Introduction – Much to play for
This weekend served up some interesting match ups. With three match days remaining after tomorrow, the proverbial fire lit up even hotter under teams racing to stay up and those hoping to catch their desired European spot.
Dortmund were in a position to clinch the title with a win against bottom dwelling Gladbach, provided Leverkusen fail to win against Hoffenheim. Leverkusen’s loss to Bayern last week put Dortmund in a pole position to wrap up the title early and some 4000 eager supporters made the journey to Gladbach anticipating a potential championship celebration.
Gladbach have improved since Favre took over in February but are still up against it and need to get points out of each of their remaining games if they are to stay up. They were unlucky to lose to a late goal Mainz goal last week and against Dortmund they were missing influential defender Dante to boot. Suffice to say, Favre and his men face an unprecedented task if they want to stay up. No team has yet managed to avoid relegation with the points total Gladbach collected in the Hinrunde.
Game won and lost in midfield
It was an atypical performance from Klopp’s men and a massive win for Gladbach who pulled out of last place for the first time since November. Idrissou scored the winner on 35 minutes but the real star was 23-year-old central midfielder Roman Neustädter who alongside 20-year-old Havard Nordtweit and a never tiring Marco Reus helped hold off Dortmund’s usually dominant midfield very effectively.
Neustädter was Gladbach’s busiest man and completed a team high 42 passes. He also had the most successful tackles (5) and won the ball more than any other player on the pitch (14). Credit also goes to Gladbach’s defenders, who were very busy against Dortmund. Together they applied the necessary pressure to disrupt Dortmund’s natural game. They forced enough giveaways and turnovers to unsettle Dortmund and never allow them to get into their usual rhythm.
Gladbach’s other midfield players also did their job well. Hermann was instructed to push up more than Arango on the other side to check Schmelzer’s forward runs, effectively cutting off a majority of Dortmund’s width. Reus was also deployed almost as a third central midfielder, always dropping off and checking Bender and da Silva. That made it difficult for Dortmund to track or mark him. Reus’s movement is one of his strengths and Dortmund had a difficult time trying to contain him.
It must also be said that Dortmund were missing arguably their most important player in Nuri Sahin, who was ruled out for the season after an injury last week against Freiburg. His replacement da Silva had a poor showing and it can be argued that it played a big role in their loss. The Brazilian made 23 incomplete passes and lost the ball a total of 25 times. One of those giveaways was the pass that led directly to Gladbach’s winning goal. Dortmund’s game relies heavily on Sahin’s distribution and control. He calms and edits the flow of the game and essentially makes it possible for Dortmund to play the way they do.
As a result, when Sahin underperforms it can have a domino effect on the rest of the team. That effect was magnified today in his absence. Da Silva’s poor performance affected the performance of those around him and explains why Götze, who relies heavily on the service behind him, lost the ball so often (27 times) and why their wide players, Blaszczykowski and Grosskreutz, usually so involved, failed to impose themselves on the game. Compared to Gladbach, who held their shape well, Dortmund was rather ill disciplined positionally and seemed more erratic than usual. The same effect was felt defensively for Dortmund, as we will soon see.
Defensive role reversal
This game featured the league’s worst defense against the best. Gladbach’s Achilles heel has been their woeful defending throughout the year while Dortmund are on course to break the league record for least amount of goals conceded in a season. Favre has improved Gladbach’s weak spot significantly but coming up against an aggressive dynamic side like Dortmund is never easy. So how did Gladbach fare?
Normally Hummels and Subotic behind Sahin and Bender provide the foundation and back bone of this Dortmund team. Against Gladbach the center backs were uncharacteristically nervy and off their game. Why was this the case and are they to blame or did Sahin’s absence cut deeper than expected?
The key here is to look at the link up play between defense and midfield, normally Dortmund’s strong point and explanation for their defensive solidity. The interplay between Hummels, Subotic and Bender and Sahin allows Dortmund to dictate the tempo and flow of games by maintaining possession in important areas of the pitch. The chemistry between the four also provides cover to deep lying playmakers like Hummels and Sahin. Da Silva put unnecessary pressure on his defense by failing to distribute the ball evenly amongst the team. The bulk of his passes (36) went to his defenders while only 30 went to the attackers. The discrepancy may not seem large enough but it was da Silva’s job to be the primary outlet for the attack from deep, the role Sahin usually plays.
On Gladbach’s end, Stranzl continued his string of good performances since coming to Germany in January and Brouwers filled in well for the absent Dante. The pair gave the ball away only a combined 14 times compared to Hummels and Subotic’s 27. Stranzl and Brouwers were also amongst their team’s best passers, having a passing completion % of 85 and 86 respectively. Only Jantschke and Neustüadter were involved in more plays than the Austrian defender.
Rumors have recently been floating around that Real Madrid are pursuing Sahin and that it may very well be last season in Germany for the young player. Those rumors have also been fueled by Dortmund’s supposed interest in Nürnberg’s Ilkay Gündogan as a potential replacement. While Dortmund’s successful season has indeed been down to a team effort rather than an individual, the Gladbach game does indicate the influence and value Sahin holds to this team. Most are expecting Dortmund to rebound next week and make the title talks a formality but it will be interesting to see how they will finish the season without such an influential player.
Gladbach on the other hand have thrown the relegation race wide open with their win. Favre has now won 4 of Gladbach’s last 5 home wins, an amazing turnaround considering they lost 9 there already this season. Momentum now appears to be on their side while added pressure has been put on the likes of St. Pauli, Wolfsburg and Frankfurt. If Gladbach stay up it may very well be the greatest escape in recent football memory.
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