Borussia Dortmund drew their third game on the spin after the winter break, with a late goal of summer signing Jeremy Toljan salvaging a point against Freiburg on Matchday 20 of the Bundesliga.
Lineup: Bürki; Piszczek, Sokratis, Toprak, Toljan; Sahin, Castro, Kagawa; Pulisic, Aubameyang, Sancho.
Head coach Peter Stöger had let the cat out of the bag on Friday, confirming wantaway striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would return to the starting XI after impressing in training during the week. The Gabonese replaced Andre Schürrle at the top of the formation, while Nuri Sahin and Gonzalo Castro came into midfield in place of Julian Weigl and Mario Götze.
Freiburg sat incredibly deep in a five-man block that was supposed to condense the pitch and force Dortmund to play around their back without any penetration going forward.
Luckily for the hosts, they broke through within nine minutes. Seventeen-year-old winger Jadon Sancho made a typical run cutting into the centre from his left side of the field, the ball spilling to Castro. The German lobbed a hopeful ball towards Lukasz Piszczek, whose shot was blocked and later ricocheted into the path of Shinji Kagawa. The Japanese finished with a nice volley, both feet in the air.
The early goal should have helped the Black and Yellows tremendously, forcing Freiburg to abandon their ultra-passive approach. However, the visitors scored with their first forray into enemy territory.
Dortmund failed to cover a run of Janik Haberer, with Toljan out of position and Sahin utterly unable to hold up athletically. Centre-backs Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Ömer Toprak were caught ball-watching a bit, allowing Freiburg’s on-form striker Nils Petersen to get on the end of a sharp ball to the first post.
The hosts suddenly looked much like they had after conceding under sacked head coach Peter Bosz, falling into an inexplicably phlegm and anxiety that pulled Freiburg right into the game. Six minutes from intermission, Roman Bürki almost conceded a slapstick goal by nearly allowing a harmless Lukas Kübler volley to cross the line.
Apart from an Aubameyang header that went slightly above the bar in the 32nd minute, Dortmund failed to create much of anything after their goal.
Götze replaced Castro at half-time, the latter looking completely out of form in his first start following a lengthy injury break. Dortmund’s play improved only marginally, though, with the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner not really able to improve the speed of the team’s interplay.
It took a quarter of an hour for anything to happen in the second half, with Kagawa hitting the side netting following some good work from Sancho. Generally, Dortmund’s only attacking avenue was giving the ball to the young Englishman and hoping he would do something productive with it.
Fans growing increasingly restless with the home side’s lethargy, it seemed a matter of time until Freiburg would make use of the spaces Dortmund had to leave to get some sort of attack going.
The visitors went ahead after a comical mistake of Sahin, who played the ball right into the feet of Petersen in his own half. The striker took one quick glance at the goal and fired away a perfectly weighted shot over the head of Bürki, who had made himself available for a backward pass and was caught unawares.
Fans expecting a raging charge for an equaliser were left bitterly disappointed, as Dortmund failed to get a spark going despite bringing on fresh legs in Andrey Yarmolenko and Alexander Isak. In the closest thing to actual danger, Piszczek saw a header fall into the waiting arms of Polish countryman Rafal Gikiewicz in the 74th minute.
Freiburg looked like relatively deserved winners until the third and final minute of stoppage time, when a ball fell to Toljan inside the box. The full-back nutmegged a defender and Gikiewicz to give Dortmund an improbable and hardly deserved point.
Even though Freiburg were the team of the hour, having last lost on Matchday 12 in mid-November, Dortmund had to consider this a must-win match to get back on track on their quest for UEFA Champions League football next season.
Given their historically great run against Freiburg, who have not beaten Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion since the 2001/02 season, that expectation was shared by most fans and experts.
Ninety minutes of fairly unwatchable football later, it’s harder than ever to imagine enough teams will be worse than this Dortmund side to allow them a top-four finish.
Regardless of how the Aubameyang saga turns out until the end of transfer deadline day on Wednesday, it’s increasingly obvious that this team has fundamental issues that go beyond single players or head-coaching decisions.