Pre-season games should never be something to get excited about. Managers always try to keep hype to a minimum, always stressing that these are just ‘run outs’ to get players back into the swing of things ready for the new season. No matter how good or bad your team plays, the message is always the same – it is not about the result. But, for fans, when your team plays as well as Liverpool did tonight against Bayern Munich, it is hard not to get excited. After all, Bayern are one of the best teams in the world and this was, on paper at least, Liverpool’s toughest game so far of the new campaign.
Knowing that Liverpool would be playing two games in 24 hours, Jurgen Klopp tried to switch his team up as much as possible. Loris Karius started in goal in place of Simon Mignolet, who was joined on the bench by Danny Ward. The battle for the starting goalkeepers’ shirt looks like it will be a straight shootout between the Belgian and the German. Trent Alexander-Arnold came back in at right back. Alberto Moreno retained his place on the opposite side despite the torrid afternoon he was given by Mitchell Weisser in Berlin on Saturday. A central defensive partnership of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren was sandwiched between the full backs. Emre Can and Jordan Henderson sat in front of the back four, in anticipation of a red and white offensive onslaught. Roberto Firmino started up front, with a three in behind which consisted of Sadio Mane on the left, Philippe Coutinho central and Mohamed Salah on the right. Andrew Robertson again made the bench.
For Bayern, new signing Corentin Tolisso started in midfield alongside Thiago Alcantara. James Rodriguez would start on the left side of an attacking three, which played in behind Robert Lewandowski. Sven Ulreich started in goal in place of the usual Manuel Neuer, who wouldn’t even feature on the home bench. Sebastien Rudy and Nicklas Sule would make the bench though, as did Renato Sanches despite the speculation surrounding his future.
The game started the way many expected, with Bayern having most of the ball and forcing Liverpool back into their own half. What many would not have expected though was Liverpool taking the lead in the seventh minute. Firmino broke forward through the middle after dispossessing Thiago. He carried the ball 20 yards and was faced up by Javi Martinez and Mats Hummels. Just as the two centre halves were closing in, Firmino slipped in Mane. With Rafinha miles out of position, having pushed up 15 yards in anticipation of a Bayern attack, the Senegalese winger had the opportunity to expose the open left channel. He did just that, taking one touch before firing into Sven Ulreichs opposite corner for what was a very good counter attacking goal. The attack had pace, urgency, menace and a deadly finish to end it. The game wouldn’t be the same afterwards. Bayern continued to have most of the ball but, without pace and intensity in their play, they were easy to pick off. Liverpool were the exact opposite. They were happy to let their opponents have the ball in the knowledge that they were more than capable of stopping them before the attack became too dangerous. Bayern would then be nullified and exploited. It was something that would happen time and time again and, six minutes after going 1-0 up, Liverpool nearly made it two.
Alberto Moreno sprinted down left with the ball at his feet. With plenty of time to think, it is normal in these situations for players to completely crumble under the pressure and play the wrong ball, but Moreno did no such thing. He looked up and crossed low to the back post where Mo Salah was running onto it. It was a great ball which Salah tried to convert at Ulreichs near post, but the ‘keeper was equal to it. Like all the best teams in the world Bayern have a very capable back-up stopper in the form of Sven Ulreich, who would be first choice between the sticks for any Bundesliga team. It was going to take something better than Salah’s effort to beat Ulreich. Nonetheless it was another warning, if Bayern needed one, that Liverpool were not to be taken lightly.
Bayern continued to have the better of the ball and occasionally found holes. But when they did, the ball was usually met by a white Liverpool away shirt. Liverpool did play quite a high line and Bayern looked to expose that with balls over the top, in a futile attempt at a plan B. When they employed this tactic, they found Loris Karius equal to every ball. Karius was showing exactly what he brought to the team when playing in goal. Liverpool on the other hand were still looking dangerous on the counter. In the 25th minute, Roberto Firmino won a free kick just right of the area. Moreno took it and curled the ball towards the top right corner. It looked like it was heading in but Ulreich palmed it back into danger. Mo Salah took control on the right of the area and stood ball up to back post, but Lovren could only head over. Nine minutes later though, Liverpool would have the second goal they deserved.
Sadio Mane had the ball on the left side of the Bayern penalty area and held it up fantastically. After staving off the attentions of Javi Martinez and Rafinha, Mane had two choices; play in the overlapping Moreno, or cut inside and shoot. With a touch of sublime brilliance, Mane dragged the ball between his legs and side footed it into the path of Moreno who had sprinted forward from left back. Moreno attempted to square the ball across the box but his cross was flicked goalwards by Javi Martinez. Ulreich parried it away but the ball fell onto the head of Mo Salah, who stooped to convert from six yards out. It was a cool finish from Salah, who had Mats Hummels’ foot practically in his face. But take nothing away from Sadio Mane, this goal was all about his hold play and impudent skill. The two wingers were showing what an exciting duo they will be when full flow.
Mane caused Bayern all sorts of problems on the Liverpool left all evening. Rafinha and Martinez simply couldn’t live with his pace and direct running. Renato Sanches, who had replaced the injured Thiago Alcantara on 20 minutes, had come over to provide extra cover but the three of them were struggling against Mane. Add into the equation the constant running and added pace of Alberto Moreno, and the home side were in deep trouble. With Mane cutting in and Moreno overlapping, they initially had Rafinha isolated. The extra cover did nothing to help the Brazilian. Without his winger, James Rodriguez, tracking back, he would continue to be at the mercy of the Liverpool left side.
When the referee blew his whistle for half time it would have been a relief for Carlo Ancelotti. Liverpool were by far the better team. Although Bayern had edged possession they were not playing with much pace or intensity. Bayerns main players – Rodriguez, Muller, Lewandowski – had hardly been in the game. Ribery had also been kept quiet by a combination of Alexander-Arnold, who was again putting in another fantastic performance at right back, and Joel Matip. Liverpool were structured and organised, which was obviously made easier by Bayern’s slow passing and build up play. On the attack, Liverpool were devastating at times. Bayern were really struggling with Sadio Mane and the effectiveness of which his Liverpool team mates were feeding off the fear he was creating. It had been an excellent team performance so far for Liverpool, further illuminated by Sadio Mane.
Liverpool would have most of the ball in the opening stages of the second period and looked impressive with it. For the most part Bayern were chasing shadows. With the introduction of Adam Lallana and Giorginio Wijnaldum, who had replaced Emre Can and the mercurial Mane, Liverpool were now having more of the ball in midfield and looked to take the onus. On 53 minutes, Coutinho played a lovely reverse pass to Lallana who slipped in Salah centrally. The little Egyptian was clean through but the ref blew for offside. Salah had been very unlucky and had given the German side another warning for how dangerous Liverpool could be. But the changes had a knock on effect on Liverpool at the back, and they were looking a little more exposed now Can had gone off. With Lallana and Wijnaldum in the centre of midfield, Liverpool had reverted to two centrally and one holding, as opposed to a one and a two. One wouldn’t go as far as saying that Jordan Henderson was being exploited but Bayern were certainly seeing slightly more of the ball around the box, which resulted in their first chance of the half on 59 minutes. The ball was played out to the right, to Rodriguez. He came inside and shot from 20 yards but fired wide. It was a half chance more than anything but at least Bayern were now getting in dangerous positions.
But Liverpool could not be contained going forward, even when they made a raft of substitutions in the 69th minute. One of those subs, Daniel Sturridge, had an effort with his first involvement in game. The ball was cleared to Sturridge on the Liverpool left on the halfway line. Sturridge burst forward but the injuries have clearly played havoc with his pace. His final touch was heavy and pulled him too far wide for his shot to have any effect on Ulreichs goal. Sturridge probably should have done better considering the Bayern central defenders were nowhere near him. On 71 minutes, Liverpool had another goal. Ryan Kent picked up the ball on the Liverpool left and left Rafinha for dead with a simple step over. He ran to the byline before cutting it back to the Marko Grujic. The Serb side footed a shot from the penalty spot, which hit the post, brushed Sven Ulreich and went in. However the referee disallowed the goal for a reason unknown to everyone in the stadium and the ITV4 commentators.
Bayern had another rare chance on 81 minutes. After some patient build up play, the ball came to Arturo Vidal centrally. He shot but it deflected off Matip. The referee, in another strange decision, gave a free kick for hand ball. Lewandowski lined up the free kick 20 yards out but it hit the wall. The resulting corner came straight off the training ground. Franck Ribery played it short to Vidal, who, in turn, slid it Mats Hummels on the corner of the 6 yard box, but Hummels could only sweep the ball wide. It was to be Bayern’s best, and last, threat at the Liverpool goal. Two minutes later, they were dead and buried.
Ben Woodburn scrapped for the ball in central midfield and eventually came out of the melee with it. He poked a ball through to Daniel Sturridge down the left. Bayern had played too high a line and Sturridge now had the freedom of the Allianz. He sprinted forward leaving the opposition defenders in his wake. He got within nine yards of goal and exquisitely lifted the ball over Ulreich. It was a sublime finish that only Daniel Sturridge would ever think of executing at such a moment. But in the flash of brilliance, we also saw the other side to Daniel Sturridge. T.V replays showed the striker wince in pain as he flicked the ball over the ‘keeper and it looks as if Sturridge has aggravated his old thigh injury which has plagued him for so long. After having such an impressive pre-season and working so hard to get fit, all of us in red can only hope that this is just a niggle and not something much more sinister.
Sturridge’s goal was to be the last meaningful action of the game as the ref called time on a stunning Liverpool display. It truly was an excellent team performance. Tactically, Liverpool outplayed Bayern in every area of the pitch. Defensively we were compact and had fantastic structure throughout. Offensively we were frightening on the counter and in build up play. Every player, to a man, was brilliant, but Moreno and Mane shone in particular. Moreno has had a decent pre-season and it looks as if the signing of Andy Robertson has lit a fire under the Spaniard. Mane is clearly relishing being back in action and looks as though he hasn’t missed a step whilst out injured. If these two carry the understanding they showed tonight at the Allianz into the new season, then opposing sides have a right to be worried when the reds roll into town.
If this was meant to be our toughest test of pre-season on paper, then we passed with flying colours. Liverpool have been questioned defensively over the past 12 months or so, and quite rightly too. With the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller and James Rodriguez to contend with tonight, you would be forgiven for questioning Klopp’s boys again. But this does not look like the Liverpool defence of last season. They seem to now relish a tactical battle. They welcome the contest that the best can throw at them and thrive under an opportunity to prove themselves. This is a team that looks to have character instilled into them by their manager. It’s true that you shouldn’t look too much into these games, but it’s hard not to be excited by a result like that.