Borussia Dortmund came back twice in Donetsk to salvage a draw in their first leg against Shakhtar. Robert Lewandowski canceled out Dario Srna’s brilliant free kick before substitute Douglas Costa restored Shakhtar’s lead again in the second half. Three minutes from time though, Mats Hummels made up for his earlier error and secured what will be a huge result going into their second leg three weeks from now.
With Shakhtar having lost at home only once this season, the end result is a terrific one for Jürgen Klopp and his team, but they will need to rectify some finer elements of their game to ensure they take advantage of their two away goals in the second leg.
Klopp compensated well for Gündogan’s absence
When Gündogan was officially ruled out of the match due to recurring toe injuries, there were questions about how they would cope without their midfield metronome. Gündogan has been crucial in their Champions League campaign so far this season and added an element of retention and ability in tight spaces that has really benefitted the team in Europe this year.
Bender and Kehl, while both are quality players, don’t offer the same retentive or technical qualities. At times during the game Dortmund struggled to keep the ball and move it forward effectively but because Shakhtar approached the game with a heavy element of physicality and tended to direct a lot of their play out wide, Gündogan’s absence was not as consequential.
Their strength through the middle is in fact what pushed Shakhtar back for much of the match. Dortmund won almost 53% of the duels and Bender and Kehl alone won 31 against Shakhtar. Kehl especially led by example. The captain won nearly 70% of his challenges and was the perfect screener whenever Shakhtar looked to break forward.
Dortmund’s “Gegenpressing” and opening of spaces
It’s never easy to play in frigid conditions such as those in Donetsk so Dortmund’s performance was very impressive all things considered. As Klopp said going into the match, there was no shortage of motivation for his players and they proved that throughout the game. What continues to be so impressive about Klopp’s Dortmund is their work off the ball, or “gegenpressing” as he calls it. For all the talk about their incredible stamina and distance covered statistics, it’s their clever pressing of spaces that is the real secret to their success.
One of Shakhtar’s biggest problems in this game was getting out of their own half or moving the ball forward as they did so admirably in the group stages, which is also what led to Lucescu adjusting, as we’ll see later on. Klopp insists on his front four to be the first line of defense and Lewandowski, Reus and Götze’s pressure continually disrupted Shakhtar’s build up. Fernandinho, usually so good in possession, struggled to find his teammates and the center-backs spent more time clearing the ball more than they did distributing it.
Dortmund’s impatience still a great vulnerability
Despite Dortmund doing so many things right there are still elements that can be improved as they progress as a team. Watching the game in the second half it was easy to ascertain which team was playing its first knockout match in the competition in years and which had been there before. Dortmund’s impatient game did not serve them well against a more experienced Shakhtar. They created enough chances to score (they actually outshot their opponents 18 to 8) but they rushed nearly every attack and that played part in their profligacy.
Whether or not direct instructions from Klopp, Dortmund’s game can at times be too direct and cause a defensive ripple effect on the rest of the team. Their right side was particularly vulnerable and that’s where Shakhtar was the most threatening with Taison. Piszczek admittedly played through pain and might still require surgery but Kuba in front of him was too wasteful in possession and compromised his team’s positioning as a result.
It’s because of his almost reckless abandon that Shakhtar continually found their way back into the match no matter how much pressure Dortmund applied. As admirable as Dortmund’s spirit is at times, the best form of defense is not always attack, especially not in a competition like the Champions League.
Lucescu one-ups Klopp and exposes defensive lapses
Despite Lucescu saying his team would be ready after a long time off from competitive football it was clear that his players would not be able to keep up with Dortmund’s running. Instead, Lucescu cleverly instructed Shakhtar to try and slow the game down, absorb their pressure and take advantage of Dortmund’s high back line with long balls out of their own half.
With Douglas Costa, Lucescu brought on a fresh pair of legs with the pace to trouble Dortmund’s erratic center-backs and their second goal was very much the end product of that. Hummels failed to clear a long ball that seemingly came out of nowhere and Costa finished brilliantly. It was the third time in a row that Dortmund have conceded at least two goals. Fortunately for Dortmund, Subotic will be back and ready to start in three weeks time and his partnership with Hummels is a much more complimentary one.
That said, Lucescu wasn’t the first to test Dortmund’s sometime frail defense and he won’t be the last but both goals will give the team plenty of reason to think they can still progress to the quarterfinals.
Dortmund are still unbeaten against Ukrainian opposition and their home record this season (9 wins, 2 draws, 3 losses) should still be good enough to progress to the quarterfinals, but the game still very much hangs in the balance. Shakhtar will no doubt be more match fit by the time the second leg arrives than they were in this game with their season resuming beforehand, and Lucescu’s team is set up perfectly do counter Dortmund’s high tempo style.
Thanks to his players ingenuity, work ethic and Hummels’ brilliant late leveler, Klopp passed the first stage of his test but the biggest challenge is yet to come in three weeks time.
Header courtesy of dpa