Fans of Borussia Dortmund will go into the international break with a sour taste in their mouths after a 2-0 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen saw them miss the chance to go eight points clear of the Rhinelanders and close the gap to Bayern Munich to one point.
Head coach Thomas Tuchel remembered last season’s slugfest at the BayArena and made a number of changes to his side after the 2-2 draw with Real Madrid in midweek, anticipating a high-intensity pressing battle. Marcel Schmelzer, who had looked dead on his feet toward the end of Tuesday’s match, Mario Götze, who still isn’t ready to play intense matches in quick succession, made way for Sebastian Rode and Christian Pulisic, with Rode taking a spot in central midfield, pushing Raphael Guerreiro to left-back.
Interestingly, the Portugal international started off in a hybrid role, moving to central midfield in possession in order to facilitate the buildup play.
Leverkusen came at Dortmund hard, as is Roger Schmidt’s coaching style. Much like RB Leipzig had done so successfully, Leverkusen doubled Julian Weigl and thus threw a wrench in the Black and Yellows’ attacking display.
The 21-year-old didn’t look comfortable and lost the ball a number of times, even if his final stats look very solid. With their principal buildup player taken out of the game effectively, Dortmund struggled to create anything going forward and invited Leverkusen to pounce on loose balls and inaccurate passes.
One such instance led to the first chance of the game, a Chicharito header expertly saved by Roman Bürki. The Mexican striker had found a crease between Matthias Ginter, who once again replaced Marc Bartra in central defence, and Guerreiro.
The following corner after 10 minutes would turn out to be the decisive moment in the match. Weigl half slipped and half was pushed to the ground by Admir Mehmedi, with the Switzerland international scoring from a free header as a consequence.
The early goal played into Leverkusen’s cards. The home team ceded possession to Dortmund and pressured the opposition not too high up the pitch, winning the ball in their own territory more often than not. As a result, the Black and Yellows had about 70 per cent possession for large portions of the match but failed to convert that optical dominance into any real scoring chances.
Die Werkself remained dangerous from counter-attacks and set pieces and took a deserved lead into the half-time break.
Tuchel tried to reinvigorate his team with two substitutions, as Schmelzer and Emre Mor came on for Pulisic and Gonzalo Castro. Both the American and the 29-year-old long-time Leverkusen man had been virtually invisible in the first period.
Unfortunately, the game didn’t change with the subs. Dortmund still had no idea how to advance the ball into dangerous spots, and whenever they did manage that, wrong decisions or little inaccuracies stopped the efforts in their tracks. Ousmane Dembele was especially frustrating to watch, the young Frenchman had without question his worst game in a yellow shirt to this point.
It was one of those games where it felt like Dortmund wouldn’t score if it went on for five hours and, at some point, a second goal for Leverkusen would come. That happened in the 79th minute, with Chicharito getting on the end of a Hakan Calhanoglu ball across the face of goal.
The Black and Yellows did find the net through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang shortly before the end of regulation, but, in a sign of what kind of day it was, he was correctly ruled to have been offside by the length of a shoe.
Overall, it was a thoroughly deserved victory for Leverkusen. The hosts bullied Dortmund throughout the match, walking the tightrope between being clever and unfair. Central midfielder Charles Aranguiz could easily have been sent off, as could Calhanoglu for a cynical foul on Lukasz Piszczek with the game already decided, but it’s up to Dortmund to find the answers to this physical playing style on the pitch if the referee allows it.
Dortmund’s inability to cope with high-intensity pressure and physicality has been a common theme for years and throughout Tuchel’s tenure at the Westfalenstadion. We can safely assume that other Bundesliga opponents will adopt the same approach, starting with Hertha BSC on Matchday 7 after the international break.