Saturday, December 6, 2014

Five thoughts on Borussia Dortmund 1 Hoffenheim 0

Borussia Dortmund climbed out of the relegation zone after getting a much-needed victory over Hoffenheim. Here are five thoughts on the match.

Dortmund finally play with their first-choice back four

Piszczek. Hummels. Subotic. Schmelzer. It was surreal looking at BVB’s team sheet with those four names. Dortmund’s narrative has been dominated by injuries for the past year and a half. Most observers have just become accustomed to the team playing without regular starters. It took me a good 15 minutes to adjust to the fact that these four were actually playing together again. After all, it was the first time in 72 competitive games since the Champions League final in 2013 that BVB had their first-choice back four playing together.

The result was a long overdue clean sheet in the Bundesliga. One could argue that it was easy to defend against a very poor Hoffenheim. Then again, Dortmund have conceded the most atrocious of goals against opponents much worse than the visitors. In their current predicament, any clean sheet is a positive. Leading from the front (or should that be from the back) was captain Mats Hummels. Other than a misdirected header that gave Sven Schipplock an early chance, Hummels was imperious. He won eight aerial duels including one outstanding clearance to deny Sebastian Rudy’s cute free kick. His assuredness gradually transferred confidence to the rest of the defence, with Neven Subotic having his best game in a long time. A semblance of solidity retained, the back four started to press and pass, reminding us of Jurgen Klopp’s men at their best. If Dortmund are to revive their season, then it’s clear that they need their starting defensive quartet to be fit for most of the campaign.

Bender and Gundogan’s dynamism drives Dortmund’s midfield

It wasn’t just BVB's defence that was decimated. They have waited very patiently for Ilkay Gundogan to return from injury after missing the whole of last season. To compound their woes, Sven Bender has also missed small chunks due to injury. Having recently returned, it took the duo a few games to get back to their peak. Against Hoffenheim, both looked close to their best.

Bender must have crossed every inch of grass on the pitch, combining his tackles with small passes to transition the team from defence to attack. Meanwhile, Gundogan was relentless in his pressing and was at the heart of most things good in Dortmund’s attack. Gundogan is a rare breed of midfielder. Comfortable driving through the centre with the ball at his feet, Gundogan is also capable switching play with his excellent passing. His passes found wide outlets on a consistent basis and the timing of his run into the box for the match-winning goal was exquisite. Fans of Die Schwarzgelben will hope their midfield stalwarts will only get better with more matches under their belt.

Firmino and Volland continue to disappoint in big games

Hoffenheim were one of the success stories in the early part of the Bundesliga season. In large part that was down to the attacking prowess of Roberto Firmino and Kevin Volland. On the basis of their form, Firmino and Volland even managed to make their international debuts for Brazil and Germany respectively. In the past month though, both have gone off the boil. The most concerning aspect for Hoffenheim is that they have gone missing against the toughest opponents. No goals, assists or key passes against any of Gladbach, Bayern or Dortmund. This suggests the duo still need to improve a few aspects of their game to justify the hype associated with them.

Aubameyang shines while Ramos struggles

In the absence of Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is expected to take on the burden of leading Dortmund’s attack. The Gabonese speedster is relishing his second season in Gelsenkirchen and it is showing in his play. One of the few successes in his team’s inconsistent start to the season, Aubameyang had another fantastic outing. He assisted the match winning goal and only a combination of marginal offside decisions and Oliver Baumann kept him from getting on the scoresheet.

Meanwhile Adrian Ramos had another tough day. The Colombian worked diligently for the team, but was unable to make a decisive difference in the final third. Ramos struggled to make the right runs into the box, and his attempts at finishing or crossing were often scuffed. Dortmund fans will always back a player who works tirelessly, but everyone at the club will be expecting a better second half of the season for Ramos.

Dortmund should kick on while Hoffenheim slide

One swallow doesn’t make a summer. Dortmund should avoid talking about a revival. Still, the victory marks two consecutive home wins in the Bundesliga for the first time this season. As far as building blocks go its not much, but with many players returning to the first team and a kind fixture list till the winter break, Dortmund should at least move closer to the top ten. On the evidence of this match, only one team looked like they could contend for a Champions League spot. Despite their horrible start, Dortmund are only six points behind Hoffenheim and sooner or later they will overtake them if they manage a winning run.

Hoffenheim have gone off the rails since losing 3–1 to Borussia Monchengladbach. They have lost four of their last five games, their only win being a fortuitous 4–3 over Hannover last weekend. A negative goal difference suggests where their problems lie, but an appalling record against the big teams suggests they are also lacking in mental strength and belief. Hoffenheim are still only a point off fourth, but it’s hard to shake of the feeling that the team are on a slide. With the attacking talents in the team, they should be able to beat teams in the lower half of the Bundesliga, but manager Markus Gisdol has to convince his team to adopt a stronger work rate to ensure a promising start to the season isn’t squandered.

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