Liverpool vs Bayern: Virgil van Dijk’s absence shaped Anfield stalemate in unexpected ways

There were little moments where you could not say Liverpool missed Van Dijk but you could feel he was not there

Simon Hughes
Wednesday 20 February 2019 00:30
Klopp bemoans Liverpool’s final pass in first-leg draw with Bayern Munich

To watch Liverpool without Virgil van Dijk is like being in New York but not getting a full view of the Statue of Liberty because of mist. It is like perching in front of the Sacré-Coeur basilica and realising only then that Paris’s most famous landmark can actually be hidden and that means the skyline isn’t quite as glorious as it should be. It is like being aboard a Mersey ferry on a filthy day and not being able to identify the stateliness, grace and, in all fairness, the girth of the Royal Liver Buildings.

Liverpool fared well here without him but their performance was not quite the same and the expected pattern did not materialise in the way it was widely expected. Bayern, you see, have been derided for the standard of their defending this season, a feature which explains why they are second in the Bundesliga and not first.

Liverpool’s strengths met Bayern’s weaknesses and with Van Dijk suspended, Bayern’s attacking abilities would expose the key absentee in the middle of Liverpool’s backline. Inevitably, a goal-fest would follow.

There was a definite sense, however, that both managers appreciated the potential of the dynamic. Liverpool did not stream forward like they can do and instead waited for Bayern mistakes. Ultimately, they should be credited for their patience. Similarly, Bayern’s midfield was a base of two and this squeezed the space around Roberto Firmino. Ultimately, they should be credited for their pig-headedness.

There might be a temptation here to reflect on Liverpool’s European campaign and suggest the fizz is not quite there like it was a year ago. Their away form in the competition so far has been consistent but not in the way they’d want. Three games: three defeats. Naples and Paris, you might be able to rationalise, but not Belgrade. There will need to be a lift-off in Munich if progression is to be sealed yet there will be a sharp expectation on Bayern to attack and this will suit Liverpool when they counter.

Bayern were not under lots of pressure here but at times it felt as though Mats Hummels and Niklas Sule were prepared to form a line on Walton Breck Road, they were so deep. It was clearly a decision taken because they felt they had to in order to stop Liverpool sliding passes into the channels.

Bayern’s approach was not enterprising but its delivery was excellent, the type you’d expect from a five-time European champion which still believes it can win its seventh domestic title in a row. When the form of a huge club dips, it can feel like a landslide is happening but Bayern have still only lost twice in their last 26 European matches.

Yet there was much to admire about Liverpool as well, who were much better than in either of their most recent draws – though they had to be considering the standard and knowledge of the opponent. Jordan Henderson was the game’s outstanding midfielder: firm with his passes, aggressive in his tackling, organising his team-mates and offering the two behind him protection in the area where Lewandowksi is so dangerous.

Robert Lewandowski was kept quiet by Liverpool's defence (Reuters)

Perhaps Bayern will end up regretting taking advantage of Liverpool when they were weaker. There had been a suspicion that Firmino’s absence from training yesterday through illness may have been a ruse to fool Bayern because he is key to Liverpool. Firmino tried like a bear to find a way past Hummels and Sule but he was clearly tired in the second half and this explained Divock Origi’s introduction with 15 minutes left to play.

There were little moments where you could not say Liverpool missed Van Dijk but you could feel he was not there. His replacement was a midfielder in Fabinho and though his concentration was impressive, Lewandowski often drifted over towards him, particularly when the ball was in the air. The Pole, with the height advantage, won most of those duels.

Without Van Dijk, indeed, there came an expectation on Joel Matip to lead, a capable centre half who nevertheless sometimes looks like a caribou steering an ice cube. Bayern appreciated this and that is why Liverpool’s conservative possession was funnelled his way, straining any momentum.

Matip had reliably lost heavily against Bayern during his career at Schalke, where he played in a defence that conceded thirty-seven goals in eleven games, winning none of them. Matip, then, should regard this as a step in the right direction because during that run, he’d never helped register a clean sheet. Perhaps this one gives Bayern more to think about than Liverpool in three weeks’ time, when Van Dijk returns and Joshua Kimmich misses out through suspension after his booking.

In 1981, it had been what Bob Paisley called “a touch too much confidence” that inspired Liverpool from exactly this position ahead of a European Cup second leg in Munich, where directions to the final in Paris were handed out inside the Olympic Stadium. Paisley later claimed his team-talk was done from there, that all needed to do was distribute the leaflets in the dressing room. Liverpool's route to the final is further away and slightly more complicated this time. Yet it remains a realistic target.

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