Bundesliga MD 11 Preview: Bayern against Dortmund
“It’s a contest of equals, it’s the German Clásico”, Manuel Neuer said on Wednesday evening. The “Klassiker”. Of course. At the end of the day, it is all part of the deal. This has been Germany’s biggest football rivalry of the last decades and whenever it is on, they do not fail to remind you of that.
Yet, all the hubbub has become a bit stale in recent years. The highlights the game regularly got up to during the days of Klopp and Heynckes are but a distant memory. Much of the flair that is still surrounding the game is an afterglow of the past.
A stunner. This seems a particularly fitting label for the match because it contains the adjective “stunning”, whose double meaning of “spectacular” and “dazing” encapsulates perfectly the most recent history of the game: it has been a stunning performance in both senses of the word.
Maybe it is not just the fact that any hype, even the longest one, will ultimately start to subside. Football will always electrify the masses and it thrives on its endless supply of old and new stories. But this particular story of the Bayern vs. Dortmund rivalry has become a bit predictable and boring. One reason for this is that both Carlo Ancelotti and Niko Kovač had little to say before the fixture when they were at the helm. Another one is that the Jupp Heynckes story has been squeezed dry, it has been told so often.
Dortmund, on the other hand, entered a period of orientation after the end of the era of Jürgen Klopp which has continued to this day. The club and the fans never quite got over him, as Dortmund expert Jan-Henrik Gruszecki told us in our podcast. Thomas Tuchel was successful too, but he had a difficult personality and people found it hard to relate to him. Nevertheless, the stunners under his reign tactically and in terms of spectacle still were some of the better ones in recent times. The following editions under Peter Bosz, Peter Stöger, and now Lucien Favre are well known.
And yet, Dortmund seemed to be on a good path under Lucien Favre. During his first six months in charge, the only direction for the team was up. Nine points clear of a struggling Bayern side, a thrilling (if not stunning) game in the “Westfalenstadion” (3-2) and the hope that they could take the final step at last. But the second half of the season demonstrated to the club that there were still several pieces missing to the puzzle.
Dortmund’s last performance at Bayern alone was enough to show that mentally especially there was still a considerable way to go for Dortmund to be considered a challenger among the top teams. “You and your mentality bollocks!”, Marco Reus stated a few weeks ago, clearly irritated with the public discussion about Dortmund’s lack of desire and character that had been going on at the time. Only a few words, but they have had a lasting effect on the perception of Dortmund this season.
But this discussion is not entirely unwarranted. Dortmund’s last performances at Bayern were often overly cautious, hesitant, passive, and reactive. They seemed to do their utmost to live up to their outsider image.
The people in charge at Dortmund made the impression in the summer that they had realised this too. They did not leave a doubt about their goal for the new season: winning the championship. Hans-Joachim Watzke in particular was not shy to go on the offensive. Only Lucien Favre seemed not to be entirely happy with his club’s new found confidence. It seemed as if he had to be ever so gingerly pushed to fully buy into his club’s new ambitious course.
Favre’s relationship with Dortmund is supposedly strained also because he is commonly seen as being lethargic and unemotional as a person to an extent that does not behoove a Dortmund coach. His unusually lively acting at the sidelines in recent games has been a downright emotional outbreak by his standards.
His team has been confronted with the same challenge. Their game has often been called passive and hesitant. As a matter of fact, the moments of aggressive pressing in attack in Dortmund’s game are few and far between. Usually, only two or three players at most go about disrupting the opposition’s build-up play. If these efforts do not pay off immediately, they quickly fall back to reinforce their team’s defense.
Two tight lines of four, two asymmetrical strikers – this is how Favre likes his football. Disciplined and with resolve but without aggressively pushing up at all costs. After they have gained possession, they swiftly try to advance the ball to the final third, where there is enormous individual class waiting with Marco Reus, Julian Brandt, Jadon Sancho, Thorgan Hazard, Paco Alcácer, Mario Götze and the recently very offensive Achraf Hakimi.
Despite this undoutable quality, Favre has not yet managed to enable Dortmund to release this offensive power at will. The game against Inter is a case in point. This was a real game of two halves if ever there was one. Although Dortmund was not outright poor in the first half, their sluggish pace was not enough to penetrate a defense drilled by Antonio Conte.
After they had fallen behind by two goals, they showed an entirely different face in the second half. They ramped up the pace and kept Inter’s defense in a constant state of confusion through an aggressive and dedicated pressing that allowed them several times to win the ball in extremely dangerous areas.
In the center of midfield in particular, Axel Witsel and Julian Weigl kept pushing up and closing the ranks with remarkable consequence. Dortmund generally stood higher and put Inter under considerable pressure. In this match they proved that they do not just know how to do it on paper.
Their 3-2 win after a 0-2 scoreline at half time will surely give Dortmund a boost ahead of the stunner on Saturday. If they are able to deliver a performance like that of the second half against Inter again, every opponent will find it hard to withstand their offensive power. In theory, Bayern should be able to do this. But word should have got round even to such remote quarters as Dortmund that not every outing to the Allianz Arena has to end in a five goal drubbing. Quite the contrary. This time, Dortmund has a chance to really hurt Bayern.
Saturday’s game will reveal how much Dortmund has been able to learn from last season’s 5-0 shellacking at the same place. Mats Hummels, still a Bayern player at the time, clearly stated last season’s difference: Bayern was positive going into the game that there could only be one winner: them. Dortmund, in contrast, seemed to be impressed by this confidence and appeared to accept the inevitable almost before a minute of the game had been played.
If Dortmund means to step out of the shadow of the oh-so almighty Bayern, they need to become aware of, and accept, their own strength and deliver a courageous performance against Bayern right from the opening whistle. The match is an ideal opportunity for Dortmund to lay down a marker and to prove to themselves that they are a legitimate contender at the highest level.
For Bayern the marching order for the game will be to leave Dortmund in no doubt from the beginning that they will leave the Allianz Arena empty handed yet again. Last time, this was greatly facilitated by a combination of luck (Dahoud had an early shot at the post) and an early set piece goal.
However, the circumstances of the game are different now than they were in the winter. If at all, they are similar to last autumn’s edition. Kovač and Bayern were going through a tough period at the time and more than a few expected them to lose the match. Ultimately, Bayern’s performance was decent but not sufficient in all departments.
It does not seem completely unjustified to expect a similar experience this time around. But Dortmund suffers from more substantial stability issues than it did about a year ago. This gives Bayern an advantage. Much will depend on how quickly interim coach Hans-Dieter Flick is able to restore his players’ winnig spirit. If Bayern manages to match Dortmund’s attitude of the second half against Inter, they should have a decent chance of winning.
It is hardly possible to analyze Flick’s Bayern after only one game and a few training sessions. Mats Hummels believes that this could be an advantage for the reigning champion, because nobody knows what Flick is planning for Saturday. But it could also be that Flick proves unable to solve his team’s deep-seated problems in time.
Flick’s initial target against Olympiacos was to re-establish the defensive stability in his side. He achieved this with an overall higher defense. Some strong moments in gegenpressing and a higher work rate against the ball gave the players more confidence. One should also keep in mind the possibility that Flick might have tried to keep his cards close to the vest with his statements and his team’s lineup ahead of the game against Olympiacos: maybe there will be surprising changes to the back four and in midfield yet.
Independent of the lineup, Bayern were very anxious to be more patient in their own passing game. Fewer sloppy turnovers and longer phases in possession are reflective of an altogether more poised performance. It was also noticeable that both full-backs’ focus was on defending first and attacking second. This decreased Bayern’s attacking prowess, but stabilized their defense.
Nevertheless, the performance against Olympiacos will hardly have released any waves of euphoria for Saturday. Joshua Kimmich was better integrated in the center than in previous weeks, but he did not harmonize as well with his teammates Leon Goretzka, Thomas Müller, Javier Martínez and David Alaba around him as it would have been necessary for a more convincing performance.
Flick was courageous in his decision to relegate Thiago and Philippe Coutinho to the bench. Both players are currently worlds away from their top form, just as many other players are as well. Maybe the coach wanted to send a signal that things could not go on like this.
Thiago especially can carry other players along with his attitude and mentality. Along with his wealth of technical and strategic abilities, a Thiago in good shape could be the difference maker on Saturday. Perhaps Flick’s decision to give him a rest allows him to reset mentally and find back to his former strength in time for the match against Dortmund. Apart from his poor form, Coutinho’s place on the bench was probably also due to his continuous use in recent weeks. The longer break certainly did him good. The 2-0 victory against Olympiacos inoculated Flick’s decisions against criticism.
No matter Bayern’s much improved stability against Olympiacos, it is also clear that a performance like that will not be enough for the stunner. Flick praised the high intensity of his team, but to trouble Dortmund they will need even more of it. A more dynamic tempo, even more aggressive pressing in the center, more depth in the game to keep Dortmund hemmed in in possession – these are the attributes that Bayern need. And they also need a little less. For example, they will need fewer of the rushed shots from distance that pose no threat at all. Eleven of the 27 shots against Piraeus came from hopeless positions. It will be a matter of pulling the plug on Dortmund’s freshly stocked up supply of self-confidence from the word go.
Inter allowed Dortmund to push them back far too easily. This gave Witsel and Weigl the space they needed to implement their game, especially in the second half. Players like Brandt, Götze and Reus manage to position themselves wisely between the lines anyway. That is why Bayern should focus on preventing them from getting a lot of touches. This can only be done by consistently defending forward and obstructing the passing lanes. Dortmund is not an easy team to defend against once they pick up speed.
Another key player at the moment is Hakimi. The right-back is extremely offensive and always manages to create moments of surprise venturing forward from the back. Alphonso Davies is certainly fast enough as a left-back to keep up with him, but is he consistently reliable enough already? Flick has to take this into account but at the same time he has to keep Dortmund busy in defense. Then they often have problems coordinating their lines. Hakimi is also much stronger on the offensive than going back.
After Bayern win the ball, they have to find the right balance between going for a fast switch of play and building up patiently. On Wednesday, it helped the team to be less hectic and not look for the risky, long vertical pass every time they had the ball. The overall deceleration of their game lent them more stability. But Dortmund will probably not give them the time to let them circulate the ball forever. So Bayern has to increase their pace, but it does not have to be “harakimi” either. Key for a conclusive performance will be that they manage to maintain their compactness in possession.
Against Olympiacos, the distances were still too big. Nevertheless, it was noticeable that the team made a greater effort to support the player in possession. Kimmich also held his position as holding midfielder more consistently than under Kovač . This led to a slightly better structure.
Flick doesn’t have much time. Above all, he will have to use the coming training sessions to restore his team’s self-confidence step by step. For the time being, tactical aspects will be a secondary concern.
But Dortmund is a team of tremendous quality. Bayern have to be prepared for that. Therefore, Flick has two big tactical task to address: Firstly, he has to make sure that there are always enough players positioned close to the ball to strengthen his team’s ball circulation and efforts in gegenpressing. And secondly, he has to further stabilise Bayern’s center in possession. Dortmund is only to keen on winning the ball there, which FC Bayern must not allow to happen.
One thing is certain: this will be a stunner that is far removed from the standards set by Klopp, Heynckes and the like. Bayern’s performances have been to “stunned” of late. It is also uncertain whether Dortmund can show the better of their two faces. However, there is still a certain excitement surrounding this particular fixture and not everything always has to be measured by the standards of a glorious past. For both teams, there is a lot at stake. Gladbach has seized the moment and threatens to secretly slip away at the top in the shadow of the two struggling would be giants. So it is high time both for Dortmund and for Bavaria to breathe new life into this (former) stunner to remind everyone of the words other meaning: something that is remarkably impressive.