The Present Defeats The “Future”: Talking Points From Dortmund v Hoffenheim
It’s ok Hans-Joachim Watzke and Michael Zorc, you may breathe freely now. For a while it looked like the team that these two men have had such a huge part in rebuilding (with a great deal of accolades to validate their work) might totally implode this season. After a win drought deemed unacceptable by the club, Peter Bosz was replaced by Peter Stoger, and the former Koln manager has now won both of his first 2 games in charge after stopping Hoffenheim at Signal Iduna Park, 2-1. The increased excitement throughout the stadium was tangible compared to the atmosphere at the Dutchman’s last game at the helm, and the building nearly exploded after the winning goal crossed the line, giving Dortmund a much needed shot of positive momentum heading into the holiday break, with just a DFB Pokal match with Bayern Munich between them and their rest period.
Keeping the Seat Warm?
With Peter Stoger’s contract running only until the end of the current season, there is a popular perception among fans and members of the media that he is simply a placeholder for current Hoffenheim manager Julian Nagelsmann, a man thought by many to be the next great German coaching prospect. With his strong defensive sensibilities, Stoger was certainly a logical hiring by a club whose defence had atrophied to an alarming degree over the last year, but Nagelsmann has gotten his Hoffenheim side to play an exciting brand of football on a comparatively small budget.
Saturday’s meeting was a chance for the two managers, who shared a warm moment in the tunnel before the match, to stake their claim on one of the most prestigious jobs in the Europe. Neither disappointed, with Nagelsmann’s side playing some positive football to match Stoger’s more talented team. Hoffenheim were pinned back to start by an aggressive Dortmund, and were fortunate to be the first to break through with a goal after a terrific line-splitting passing move resulted in a Mark Uth goal. Despite the result going as expected, Nagelsmann’s team gave a representative effort, ending the match with 10% more possession than the home side. Julian Nagelsmann is the future, in many ways, of German football, and fans would be very pleased if he continued his journey next season at the Westfalenstadion. However, if Stoger keeps pulling out the victories with a motivated team, the powers that Be might face a more difficult decision at the end of the year than first thought.
Leaving His Mark
Even though Dortmund have appeared to maintain their 4-3-3 shape that was dominant under Peter Bosz, they have organised in a way that carries a few distinct characteristics of their new manager’s philosophy. Traditionally favoring an orderly 4-4-2, Stoger likes the stability that 2 banks of 4 provide in defence while still allowing for a counter attacking threat up top with two strikers. This was approximated by his Dortmund side on Saturday, with Andriy Yarmolenko mostly staying further forward than Christian Pulisic, functioning as more of a true winger to the young American’s roaming creativity. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was in his usual, central striker role while Julian Weigl proved an able pivot in the centre of the pitch just behind the more forward thinking Shinji Kagawa and Raphael Guerreiro. Marcel Schmelzer and Jeremy Toljan provided a good mix of youthful exuberance and veteran guile at fullback while Sokratis and Omer Toprak manned the heart of defence well enough.
Stoger has had success with his system’s simplicity since arriving at die Schwarzgelben after his Koln team collapsed to open the season. This Dortmund team is far more talented than the one he left, and he has focused his efforts on restoring form and confidence to the defence while putting his midfielders and attackers in positions to succeed. While neither win thus far has come with a convincing, multi-goal result, there is a clarity and a sense of order that was lacking from the team’s performances under Bosz.
The Quiet Conductor
Throughout the turmoil and change that has surrounded Dortmund the last 2 seasons, perhaps the most consistent performer of all during that time has been Shinji Kagawa. The Japanese creative midfielder, in his second stint with the club, always gives his all to the cause, and since Mario Gotze’s injury, has been relied on it make a consistent contribution to the attack from his place in midfield. He was not an ideal Fitch midfield when Peter Bosz was experimenting with a 3-4-2-1 in a last gasp bid to save his job, but he put in the work without a word of complaint about being forced into a role for which he was so ill-suited. Back in a midfield trio once again, he is allowed to play more instinctually. It was his driving run into the box that gave Dortmund the penalty that drew them level after Aubameyang skipped his effort into the bottom right corner, as well as his pass that found Pulisic for the final goal.
The Sweetest American
Despite a good team performance with its share of scoring opportunities, it took a moment of individual brilliance from the teenager whose game is as sweet as the chocolate river that runs through his American hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania to ultimately settle the score. Christian Pulisic has been the most visible and exciting creative player to partner the ever-dynamic Aubameyang since Marco Reus went down with yet another injury, and his goal illustrated once again why that is truly the case. He burst in behind the Hoffenheim defence to latch on to a bouncing pass from Shinji Kagawa, demonstrated excellent body control and concentration to take a touch past the goalkeeper and rifle it home from close range. The goal was his 3rd of the Bundesliga campaign, and he looks to be one of the players that might benefit most from a new voice at the top.
Break out the dark beer and your warmest lederhosen, the winter break has arrived for the Bundesliga! Few clubs in Europe have experienced the roller coaster of form that Dortmund have, with Peter Bosz overseeing one of the most dominant runs to open a season, followed immediately by one of the most embarrassing stretches of games in the club’s history. When the club made the move to Peter Stoger with just 2 league matches until the break, they would have hoped that it could have gone this well, with die Borussen coming away with all 6 possible points. With all due respect to 2 very well run clubs, neither Mainz nor Hoffenheim were quite the sort of test that a matchup with runaway league favorites, Bayern Munich (who await them in the final non-league match before the break), or rivals Schalke might bring on their best day, so it remains to be seen how well Stoger can get the team to perform in those types of matches after the break. Dortmund are right in the mix behind their Bavarian foes, in a 4 way tie for 3rd place, just 1 point behind Schalke. Much like the Premier League, the Bundesliga has a standout team pulling away from the pack, but also an extremely competitive and compelling battle for the remaining places in the lucrative Champions League for next season.