There should be little surprise attached to Liverpool’s nonchalant brushing aside of Bayern Munich. For several seasons now the Bavarian’s have been on the wane; their ageing squad and inattention to adequately replacing departed stars and those soon to retire has been masked by a marked deterioration of quality in the Bundesliga. Putting six past Wolfsburg last weekend reflected as such, and was less an ominous signal of intent towards title challenging Borussia Dortmund than a heavy dose of reality suggesting something is rotten in German top-flight football. Arguably a bellwether of this could present as exhibit A Germany’s abject performances at Russia 2018, where a still in situ but woefully out of touch Joachim Louw presided over a squad low on quality but consisting of players to whom loyalty has been stretched beyond reasonable limits. Mirroring the fortunes of the other, the national team only appears to be in rude health when Bayern are in full flow; ergo there is no coincidence that both are now in disarray.
Keeping Liverpool at arm’s length with relative ease at Anfield was more a commentary of the Merseyside side’s mini-slump in form that saw goalless draws against local rival’s Everton, and bitter adversary Manchester United. Most teams in Europe would though settle for such a supposed downturn in fortunes and whilst a Virgil van Dijk-inspired Liverpool never looked in these games to be in danger of conceding, their much-vaunted attacking triumvirate of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, and Roberto Firmino were unusually subdued. Dutchman van Dijk and Brazilian goalkeeper Allison Becker have strengthened the Red’s weak points of last season, although I would argue that any barren spell experienced by Liverpool’s holy trinity highlights a midfield that is sometimes pedestrian and lacking in creativity. A three of James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson undoubtedly brings endeavour to the engine room but isn’t going to chip in with 15-20 goals per season. Full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are instead expected to provide the forward-thrust to many of Liverpool’s attacks, with a heavy emphasis placed on their ability to deliver accurate passes and crosses without compromising a need to revert back to defensive duties at a minute’s notice.
Bayern weren’t though thrown the initiative by securing a unlikely Anfield shut out. Liverpool’s pace and ability to soak up pressure could allow their opponents to throw everything at them, biding their time before countering to usually devastating effect. In the end a mixture of what Liverpool does best, the towering presence of van Dijk in the opposition penalty area and calamitous goalkeeping from the once great Manuel Neuer enabled Liverpool to get out the deckchairs and cigars long before the final whistle sounded in the Allianz Arena.
Considered to be the fourth wealthiest club in world football Bayern have inexplicably taken their eye off the ball, showing baffling loyalty to players whose best years have long gone. Neuer, at times looking cumbersome and leaden, has never been the same player after seemingly overcoming a series of injuries that saw Sven Ulreich deputize between the sticks. Similarly, central defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are several tiers below the gold standard set by van Dijk. Facing off against Liverpool’s front three the at times statuesque Hummels and Niklas Suele represented one of the biggest mismatches of recent times.
Bayern’s attacking burden is disproportionately shouldered by Pole Robert Lewandowski, who still warrants a starting place but deserves greater support and more accomplished teammates. The once totemic Thomas Mueller has developed the footballing equivalent of Ian Baker-Finch’s yips, and whilst the scorer of several goals of late the 29-year old is a mere husk of his 2014 peak. It is astonishing at a club of Bayern’s wealth, history, and reputation that Serge Gnabry, a player once surplus to requirements at Arsenal, represents one of few alternative attacking options aside from the prolific Pole.
I believe it was Sir Alex Ferguson who perfected breaking up a winning side – in preparation for the next tilt at greatness. This is something Bayern have failed to comprehend, let alone do, and whilst the retirements of Philipp Lahm and Xavi Alonso were somewhat out of the blue, it wasn’t as if they were never going to happen. Failure to adequately replace such leviathans has been compounded by a lack of forward planning that addresses the imminent departures of all time greats Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Portuguese starlet Renato Sanches and Colombian play-maker have failed to bridge the loss of Alonso; although the injury-prone Kingsley Coman could be a long-term replacement for Robben, what Bayern need are proven performers approaching the peak of their powers. Coman and Chelsea’s coveted youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi do not in this sense fit the bill.
Bayern are in many ways to be applauded for refusing to pay outlandish sums for players but the reality is that their European rivals are prepared to do so, and crucially, are doing so. A steady recruitment programme and a hardheaded appraisal of the indisputably waning powers of those considered part of the furniture would have headed off the situation in which the inevitable fall guy, manager Niko Kovac, now find himself. Carrying the can for previous short-termism that failed to future-proof the squad from being decimated by retirements and the denudation of form, the Croatian is very much an unwitting rabbit caught in the headlights. As proven by being put to the sword by a Liverpool not even operating at full throttle, an upsurge in domestic form has only served to mask the deficiencies at both Bayern and those of a cyclical nature now affecting German football as a whole.
Is there though an argument to suggest Liverpool are very much Europe’s team of the moment, who even the continent’s very best would struggle to shackle? Although this would currently stand up to scrutiny I always felt a team with greater guile, imagination and dare I say it, talent, would have cottoned on to an over-reliance on Virgil van Dijk, Allison Becker being better than both Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet but not without a clanger within his repertoire, and a need to stifle Andy Robertson’s attacking instincts. Niko Kovac can though only display the requisite tactical nous if he has the personnel to execute it. Quite obviously, he doesn’t.
This is though the most exciting, swashbuckling Liverpool side since the freewheeling days of the late 80’s and early 90’s. There is though a sense that if it doesn’t happen for this squad this season, it never will. Sergio Ramos will at some point need replacing; as will Gareth Bale, former honorary Scouser Luis Suarez, and Marcelo. Virgil van Dijk, Salah, Mane, and Andy Robertson will all therefore be in high demand as their respective stocks soar every skywards. Bayern Munich on the other hand have few saleable assets aside from Lewandowski, whose age probably precludes a final payday in La Liga or the Premier League.
In many senses those present last night in the Allianz Arena witnessed Liverpool striding confidently forward to reclaim their position among Europe’s elite, but were at the same time given a leg up by hosts themselves in real danger of slipping into relative obscurity. Whilst Liverpool may this season fall short in their quest to land club football’s most coveted prize, reinvestment of recouped transfer fees ensures that the red side of Merseyside will stay in the ascendancy for the foreseeable future. Without ungenerated funds being urgently injected into Bayern’s squad there is little prospect of the Stern des Suedens rejoining Liverpool at Europe’s top table any time soon.