There are few experiences in football that can match a rocking Signal Iduna Park on a European night, and Thursday’s dramatic, last minute victory was a prime example. Fans were absolutely buzzing from the opening whistle, intent on spurring their beloved cub to victory for the first time in a European match this season. Andre Schurrle’s first half goal brought the noise up another few decibels, but a shockingly quick comeback by the visitors in the second half threatened to suck the life out of the building as Atalanta took a 2-1 lead. However, right on queue, the Ruhr’s newest super hero. Michy Batshuayi, went to work, his brace turning the game on its head and delivering the victory to the hosts.
First European Victory
It might have taken until the dying moments of the match, but Dortmund finally won their first European match of the season with Thursday’s victory over Atalanta. Even the best teams the club has fielded in the last 5 seasons would have struggled for results against the class of Real Madrid and the up and coming Tottenham Hotspur, but Dortmund failed to claim 3 points in either of their matches against lowly Cyprus club, Apoel Nicosia during group play. As disappointing as their Champions League campaign might have been, the drop down into the Europa League could be a blessing in disguise for die Schwarzgelben, as their chances of winning the less prestigious competition are far greater than they would have been in a loaded Champions League. Clubs like Atletico Madrid, Napoli and Arsenal represent tough challenges should they all advance to the next round, but they represent more reasonable challenges for a club that has had a few issues of their own this season.
Despite scraping out the 1 goal victory, it would be a mistake to think that Dortmund’s work is done in the round of 16. They did concede 2 away goals in their matchup with Atalanta, which means that they will need to either better that total in the return leg in Italy, win the second leg outright, or else run the risk of crashing out on aggregate score. Luckily, the balance and pragmatism of Peter Stoeger’s tactical approach will leave the club infinitely better equipped to deal with a pressure filled second leg than the one dimensional plans of his predecessor, Peter Bosz. That first victory was important to restoring team confidence in European competition, and should they make it through to the next round, they will be a formidable opponent for any of the remaining teams to have to face.
A New Look Schurrle?
With the incredible amount of turnover over the last 3 seasons at the Signal Iduna Park, there are bound to be some signings that look like mistakes in retrospect. On balance, the club has been exceptional in their efforts to replace departing stars, but last season the player that perhaps disappointed the most (in part because of the cost involved) was Andre Schurrle. He arrived in the summer of 2016 as the club’s most expensive signing at €30 million, and his history as an exciting talent in the national team and former club’s gave fans a reason to be optimistic. However, last season saw Schurrle, much as he had at Chelsea and with Wolfsburg, unable to convert his talent into consistent production. A player with a rounded set of skills but no defined position, Schurrle struggled to carve out a niche last season, eventually losing his place in the team to the younger talents of Christian Pulisic and Ousmane Dembele.
This season started with more of the same from him, and he looked well off the pace for much of the first half of the season. However, since returning from the winter break, Schurrle looks like a man that has received a confidence transplant. His pace once again appears to be an explosive asset, and he has looked at home in a hybrid midfielder/winger type role. He and Marco Reus were playing at a different pace than everyone else at times over the weekend, and Schurrle was able to find the net against Atalanta, scoring Dormtund first of the night. It may be a brief uptick in form from an otherwise disappointing signing, or it could be a case of a talented but maligned player finally finding a role that suits him.
Batman Saves the Night…Again
With each passing match, Michy Batshuayi’s loan move from Cheksea to Dortmund is looking more and more like a coup for the German club. Batshuayi scored 2 more goals in his third match with the club, including the last minute winner, and has brought his tally up to 5 goals and 2 assists in those 3 Belgian plays with the pace and power that one might expect from a player who has spent the last season and a half in a Premier League conditioning program, but his team play and passing have been even better than advertised. Like his predecessor, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, few will ever mistake Batshuayi for a false 9-type, deep dropping forward with a slick passing game, but he fits perfectly into a team full of creative talents, yet short on front line goal scorers. It would be hard to imagine a player having a better start to life with a new club, but already Dortmund are trying to figure out how they can make this move permanent. Chelsea will be paying close attention to how their out of favour striker plays, and if he continues on this path, he could easily price himself out of a permanent move to Dortmund in the summer.
A Chink In The Armour?
Thursday’s match with Atalanta was played at an absolutely frantic pace, and Dortmund did extremely well to go into halftime up by a goal. However, the Atalanta response after the break showed the cracks that are still liable to appear in Dortmund’s defensive facade if pushed. Josep Ilicic potted 2 goals for Atalanta in a 5 minute period, 1 of which was courtesy of some poor marking by Jeremy Toljan, and it stunned the rocking Westfalenstadion crowd. Without Batshuayi’s late game heroics, all of the talk today would be about yet another failure to get a result in Europe. Instead, Dortmund will travel to Italy next week with the easy part of the job done, but another hard fought 90 minutes awaiting them. Stoeger will be intent on cleaning up the defensive mistakes, as well as the palpable drop in intensity from the end of the first half until after Ilicic had snatched the lead away from them.
Stoeger’s Strongest XI?
With Marco Reus back from injury and still looking an explosive threat, Peter Stoeger’s preferred starting XI is taking shape. Andriy Yarmolenko was a near constant presence in the lineup from the start of the season, but his recent inefficiencies in front of goal and a Reus’ return has found him relegated to the bench. Stoeger seems far less enamoured with the big winger than Bosz was, and so far seems to prefer the more balanced creative game of Christian Pulisic to Yarmolenko’s desire cut in on the strong foot and let rip with his powerful shot. Interestingly, Stoeger seems to favour Marco Reus in a more central, support striker role than as a wide man in his system. Perhaps he sees the resurgent Andre Schurrle as the more responsible defender than Reus (the wide midfielders retreat into the ‘2 banks of 4’ defensive shape in Stoeger’s system), leaving him free to hang a bit higher and be a factor on the counter attack.
In the midfield, Julian Weigl is a lock in a holding midfield role, with Shinji Kagawa the other near lock for a starting berth in a slightly more advanced position. A combination of Mario Gotze, Nuri Sahin, Mahmoud Dahoud and Gonzalo Castro (with occasional appearances by Schurrle and Pulisic as attack-minded midfielders) flesh out one of Germany’s most dynamic central midfields. In defence, Omer Toprak has emerged as the clear number 1 centre back, with Sokratis his most common partner. The exciting young Manuel Akanji, signed this January, is a capable alternate who offers a touch of extra quality on the ball. Dan-Axel Zagadou is an incredibly talented young man who can play in the heart of defence or as a full back, and together with Akanji, represents the future of the Dortmund defence. Jeremy Toljan has gotten loads of minutes since Marcel Schmelzer went down injured, so it remains to be seen if he keeps his place once the captain returns to the fold.
The dramatic decline of the team under Peter Bosz suggested that many had overrated the players in the squad, but Stoeger’s arrival has not seen any drastic changes in personnel. Rather, Stoeger has merely taken those same players (restoring some to their lofty standing under Thomas Tuchel) and put them in a far better position to succeed. He has been remarkably consistent with his team selection, and the cohesive, talented group that we witnessed under Tuchel seems to have returned with Stoeger’s arrival. The buzz of excitement has returned to the crowd at he Signal Iduna Park, and though they are just 1 tight victory closer to their ultimate European goal, the club’s recent form gives fans a legitimate reason to be excited to see how this season plays out.