November 19, 2017

Schlechte Woche: Bundesliga Clubs Go 0-3 in Europe This Week

This Easter Holy Week quickly became a week forget for all three Bundesliga clubs playing in Europe. In chronological order, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, and Schalke 04 all lost. Results-wise, it was a week of UEFA coefficient suicide for the three Bundesliga sides, who all have big holes to escape. However, these results almost seem insignificant after the Tuesday bombing in Dortmund. This terrorizing event and the match being played under 24 hours are is story of the midweek.

Borussia Dortmund 2-3 AS Monaco

I’m still stunned this match was played less than 24 hours after Dortmund’s bus was bombed. UEFA’s decision to reschedule the match so soon after the terror reflected, at best psychologically naïve logic, or at worst, plain and simple callousness. I’ll give Europe’s football governing body the benefit of the doubt and go with the former option here. I should also clarify that it’s somewhat unclear what role Dortmund’s leadership played in this decision. Regardless, those directly affected by the attack, the players and coaching staff, became passive agents in the decision, as Thomas Tuchel explained in his press conference after the match: “We were informed by text message that UEFA would decide in Switzerland. That didn’t feel good to be honest. To decide things in Switzerland, things we were directly involved with and affect us, that feeling is stuck with us and doesn’t feel good. Within minutes of the blast, the question was one whether we could still play.” Let’s pause right here. Regardless of the debate we can have around the decision-making logic to still play the match, the fact that this possibility was even a decision at all is telling. Immediately, it’s pretty obvious that a large gap existed between the UEFA folks being contacted remotely and the BVB players and staff on the ground. This gap was not just an informational gap, but was also psychological and emotional. Tuchel’s next press conference comment was revealing: “We felt we were being treated as if a beer can had thrown at our bus. … Overall, it made us feel powerless.” Powerless. I bet.

Obviously, the blast wasn’t “beer can” level stuff. It was an attempt to kill, maim, and terrorize the BVB players and coaches. Basically, an attempt on their lives. It’s no wonder that the match’s real highlight was Nuri Sahin’s devastatingly tragic post-match interview of a man who’s life threatened only a day before (Tuchel’s press conference begins a couple minutes into this video):

“I can’t forget the faces,” Sahin explains. He won’t. And let’s be honest, this event has the potential to torpedo the rest of BVB’s season. I don’t say this to lament any lost trophies; I say it to underscore the fact that even without death or large-scale physical injuries, terror is psychologically devastating. This attack robs some of the life out of the players and coaches, at least for the time being. BVB might not be the same team on the pitch this season. Terror traumatizes. No matter how stridently Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke tried to rally the team, his players were and are in a post-traumic state. And who knows for how long.

Which means anything I say about the match itself is probably unreal. I mean, the 11 BVBers on the pitch both played and didn’t play the match. Under normal circumstances, these two BVB-Monaco matches could have been the best of the round, but now they are marked with a big tragic asterisk. Of course, AS Monaco went up 2-0 after an offside Kylian Mbappe goal was allowed — honestly, it was the kind of offside scenario that’s gotta be difficult to spot — and a Sven Bender own goal, which I don’t particularly blame Bender for, given that his leap after the ball was probably instinctual. After halftime, both Nuri Sahin and Christian Pulisic came on, and BVB look much better in attack. So it wasn’t surprising when Shinji Kagawa assisted Ousmane Dembélé on a relatively dazzling goal sequence. At this point, a BVB goal just felt inevitable. However, the match’s real key moment occurred when Lukasz Piszczek lost the ball, leading directly to Mbappe’s 2nd goal — which, admittedly, was lovely and powerful. However, only 5 minutes later, Sahin assisted Kagawa for BVB’s 2nd goal in a sequence that saw some dazzling dribbling from the Japanese international.

However, I had a hard time watching this match. Watching my team, whose lives had been threatened just the day before, was a numbing experience. I didn’t feel much, except when Kagawa scored his goal. Otherwise, my own viewing was haunted by Tuesday’s terror. Anyhow, at the final whistle, BVB outshot Monaco 16-7 and out-possessed the French side 69%-31%. Honestly, under normal circumstances I have to think that BVB is the superior team in this pairing, and has a chance to pull off the upset in Monaco. But terror lingers — in the heart and head. Who knows what happens in the return leg next week.

Bayern Munich 1-2 Real Madrid

I don’t like the “Tale of Two Halves” cliché, but I’m not sure how else to frame this match of polarity. Not only that, but it was a tale of two Arturo Vidals — all in the same half. The Chiliean scored on a bulleted-in header at 25,’ capping off a dominating start of the match for Bayern. However, 20 minutes later Vidal missed a penalty — horribly — as Bayern finished the half flatly, leading 1-0.Vidal also had another header just miss in the first half. Already, it felt like momentum had shifted to Real Madrid. Bayern will rue this first half, since, despite Robert Lewandowski being out with injury, Bayern mostly had its way with Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane’s defensive plan of giving Bayern lots of midfield space seemed crude and doomed; Vidal’s header seemed well-earned for Bayern. Moreover, Thiago was superb in his ball distributing, and it seemed only like a matter of time before Robben would escape his markers on one of his trademark cut-ins.

During the first half, Bayern looked like Europe’s best team; however, during the second half, it was Real Madrid’s turn to stake this claim. The Spaniards scored twice (CR7, sigh), as Bayern went down to 10 men (Javi Martinez earned the red card at 60′). Minus a man, and minus Lewandowski, Bayern played a dreadful 2nd half with Manual Neuer earning his crown as the world’s best goal keeper. The major Neuer highlight was the keeper stopping cold — with his immobile forearm! — CR7’s shot from 8 yard out. Without Neuer, this score would have been very different (1-4?). The 2nd half was that disastrous for Bayern.

Although Martinez’s red card was harsh, the defender made the kind of risky slide tackle that basically grants the referee discretion for pulling out a red card. With Martinez out, Bayern spent the rest of the match defending. Or trying to defend. Repeatedly, RM’s attacking flooded the final 3rd. Indeed, the Spanish side made more passes than Bayern in the midfield and in the final 3rd. Folks, this never happens. Never. In the final reckoning, Bayern only possessed 48% of the ball and was out-shot 13-23. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen to Bayern. Week in-and-out in the Bundesliga, or the Champions League for that matter, we see Bayern own matches by not conceding possession and creating shots routinely to mete out the “Bayern Treatment.” Thus, juxtaposing Bayern’s usual state of affairs with this match’s 2nd half is just astonishing. Of course, having a player sent off can ruin anyone; however, between minutes 44 and 64, Bayern didn’t create a single shot. In fact, for the entire match, Bayern only had 3 (!) shots on target.

Seeing a football team play so brilliantly, then for a match’s remainder play so abjectly is a phenomenon that still astonishes me. Going back to last weekend’s der Klassiker, by halftime on Wednesday, Bayern had played 135 minutes of invincible football. What’s remarkable about football is just how quickly invincibility can be transformed into vulnerability. For Bayern, the transformation seemed almost instantaneous. In this sense, Martinez’s red card was merely a stop along the way — a symptom of a larger problem. Given that most teams don’t win the trophies, I suppose that just about everyone has these single moments that unravel a season, and for Bayern, it certainly appears as if the club’s 2016-17 UCL campaign is unraveled. Of course, the Bavarians are only down a goal, but with Martinez’s suspension and Boateng’s reintroduction after a long injury layoff, Bayern’s defense is suddenly very vulnerable as the return leg at the Bernabeu looms next week.

Ajax Amsterdam 2-0 Schalke 04

Schalke never showed up for this match. A doppelpack by Ajax captain Davy Klaasen provided the scoreline and his teammates provided the rest. Simply put, the Dutch generated more offense, creating 19 shots (12 on target) to S04’s 7 shots (2 on target). Although the possession rates were nearly dead equal, Ajax played smoothly, linking together a network of teammates in purposeful ball movement, which always seemed angled just so in exposing little creases and alleyways through the Schalke defense. On the whole, Ajax’s right flank was strong in carrying out this build up play.

As for Schalke, it wasn’t as if the Germans were absentees in attack. Indeed, S04 frequently moved the ball passed the halfway line, but achieved little more than a pass or two in the final 3rd. In particular, Max Meyer, Guido Burgstaller, and Alessandro Schöpf were poor in Ajax’s half of the pitch; these three players were dispossessed 11 times between themselves (9 of which occurred in Ajax’s half of the pitch). Schalke’s attack was so fallow that the first shot attempt didn’t occur until 45′ (!). Humorously, when Schalke began created more shot attempts in the 2nd half, Ajax nearly doubled its own shot output. Really, this result wasn’t ever in question.

This match reminded me of the approximate 2010-13 time period in which Bundesliga sides, especially in Europa League road matches, were passive and flat failures. In this regard, Schalke’s performance was vintage Bundesliga abroad failure. It’s especially disappointing to see a Bundesliga side this deep in the Europa League lay a rotten egg. I know that Schalke have had an abyssal domestic season, but the Europa League had been different so far. In this competition, S04 had looked like last season’s iteration of the squad — not the confused and horribly inconsistent work-in-progress we’ve watched this season. On Thursday, it was as if Schalke had caught up with itself. That is, the S04 who’s stumbled in the Bundesliga finally superseded the Schalke abroad, who’d been a bit of a fantasy version of the club so far.

However, because Schalke has been so inconsistent, there’s a glimmer of hope that big bad S04 will turn up for the return at Veltins Arena. And during a Janus-faced season in Gelsenkirchen, wouldn’t this result just be perfect?

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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