Robin Returns to a New Batman
It took a sizable effort from the attack to break down a compact Hamburg defence, but Borussia Dortmund were ultimately able to win their 500th Bundesliga match of their history in a workman’s 2-0 victory at the Signal Iduna Park. The place was buzzing with excitement for a returning hero, and exploded when their new Batman scored again to take the lead. Hamburg sit in 17th position in the league following the loss, 3 points behind Mainz, while Dortmund now find themselves just 1 point behind RB Leipzig in second.
It took less than 10 seconds of his return from injury for Marco Reus to answer the question of whether or not his pace would suffer from his time out. The answer? Oh boy, has he still got it. Upon kickoff, the ball squirted toward Lukasz Piszczek on the right flank and Reus put on a turn of pace, streaked through the entire Hamburg side and nearly caught up to the ball as it flew out of touch. It was an innocuous moment, but one that seemed to buoy the home crowd into a raucous frenzy, which carried on for the opening 30 before another failed attempt to break the Hamburg lines resulted in the ball being recycled backwards, to some grumbles from the fans.
Reus even managed to get involved in the build-up to a goal, as he fed Christian Pulisic a pass which the American then squared to a lunging Michy Batshuayi, who put it away for his second goal in as many matches for Dortmund. Reus lasted 70 minutes, creating 3 chances for his teammates and riding a wave of adrenaline through the first half that saw him test the Hamburg backline with his pace. After the match, he acknowledged that he would need time to get back into a groove with his teammates, but already it was apparent that his presence will be a boost to his team moving forward. Hopefully, the 28-year-old will be able to put his injury woes behind him once and for all.
Batman 2.0 Strikes Again
In theory, it should be a difficult task to replace one of the most prolific goal scorers in the world, but so far, Michy Batshuayi is making the loss of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang far less dramatic than many thought it would be. The on-loan Chelsea man scored his third goal in just his second match in a Dortmund shirt, playing the central striker role with a tantalising blend of pace, power, and technical finishing ability. His link-up play has been better than advertised, but it should continue to get better as he learns his new teammates’ tendencies. However, much like Aubameyang, it is the intelligence of his runs, and feel for finding space in the penalty area that makes him so important to this Dortmund side.
With Marco Reus, Christian Pulisic and Andre Schurrle interchanging and combining between the flanks and central areas, Batshuayi was free to float into those danger areas in the box. Reus floated often into the central areas to support Batshuayi, and the two looked dangerous at times on the break. Batshuayi could be the perfect compliment to the jet-heeled wide men and attackers currently in the squad, as he has the pace to stay with them on the counter-attack, but still possesses the strength and height to be a factor if they decide to pump balls into the box. It may be early, but already the move for Batshuayi is looking like an inspired one, and fans will soon be lamenting that his transfer wasn’t permanent.
Stoeger’s Defence Stays Strong
Borussia Dortmund under Peter Stoeger have not conceded more than two goals in a match, and on Saturday they were able to preserve Roman Burki’s clean sheet. Hamburg have been anaemic in attack this season, yet to score 20 league goals, but the central defensive partnership of Manuel Akanji and Omer Toprak did their part to shut down most of their most promising moves. Toprak has been almost undroppable since Stoeger’s arrival, and he is starting to come good as the undisputed leader of the backline. Akanji, for his part, was active and rangey from his right-sided centre-back role, the more likely of the two to carry the ball forward and play an aggressive, line-splitting pass.
It would be easy to say that the defence’s dramatic improvement under Stoeger was as simple as installing a more conservative set of tactics, but that would be underselling the job the German has done since arriving. He has galvanised a group of talented players into a team that works hard as a unit in both attack and defence. Jeremy Toljan has become an asset under a Stoeger’s tutelage, really offering quality support to the central pairing from either side of defence. Lukasz Piszczek has been a steadying force since returning from injury on the right, providing the attackers’ width in key moments so that they can cut inside. Stoeger has steadied his defence into their best form for more than a calendar year, and it no longer looks like the area that is sure to let Dortmund down at the end of the season when the games and moments are bigger.
Struggling German Internationals Finding Form?
If one was to create a squad of the most exciting young talents in the German national team in 2013, few would have argued with the inclusion of Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle. The former was yet to move to Bayern Munich, and his creativity was a driving force behind both the Dortmund and German squads of the time. Schurrle himself was essentially a younger version of what he is now: a quick, talented player with the ability to play all over the midfield and attack, but without the specialised skills to make one of those positions his own. Both were considered ascendent players in Europe, and keys to the future of the German national team.
However, neither have quite been able to continue on the path they were on at the time, with Gotze becoming a constant presence in the training room after a solid first season in Bavaria, and Schurrle seeming to flatline in his progression since the age of 22. And yet, both have begun to show glimpses of their former potential in recent matches, with Gotze coming on to score a last-minute goal against Hamburg. His fight to return to full fitness amid his digestive issues and nagging injuries is ongoing, but his movement has improved massively from when he first returned this season. Schurrle has been given time all over the attacking front and next to Shinji Kagawa in midfield, blurring the lines between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 in the process. Both players came to Dortmund (or returned, in Gotze’s case) to try and recapture the excitement of their early careers, and under Stoeger, they are starting to succeed in becoming important contributors to the team.
Next Stop: Second Place
The Peter Stoeger era in Dortmund was always about creating defensive stability in the team and firmly re-establishing the club as the Bundesliga’s second-best club. On the first front, Stoeger and his squad have exceeded expectations with the degree to which they have rectified those woes. On the second, there is just one club currently standing between die Schwarzgelben and league leaders Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig. Leipzig have seen their meteoric rise to the top of the German game stall a bit this season, as they have struggled to take the next step toward challenging Bayern this season, and recently had a less than pleasing transfer window, according to club hierarchy. Schalke have an exciting project brewing in Gelsenkirchen, but will likely be forced to replace some departing talent once again in the summer. The path is there for this rejuvenated Dortmund team to reassert itself as the secondary power in Germany, and at least for this season, Peter Stoeger is just the man to get them there.