Poor Pitch Threatens to Derail Borussia Battle
Sometimes, being exactly where you should be in the league table is not seen as much of an accomplishment. However, for those Borussia Dortmund fans that witnessed the embarrassing evaporation of a four-goal lead against Schalke in the autumn, or the impotent, winless group stage performance in the Champions League, second place must feel pretty good. For that is the result of Sunday’s Borussia Derby in Gladbach. Dortmund have returned to their rightful place as Germany’s second best, two points clear of a crowd of clubs, all vying for a Champions League place. It took a vintage strike from an established hero and a surprisingly competent performance for a much-maligned player, but Dortmund were able to overcome less-than-ideal circumstances to grab the 1-0 win.
One of the biggest storylines heading into the battle of the Borussians was the state of the pitch on which it would be played. The surface at Borussia Park was in tatters before the ref’s first blast of the whistle, and as a result, both clubs struggled to get their passing game working smoothly. A Julian Weigl slip just past the 12 minute mark nearly lead to a Gladbach goal, but Roman Burki, who was excellent on the day, came up with the stop. Both teams like to move the ball around on the floor, but Dortmund, in particular, were prevented from working the ball around in possession the way they prefer. Possession for both teams was sloppy and disjointed, and it took a more direct, aerial approach in attack for Dortmund to find the score sheet.
The problems, if anything, were more pronounced in the second half as an invigorated Gladbach side turned up the pressure on the match leaders. Dortmund, unable to work the ball around in space to assert their control on proceedings, were put under tremendous pressure by the hosts, who absolutely peppered Burki in the second half. However, the Swiss shot-stopper stood tall and outlasted wave after wave of Gladbach attacks (including one goal that was disallowed for offsides) to ensure the major storyline from Sunday would not be the grass.
Marco Makes The Difference
It has now been 3 matches since Marco Reus returned to the team after his devastating cruciate injury, and each time out has looked a little more like the old Reus. He was joined by fellow German national teammates Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle in the starting XI, and scored the match’s only goal from a passing move that started with Gotze spraying the ball just wide of the goal to Schurrle, who ripped a ball into Reus’ feet just inside the penalty area. Muscle memory seemed to take over from there, as the German took one deft touch to create space, and his second sent a millimetre perfect shot arching over Jan Sommer for the Dortmund lead.
Marco Reus is almost unplayable on his day, and there is little doubt that he has a palpable effect on his teammates and the fans in the stands when he plays. His return has given his club a jolt of positive energy, and as talented as the squad might be, it is impossible to construct the best Dortmund XI without a healthy Reus. He passed a huge test on Sunday playing on a disastrous surface that made fluid football nearly impossible, and amplified the injury risk to the players (particularly those with unstable joints or nursing an ailment). The adrenaline from his long-awaited season debut has since worn off, but Reus should continue to heat up as he settles back into the daily grind. He will have to work to shake off the label of fragility he has acquired in an injury-riddled career, because as he has proved time and time again, injury is the only thing that can slow down Dortmund’s number one man.
The Stoeger Effect: Winning Ugly
It is hard to definitively prove, but the Peter Bosz led incarnation of this team would almost certainly have lost that match on Sunday. Notoriously inflexible with his tactics, Bosz would have sent his team out onto the obliterated Gladbach pitch set up to press high, get the ball to the attack as quickly as possible, and play an almost irresponsibly high line to compress the space in the midfield. Such a plan would be an unmitigated disaster on such a surface, and the defence would inevitably have been caught out by the pace and technical ability of players such as Lars Stindl and Thorgan Hazard.
Matches like Sunday’s are exactly the sort that the Peter Stoeger hiring was meant to help. Whether or not the environment was the principal cause, Dortmund did not bring their “A” game to Gladbach, and were forced to outlast their hosts for an hour after a moment of individual technical brilliance gave them the lead. Roman Burki might have been busier than would please a defensive manager like Stoeger, but his defence blocked 9 shots, and forced nearly 1 in 3 Gladbach shots to miss the target. Incredibly, Dortmund only completed 67% of their passes, and such a number would have made victory nearly impossible under Bosz, but they found a way to get the 3 points, and now stand alone in 2nd place in the Bundesliga.
The No-Brainer Man of the Match
Aside from Peter Bosz, the man that has perhaps been blamed more than any other for Dortmund’s mid-season slump is goalkeeper Roman Burki. The Swiss keeper has come under fire in the past for his inconsistent form and questionable rebound control. His hands are more blunt tools than precision instruments, and he has a penchant for undoing a match of good work with a softly conceded goal. However, Roman Burki is also a streaky player, and when he is on form there are few keepers in Germany that can make the kinds of saves that he comes up with at times.
He was absolutely brilliant against Gladbach, facing 28 total shots (11 of which found the target) and managing to save every single one that was bound for the net. He is one of those players that seems to draw a disproportionate amount of attention for his mistakes, but his form has taken a massive leap since the new manager arrived. Most goalkeepers struggle to stop everything when they face the quality and frequency of shots he did the first half of this season, and it is no accident that his performances have improved along with the defence in front of him. He was, without a doubt, the man of the match, and may just be this humble author’s pick for the Bundesliga’s most improved player in the second half of the season.
VAR-y Useful Technology
The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) has divided opinion among fans of the Bundesliga, MLS and Serie A, where the system has been trialled this season, but on Sunday, it helped Dortmund salvage their victory after it was triggered on an apparent Thorgan Hazard goal. The Belgian was ultimately, and correctly, ruled offside, and Dortmund was able to move into second place, standing alone between the rest of the field and the cruising Bayern Munich, thanks in part to the decision. VAR has helped the club on multiple occasions this season, including in a controversial 5-0 victory over Koln in September and to disallow a Naldo goal in the embarrassing 4-4 draw with Schalke in November.
Critics say that the process takes too long, leads to confusion in the stands and on the pitch, and ruins the flow of the match. Supporters say that getting calls right as often as possible should be the most important thing, regardless of how long it takes. Both sides have valid arguments that enjoy wide-ranging support from players, coaches and fans. However, momentum has been building for years on the mass implementation of the system across all major leagues, and detractors will likely have to get used to it becoming commonplace in professional football. As with other sports and their similar versions of video aids for the officials, there have been early teething problems, but ultimately, efficiency is a problem that can be tackled with time, and it will go a long way toward removing instances of human error (and with it, potential bias) from the sport. It is not yet perfect, but it is unquestionably the future.