals? Their midfield is an issue.
Kovac has tried different systems this season. He’s played a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-1-4-1 shape. He’s paired different players together in central midfield and the success of this has varied.
Over recent weeks he’s tried a midfield pivot of Leon Goretzka and Thiago. The former partnered Joshua Kimmich there against Bayer Leverkusen while Thiago was picked alongside Javi Martinez for the win over VfB Stuttgart with Goretzka playing as a No.10. The attacking midfield role has been occupied by Rodriguez at times, too.
As you can see, there’s no set partnership in the heart of the team. The closest thing to a constant they have is Thiago. The former Barcelona maestro has played the most league minutes of all the Bayern midfielders (1,300).
When you think of Thiago you think of total football. The delicate touches, the superb vision and the precise passes. Yet with Bayern this season he’s had to do more dirty work. His tackles per 90 has increased and he’s making twice as many as Goretzka.
The German’s make more ball recoveries in the middle and final third (30 to Liverpool’s 27) and Thiago is key to that aggressive pressing. His timing is often spot on. But he commits himself a lot of the time leaving Bayern open to counters, especially when he’s often the deepest of the midfield pairing.
It’s how Schalke scored their goal over the weekend. Bayern pressed high, missed chances to stop the attack and were caught by the pace of Ahmed Kutucu.
It’s during that transition that Liverpool are at their very best. And it’s this area that the Reds can exploit.
In Salah and Mane they have an out ball. Both have the beating of Hummels, Sule and Boateng for pace.
If Jurgen Klopp’s men can soak up the pressure before hitting the German’s on the break then it is difficult to see how Kovac stops this becoming a long night for his side.
Furthermore, like with so many elite players, Mane, Salah and Firmino are all adding value to their shots this season with their placement, as shown by their post-shot xG numbers. And as previously mentioned, Neuer and Ulreich are underperforming when it comes to making routine saves. It could well be the perfect storm for Klopp and his players.
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by Tom Bodell