Well-organized, defensively sound and mentally focused: Bayern Munich's performance away at Liverpool was Niko Kovac's most accomplished tactical achievement yet. And he's winning over the dressing room, too.
"One thing's for sure: we won't see a 0-0," predicted Niko Kovac ahead of Bayern Munich's Champions League last-16 first leg away at Liverpool.
But when, after 94 minutes in the Merseyside rain, the Anfield scoreboard read precisely that, the Croatian appeared satisfied, signaling to his players to keep possession and run the clock down. "We've achieved our aim," he said afterwards.
His counterpart, Jürgen Klopp, seemed less at ease as the two men shook hands. The initial catalyst, he explained, was a simple misunderstanding after Kovac first congratulated his own coaching staff before turning to Klopp. A simple cultural difference. There were no ill feelings.
But as the emotional German kept talking, he revealed the real source of his frustration.
"I've never seen [Serge] Gnabry defend like that, nor have I seen [Joshua] Kimmich or [David] Alaba so disciplined," he said.
That will have been music to Kovac's ears.
It was indeed a far cry from Bayern's Bundesliga game against Augsburg on Friday where Kimmich was twice caught out of position. The defensive structure, with Javi Martinez putting in his best performance of the season so far as a holding midfielder, was unrecognizable from the high line which had come unstuck at home to Düsseldorf.
"We were tactically well-positioned, physically present and mentally focused," said Kovac, highlighting the same traits that had surprised Klopp.
For 94 minutes, Bayern kept Liverpool's feared attack at bay, first by canceling out their pressing game in the first half and then by defending doggedly in the second, playing for each other and for their coach.
"We implemented the coach's instructions perfectly," Mats Hummels said afterwards, repeating the mantra: "We were focused, disciplined and carried out the tactical plan."
In a transitional season which has not been without problems for Bayern, Kovac must take huge credit not only for the match plan itself but more importantly for the way in which his players have clearly responded to him. For the first time since the 47-year-old took over, this Bayern team looked a united, well-drilled unit. Kovac looked in control. He has the dressing room.
Of course, an away goal would have been the cherry on top and Kovac will be well aware of the threat Liverpool will pose when Bayern inevitably play more offensively in Munich.
The scoreline remains 0-0. But Kovac is 1-0 up.