A rare moment of happiness in otherwise hard times: Auba and Dembouz are celebrating.
Another day, another draw. Another game with a clean sheet going down the drain. Another two points spilled while the arch-rivals are jumping from victory to victory. There is something seriously concerning about Borussia Dortmund’s form at the moment. It’s the end of the year, after all. They were supposed to sit comfortably in the second place – but instead, they’re just sixth. They’re supposed to be on at least 40 league goals at this stage of the season – but instead, they have 35. They’re supposed to run away with the wins by a mile through producing scorelines like 5-1, 4-0 or 6-2 – but instead, they’ve been altering between 1-1 and 2-2 for the entire month. And even though their Champions League results have been resoundingly outstanding – it’s definitely not something Die Schwarzgelben can be happy with.
The summer was so promising… Just like in the past two years, BVB’s management with experienced Michael Zorc in charge, roamed around in search for young, talented footballers with high potential for the future. But unlike before, this time, the search went abroad too. Sensational Stade Rennais’ teenager Ousmane Dembélé would snub Liverpool and Arsenal in favour of Westphalia; even younger Emre Mor has arrived to Dortmund from the Danish outfit Nordsjælland. Left-back Raphaël Guerreiro signed from Lorient June; a month later, he was already an European Champion and an important part of Portugal’s winning squad. At the same time, the team has ‘recycled’ it’s old, dependable members: Mario Götze and Kuba Błaszczykowski. Crucially enough: the latter would soon turn out to be the only one out of ten new signings, who’s been over the age of 25.
Where are those lads now? Dembélé, the only one who can be fully satisfied with himself, is on the right path to conquering Bundesliga and earning himself a truly big transfer to some absolutely top-notch club. His pace, his dribbling, the way he takes the responsibility on his shoulders – those things all are checking out. And… that’s about it when it comes to the impact of new players. Guerreiro, following two three terrific games, has suffered a minor problem with his thigh, returned to the pitch, played two more games and then picked up another muscular blow during the international duty. During his absence, Dortmund have scraped five league draws, lost to Eintracht in Frankfurt, squeezed out a prestigious, but not exactly groundbreaking win over Bayern and destroyed Gladbach after going 0-1 down. All things considered: those are the performances worthy of a mid-table side.
Of course, people are far from crucifying Thomas Tuchel. For one: Dortmund have given hell to their UCL opponents, drawing twice with so-long undefeated Real Madrid and hitting Legia with 14 (!) goals. Also: there’s been much more to BVB’s fitness problems than just Guerreiro’s woes. Only against Hertha, in the middle of October, Dortmund’s boss had nine players unavailable and was forced to put Marc Bartra in the heart of his defence – even though the ex-Barcelona players was probably still not 100% ready to play following his hip injury. Few days later, on a Champions League trip to Lisbon, Marcel Schmelzer and Neven Subotić have joined the list of the fallen. “Right now, it is questionable whether we will even have 16 senior players available.” – said the boss just 2 months ago. And even though things have got better since – there are still at least six long-term absentees in BVB squad.
Remember, remember! The fifth of November. That was the last time Dortmund’s back four played the second consecutive game with the same five lads in the starting XI. Two weeks later, BVB’s go-to goalkeeper, Roman Bürki, has suffered a broken hand against Bayern. Sokratis and Piszczek, just like Guerreiro, have been sidelined following their unfortunate trips to the international games. That way, the only remaining fit player from the 5-2 away win at Hamburg – Matthias Ginter – has been virtually forced to play in several different roles. The lad, who looked like the next terrific German right wing-back just two years ago, has now shuffled between his old position and being a makeshift centre-back. It wasn’t good for his career and it wasn’t too good for the club either – but it had to be done.
Despite all BVB’s pressure, Wagner and Amiri have found the way to get through.
Needless to say, when this troubled Borussia side marched to the pitch to face undefeated, buzzing Hoffenheim, the game went pretty bad for them. It was a strange contest: in the first half, Die Schwarzgelben dominated the game right and left but couldn’t quite get through – and the first counterattack TSG have mounted has ended with an opening goal. Roman Weidenfeller, the goalie who was his team’s #1 during the Klopp’s era, has proven once again that the role of a back-up player simply isn’t for him. A long ball from Benjamin Hübner, played in-behind the ridiculously far-forward Dortmund’s back-four – and Mark Uth buried it into the wide open net. In a situation like this, it’s one or the other: either the defenders have to sit deeper, or the goalie needs to be far forward to sweep the dangerous balls once they happen. The visitors have somehow failed to recognise that.
The rest of the first half was just as bizarre as the goal incident. Hoffenheim, set up with five players at the back were playing the absolute masterclass of a dirty, insufferable and rude football. Unable to deal with the pace of Reus and Dembélé, constantly pressurised by the forward runs of Schmelzer – they retorted to fouling Dortmund players, taking the full advantage of utterly clueless and spineless performance by the referee Benjamin Brand. The first official has put the cards out of his pocket way too late, allowing both teams to unleash the hell on each others’ legs. Nagelsmann’s lads have proven to be more cunning in such type of a match, carefully conceding the fouls from the defenders who weren’t on yellows yet. At the end of a day, half of TSG’s team has been booked – but none of them got dismissed.
Marco Reus, however, did. The winger, who would’ve probably been at Real Madrid if it wasn’t for his persistent injuries, played a masterclass of a game against Gladbach and a very good match at Cologne – but this just wasn’t his day. Bullied and taunted all across the pitch, he eventually got sent off in one of the most outrageous instances of injustice this season. Just before the half-time, he was tracking back Nadiem Amiri’s run. The German-Afghan midfielder has been pulling Reus’ shirt for good five seconds before his opponent finally lost balance and fell over on him, causing both players to go down. Mister Brand interpreted that as a professional foul by Borussia player and did not hesitate to show him the yellow card. Well, one thing is certain there: the dismissed player wouldn’t even have made contact with Amiri if it wasn’t for the fact that he himself was fouled. Shocking.
In all these unfortunate circumstances, rescuing a 2-2 draw was about the best thing that could happen to the yellow and black shirt. Dembélé was outstanding in the second half and actually doubled his efforts, so the one-man deficit did not seem nearly as painful for his team as it could be. However, his heroics have been cancelled by another soft goal conceded by Weidenfeller. . The inability to defend set pieces is nothing new for BVB: already in September and October, in-between the games against Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt, they’ve conceded 5 out of 7 through the spot-kicks. Still – allowing in-form Sandro Wagner to score from basically a flick-on with very little power on it – that was uncalled for.
Neither was the goal they’ve conceded a week later at home, against Augsburg. It was Bartra’s risky through ball that got intercepted by Hinteregger, that opened the Pandora’s box. The Austrian centre-back burst forward, escaping the pressure from no less than three Dortmund players. Ultimately, he got stopped on his tracks, but the loose ball from Merino’s sliding challenge fell to Morávek, who immediately released Ji Dong-Won. The former BVB forward, completely unmarked, failed to score on his first try, but Weidenfeller’s save rebounded his way and it was 0-1. Two minutes later, it could’ve been easily 0-2 had Teigl managed to control a long pass from Gouweleeuw. It was a classic case of failed zonal marking: Augsburg players ran in-between Bartra and Merino and they couldn’t decide who’s there to pick him up. Again: with Sokratis on the pitch, this would not have happened.
Immediately after the break, Dembélé popped up to the rescue his team one more time. It took 77 seconds from the restart to the moment, when the Frenchman laid a clever pass to Kagawa, ran forward, got the ball back from his Japanese teammate and calmly slid it in the back of the net with a neat finish. It was a rare example of composure in this stage of the game: seconds later, Ji horribly missed a curling shot from the corner of the area and Aubameyang’s acrobatic volley landed directly on Marvin Hitz’s body. The Gabonese forward had no luck on his header just two minutes later. Neither did Kagawa just before the one-hour mark, when he miskicked a laughably easy final pass that would’ve surely resulted with a 2-1 goal. The match was all about BVB by this point – and still, close but no cigar when it comes to changing the scoreline.
“We started very well and then completely lost the plot” – Tuchel remarked after the game. “We made an incredible number of errors. (…) We made some very simple mistakes, bad passes and simple fouls. (…) I think it’s the seventh game in a row where we had to come back from one goal down.” – he added. It’s an objective, maybe even a bit harsh assessment of the current situation. The team went through so many injury woes. The results were worse than the run of play. The winter break is now in effect, allowing some players to recover and others to improve fitness. There probably won’t be any departures during the transfer window – Dortmund officials have already rubbished the speculations about Christian Pulisic’s move to Liverpool and Marco Reus contract at Arsenal. It could only get better.
But will it? We’ll see by the end of January, when BVB shall visit the grounds of recently uplifted Werder Bremen and highly inconsistent Mainz. After a poor end of 2016, six points will be the only acceptable consolation.