European Opposition Closeup: Tactics, Stats, and Niko Kovač

Without Dutch International Virgil Van Dijk on their return to Champions League action, the Reds face a difficult task against Bundesliga challengers Bayern Munich at Anfield this coming Tuesday. With injuries to Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren, Klopp will be forced to field a makeshift centre-back partnership with Joel Matip and Fabinho, although, given the latter’s stellar performance in the role against Brighton, albeit less prestigious opposition, perhaps one shouldn’t be hasty in throwing in the towel.



Much to the delight of Borussia Dortmund fans and, one would imagine, their former coach, Jürgen Klopp, Munich have enjoyed a less dominant season than is usually expected of the German outfit. Under Niko Kovač, the reigning Bundesliga champions have already lost four games and drawn another three, the exact amount accrued over the entirety of the previous season under Munich legend, Jupp Heynckes.

FC Augsburg v FC Bayern Muenchen - Bundesliga : News Photo

Having suffered a 3-2 defeat in the last Der Klassiker, Kovač’s Munich have since managed to close the gap to two points, though Dortmund do have a game in hand.

As the table currently stands, Munich sit in second place with 48 points – much like the Premier League, the Bundesliga looks to have a title race on its hands.

With 15 wins over 22 games at Munich, Kovač’s win rate of 68.18%, thus far, is less impressive than Heynckes 85.18% across his fourth stint in charge of the Bavarian club, and Carlo Ancelloti’s 73.52%. Though, it is important to keep in mind the jump the Croatian made from Frankfurt to Munich.


Kovač started well with a 5-0 thrashing of former team Frankfurt in the German Super Cup but undoubtedly his current employers will expect a greater return of trophies, as is the norm.


It was a surprise for many when Kovač, a former Croatian international with limited managerial experience, received the nod to take take the reigns from Heynckes at Bayern Munich, particularly given that the club had stated it was looking to hire a ‘German coach.’ What those of us outside Germany may not know is that Kovač was actually raised in the nation’s capital of Berlin to a Croatian family, originating from Bosnia-Herzegovina, which meant Kovač was eligible to represent one of three countries on the international stage.

His playing career was more than modest, having worn the colours of some of the Bundesliga’s most prestigious clubs, most notably Bayern Munich, who Kovač won the Bundesliga with in the 2002/03 season, having come close with Bayer Leverkusen twice in their 1996/97 and 1998/99 campaigns.

After his retirement from professional football, Kovač made the transition to coaching, starting a long journey to Munich with the second team of FC Red Bull Salzburg, and later the Croatian U21s with his brother, Robert Kovač, before taking over the senior national side, late into 2013, as caretaker manager.

At Frankfurt, Kovač earned his reputation, and an eventual move to Bayern, through turning the Eagles into European challengers, following a bout with relegation in his first season in charge.

The next season, the Croatian brought the Eagles to the final of the DFB Pokal, losing 2-1 to Borussia Dortmund, a competition Frankfurt went on to eventually win the following term against Kovač’s future employers, Bayern Munich. Kovač also guided Frankfurt to its highest finish (8th) in the Bundesliga since the 2012/13 season (6th).


“I’m a big fan of wide players. To take an example, when I see Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery play, my heart goes a little bit faster.”

– Niko Kovač

Throughout his time at Frankfurt, Kovač prioritised wing play, defensive stability, and direct play.

Whilst 4-3-3 remains popular amongst football’s premier managers, Kovač predominantly used a 3-1-4-2 and 3-4-1-2 with a defensive midfielder guarding the back three or an attacking player linking midfield and attack.

However, the Croatian appears to have bowed to Bayern’s traditions in adhering to the Bavarian outfit’s favoured 4-3-3, though Kovač has demonstrated a willingness to adjust his set-up against varying opposition and styles.

In several games this season, Kovač has set up Bayern in a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot of either Javi Martinez, Thiago, or, former Liverpool target, Leon Goretzka.

Much like Virgil Van Dijk, Boateng is encouraged to contribute to transitions, either through passes into midfield or via diagonal balls across the pitch.

Bayern Munchen v Schalke 04 - German Bundesliga : News Photo

Wing-play is still the key to Kovač’s Munich side, with Kimmich and Alaba regularly supporting Coman and Gnabry – or Robben and Ribery – on the wings.

After losing possession, Kovač encourages immediate counter-pressing to retrieve the ball by closing the space between player and ball and cutting off passing lanes.

Bayern Munchen v Schalke 04 - German Bundesliga : News Photo

The main change however, has come in an adaptation of focus from possession-based football to counter-attacking football, often Bayern’s bane in the Champions League, as fans will remember during the title-winning seasons of Guardiola and Ancelotti.

That’s not to say that Bayern have completely abandoned a possession-based style but the German outfit is considerably more direct in possession and actually more similar to Heynckes style of play than Guardiola’s. According to WhoScored, Bayern Munich’s average possession in the Bundesliga has been 62.5%.



So it is potentially another epic night under the floodlights at our beloved Anfield; the first leg of our round of 16 UCL tie with Bayern Munich. The excitement (and nerves) is seeping through my fingers as I type this. What a mouth-watering tie.

So, it is not a walk in the park for us. Bayern are a very experienced side in the UCL, who have also won 6 Bundesliga titles back to back. Whilst they have suffered mixed fortunes under Niko Kovac this season, they are still capable of posing a threat to Liverpool’s UCL progression. And there is one man who must not be allowed to have a good game; the Bayern captain and top scorer, Robert Lewandowski.

FC Augsburg v FC Bayern Muenchen - Bundesliga : News Photo

Last season, Lewandowski finished the season as the Bundesliga’s top goalscorer with 29 goals. This was the third time Lewandowski won the Bundesliga’s top goalscorer award. Lewandowski finished the season with 41 goals in 48 matches in all competitions. In 21 appearances this season in the Bundesliga, he has found the back of the net 13 times and has 7 assists to boot. Not bad for a 30 year old center forward. Lewandowski finished as the top scorer in the UEFA Champions League group stage with eight goals in six matches.

On 27 November 2018, Lewandowski became the third-fastest player to score 50 goals in the Champions League when he scored two goals in a 5–1 win over Benfica. It took Lewandowski just 77 Champions League matches to reach the milestone. On 9 February 2019, Lewandowski scored in a 3–1 win over Schalke and in doing so became the first player to score 100 competitive goals at the Allianz Arena. His goal was also his 119th league goal for Bayern Munich which saw him draw level with Roland Wohlfarth as the club’s third-highest goalscorer of all-time.

Our center backs on the night, Matip and whoever partners him will have to keep their concentration on every minute of the game…

Whatever happens, #WeGoAgain. Let’s have a red letter night at Anfield, that ends with a convincing win and 1 leg in the quarter finals. YNWA !!!

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Farrell Keeling

From Brighton, living in Liverpool. Avid writer and Liverpool fan. Doing bits for FOAR.

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