Borussia Dortmund may not have played particularly well, but in the hunt for a UEFA Champions League spot, results trump performances. In that regard, a 2-0 home win over second-to-last Hamburg could prove vital.
Lineup: Bürki; Piszczek, Akanji, Toprak, Toljan; Weigl, Kagawa, Reus; Pulisic, Batshuayi, Schürrle.
The big news before the game was he return of Marco Reus. Given head coach Peter Stöger had sounded somewhat sceptical over the availability of his No. 11 in Thursday’s news conference, Reus’ immediate return to the starting XI came as a bit of a shock. His season debut came in an unusual role, with Reus playing in a more central role, almost as a No. 10 to Shinji Kagawa’s deeper No. 8.
Elsewhere, winter signing Manuel Akanji made his full debut, replacing Sokratis Papastathopoulos. It was a move that wasn’t necessarily surprising given the Swiss defender is not eligible to play in Thursday’s UEFA Europa League match against Atalanta.
The game developed as one would have predicted. Hamburg left most of the ball to the hosts, sitting comfortably in a deep block that Dortmund struggled to break down with any kind of regularity.
As has been the case many times over the last few weeks and months, the Black and Yellows looked labored in the buildup phase, with attacking players offering few pass-receiving options to helpless defenders, who often had to recycle the ball in a small area of the pitch. Reus was the only attacker whose movement caused some problems.
Hamburg were the more dangerous side without creating a single real scoring opportunity, while Dortmund failed to register even half-chances.
The Ruhr side got off to a perfect start in the second period. Hamburg for once committing a few men forward, Reus found Christian Pulisic in the box. The young American played a ball towards the far post — it’s anyone’s guess whether he can claim it was a pass or it was more of a wayward shot. There, loan signing Michy Batshuayi was all by himself and finished off from a couple of yards out.
New HSV coach Bernd Hollerbach reacted with a double change, bringing on set-piece specialist Sejad Salihovic and wonderkid striker Jann-Fiete Arp. The latter slashed a shot wide in the 62nd minute, raising the curtain on the most wide-open part of the match.
Only a minute later, Dortmund could have doubled their lead through Pulisic, who pushed a ball from Mahmoud Dahoud over the bar from close range. Dahoud had replaced Kagawa, who seemed to suffer a non-contact ankle injury.
He and Pulisic again came close to perhaps killing the game earlier for Dortmund in the 75th minute, but the USMNT standout was unable to get on the end of a Dahoud ball across the face of goal after some fancy footwork in the box.
In the meantime, Reus’ debut ended after 70 solid minutes. Most importantly, he held up well physically and didn’t suffer any setbacks. Mario Götze came on for his close friend, interestingly playing as a counter striker with Hamburg increasing risks looking for an equaliser.
The visitors were unable to convert more possession in actual danger on goal, often failing with the second-to-last pass. Credit is due, though, to Dortmund’s defence. While not necessarily playing the most solid game tactically, the likes of Ömer Toprak and Akanji excelled in what Germans call “Restverteidigung,” e.g. clearing crosses, winning the final duel in the box and so on.
With that in mind, Hamburg’s hopes probably rested on a set piece, which never really came about. Almost logically, Dortmund finally played a counter to a fruitful finish in stoppage time.
Batshuayi held up the ball in the middle of the park, something he did well for large portions of the game, until Schürrle broke through on the left. He found Götze with a delicate through ball and the substitute chipped Christian Mathenia with a sublime finish — the first time the two FIFA World Cup heroes combined for a goal in Dortmund colours.
Sometimes all is well that ends well. Performance-wise, this was another underwhelming game from Dortmund, who again struggled to control a game against inferior opposition. The Black and Yellows are still not able to play cohesively for 90 minutes, which is a concern with the number of difficult fixtures ahead of them. Learning about the extent of Kagawa’s injury will be huge.
Reus’ solid debut is reason for hope, as is the continued improvement of players such as Toprak or Schürrle.
Yellow Wall Game Ball: Ömer Toprak
With no attacking players distinguishing themselves too much, the award goes to Ömer Toprak, who put together a fairly majestic performance. In a team that can be hectic at times, the Turkey international is a calm anchor to look to. Toprak also continues to improve as a passer with more and more confidence.