Borussia Dortmund have won a game of football! Stop the presses! Wake your children!
In game 1 of Peter Stöger’s (presumably) six-month tenure, the Black and Yellows went back to the basics as they beat FSV Mainz 05, 2-0, to temporarily climb back into a UEFA Champions League spot.
Lineup: Bürki; Toljan, Sokratis, Toprak, Schmelzer; Weigl, Kagawa, Guerreiro; Yarmolenko, Aubameyang, Pulisic.
Jeremy Toljan and Ömer Toprak were the immediate beneficiaries of the coaching change, making their first starts after not seeing the field much over the last few matches.
Stöger, who told German TV station Sky before the game that it’s always his approach to “set the players up to feel comfortable on the pitch,” went back to a four-man defensive line and ultimately a 4-3-3 formation that was only different to Peter Bosz’s preferred style insofar as the team set up much deeper on the field. That was especially the case for Julian Weigl, who obviously struggled with the Dutchman’s demands of playing a more rigid role higher up the pitch. The Germany international was allowed to drop in more comfortable zones and gobbled up touches like in the best Thomas Tuchel days.
Even though it seemed as though Dortmund settled into the game nicely thanks to large spells of possession in the early goings, it was Mainz who had the upper hand for most of the first half. Despite their deeper positioning and heightened emphasis on defending the back line, the Black and Yellows offered too many spaces even when defending with a numerical advantage and, at times, failed to clear situations with the required resoluteness, which gave Suat Serdar three attempts to score the opener.
The Zerofiver’s midfielder hit the bar with his second shot from distance and God only knows what going behind would have done with Dortmund’s fragile confidence at the moment. As it was, Dortmund failed to advance the ball quickly enough which meant they had very little to show for their dominance in terms of possession.
Their focusing on defending a bit deeper hurt in that regard, as Dortmund’s attackers had too much ground to cover and, often enough, an unsure touch or wayward pass even over a short distance undid what little momentum they had gathered.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Raphael Guerreiro had the only attempts that deserved to be called chances in the first frame, with the Gabonese lashing at a nice Weigl deep pass with the outside of his boot and the Frenchman forcing a decent, full-stretch save from Robin Zentner.
Mainz lost Jean-Philippe Gbamin to a muscle injury for the second period, which was a big deal considering the Cote d’Ivoire defender had been dominating the game to that point. Perhaps it was this forced substitution in the back line that contributed to Dortmund’s going ahead after 54 minutes.
Shinji Kagawa whipped in a wonderful free kick from the left wing, finding the head of Toprak. The much-maligned summer signing hit the post but saw centre-back partner Sokratis Papastathopoulos score off the rebound with a difficult one-hop finish.
Guerreiro could’ve doubled the lead four minutes later after a nice back-heel flick from Andrey Yarmolenko but, generally, Dortmund moved back and seemed intent on defending their lead no matter what.
Mainz threw a few more attackers on the pitch and had some moments that could’ve become dangerous for the visitors with better touches and passes in the final third. Seeing as they also made countless errors in the build-up and somehow looked even more tired than Dortmund despite not having to navigate European football this season, the Black and Yellows should have iced the game much sooner.
Kagawa missed another open net from about eight yards, and Guerreiro and substitute Mahmoud Dahoud also couldn’t finish golden counter-attacking opportunities.
It would’ve been very much like Dortmund this season to concede the equaliser but, a new broom sweeps clean, so Kagawa finally killed the game after excellent, composed work from Aubameyang moments from the end of regulation.
Ultimately, Dortmund were both thoroughly deserved winners who could’ve scored one or two more and lucky all the same as Mainz could’ve flipped the script with an early goal in the first half. However, they ended the game having failed to force Roman Bürki into even a single save — which wasn’t down to Dortmund’s defending for the most part, seeing as that was still suspect at times.
There are reasons to be encouraged by Stöger’s debut at the helm, namely the correct usage of Weigl and the reintroduction of an actual full-back on the right side of defence, but it’s far too early and this was far too dogged a game to make any big-picture assumptions.
Yellow Wall Game Ball
Remember this category? It’s where we praise one player in particular after every win. We haven’t given out one of these since September!
The Game Ball goes to Shinji Kagawa this time, who was far from perfect on the day but ever so influential in the win thanks to his cross before the first goal and scoring the dagger himself. The Japan international also brought the energy and, for the most part, intensity Dortmund had been strangely lacking in previous matches.