Borussia Dortmund drew their second match in as many attempts in 2018, sharing the points in a 1-1 at Hertha BSC on Friday evening. Shinji Kagawa scored the team’s only goal, but the second-half performance whet the appetite for the rest of the season.
Lineup: Bürki; Piszczek, Sokratis, Toprak, Toljan; Weigl, Kagawa, Götze; Pulisic, Schürrle, Sancho.
With the news of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s omission from the squad coming down on Thursday, there was little suspense as to whom head coach Peter Stöger would select for this tricky away fixture.
The Austrian ended up making two changes from the Wolfsburg match with Christian Pulisic and Andre Schürrle replacing Andrey Yarmolenko and Alexander Isak in the front three.
Dortmund’s improving health situation was reflected in their matchday squad, as fit players such as Marc Bartra, Neven Subotic or Mahmoud Dahoud failed to make the 18-man cutdown.
The game developed in expectable fashion. Hertha are notoriously stingy against better sides and followed a simple yet effective game plan that centred around man-orientations in key areas. Nominal No. 10 Ondrej Duda took care of Julian Weigl at the base of Dortmund’s midfield, while two other engines, Arne Meier and Per Skjelbred, limited Mario Götze and Shinji Kagawa’s influence on the game.
As a logical consequence, the game was slow and, frankly, boring. The visitors had more of the ball but players in possession had few if any options to bring it forward into dangerous areas.
A lack of movement to free up men in midfield lead to a stalemate that Dortmund only occasionaly threatened to break open on their left wing, where Jeremy Toljan’s athleticism caused some issues in combination with Jadon Sancho’s trickery.
Apart from a harmless Kagawa header for Dortmund and one from Niklas Stark for Hertha following a corner, the first half didn’t see any scoring chances.
That would change seconds into the second period, when one moment of brilliant combination play by Hertha and a hard-to-explain lapse of Sokratis Papastathopoulos gave the hosts a surprising lead.
Duda had broken free with a simple one-two on Dortmund’s left and played a nice ball across the face of goal towards Davie Selke, who finished against the moving direction of Roman Bürki in goal, the Swiss only getting a light touch on the ball with his foot.
However, it was Sokratis’ horrendous positioning that made the goal possible, as it should never have reached the former Leipzig striker roughly 40 seconds into the second half.
The goal helped open up the game, as did a tactical switch by Stöger. He ordered Kagawa back to help out in the buildup, forcing Hertha to either let one of the now two central midfielders open or committing more men higher up the field. More often than not, they allowed the Japanese or Weigl more space, which lead to better ball movement and ball retention for the Black and Yellows.
Going with what may perhaps best be described as a 4-2-4 formation, Stöger’s switch also made Dortmund harder to figure out in the front line, as their attackers now moved about more freely. Schürrle, who had hardly seen a ball as the No. 9 in the first half, looked much more lively right away.
Chances followed, with a strong individual effort by Pulisic forcing a first good save out of Hertha’s replacement goalkeeper, Thomas Kraft. Kagawa had a good opportunity in the 59th minute, failing to connect fully with a Toljan cutback from the left, however.
Dortmund were close to scoring a deserved equaliser when they were saved by a Hertha man, incidentally. Solomon Kalou had benefitted by another Sokratis positioning error and beaten Bürki, his shot rolling towards the goal — whether it had gone in or wide or Ömer Toprak would have been able to clear it off the line, we will never know — but Duda felt the need to give it a nudge into the net from a clear offside position.
Following that let off, Stöger brought on Isak for Götze, with Schürrle dropping a bit deeper. Now with a real focal point up front in person of the tall and technically strong Swede, Dortmund’s attacks had even more purpose.
It finally came off after 71 minutes, when Sancho broke through on the left. The 17-year-old remained alert after an initial ball was blocked, opting to pick it up instead of allowing it to go over the line for a corner. The Englishman looked up, peered into the middle and saw Kagawa all by himself. A delicate cross and a simple header later, Dortmund were level.
Sancho could have crowned another strong performance with a goal himself but dragged a curled shot wide in the 82nd minute, while Kraft dealt with a thumping effort from Toljan three minutes later. Isak rattled the crossbar with a strong shot from close range, but his goal would not have counted because of a foul by substitute winger Yarmolenko in the middle.
Clearly, Dortmund would have deserved the second goal and likely win thanks to their late charge and it seemed they would have received a golden opportunity to score in the dying moments of stoppage time. Yarmolenko was held with both arms by Fabian Lustenberger, who actually lifted the Ukrainian off the ground as he attempted to get on the end of a cross.
Inexplicably, referee Christian Dingert did not blow the whistle despite standing in the perfect position to observe the situation and, even more baffling, the video assistant referee did not intervene either.
While Dortmund of course still would have needed to put the blatant penalty away, it’s entirely fair to say they were denied a golden chance to score a deserved winner. Coupled with the equally remarkable non-decision for Lukasz Piszczek at Freiburg in the Hinrunde, that’s now two times this season VAR has failed them — for all the jokes we have made about VAR being Dortmund’s best summer acquisition so far.
Even though two points from the first two matches of 2018 against middling opposition are far from ideal, there are important positives to take away from these games. The development of Sancho and Isak, for starters, is incredibly encouraging.
So is the fact that Stöger was able to identify a weakness and make correct adjustments without changing personnel to turn Hertha’s strength into a problem.
However, the Aubameyang sideshow will continue to hover over the team, especially given the fact that Dortmund could and maybe should have won both games given the chances they created. Whoever leads their line from February 1 will be expected to decide these matches in their favour.