The story of the underdog is one of the most venerated archetypes in literature, and in many ways society as a whole. Such examples include David and Goliath, Frodo and Smaug, and the working man and management. Today, viewers across Germany and the United States were treated to an underdog story of their own, with the spirited but untested young guns of Borussia Dortmund going up against the premier offensive juggernaut of the Bundesliga. Schalke 04, the club who only finished 13 spots out of first place last season, dominated the run of play and probably deserved to come away with a win, but the resolute Borussia Dortmund held their ground and defended strongly, forcing a 0-0 draw.
You might think that Borussia Dortmund, having the more expensive and more talented squad, bigger history, better record, and deeper bench might be the ones who act like favorites, who try to seek the initiative and chase after a win, but you’d be sorely mistaken. Lucien Favre decided that rather than risk giving up any clear-cut chances, BVB would set up defensively with Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel in midfield and have the attacking band sit back, allowing Schalke to possess the ball in their own half.
This plan paid off and then some, because outside of maybe four or five high-quality chances, including two shots that went off the post, Schalke didn’t create much in the first half. Unfortunately, this Juventus-esque display of defensive brilliance came at the cost of significant offensive output. Most analysts woulda argue that 0.09 xG through 45 minutes is a bit on the low side. I’ll admit that it could be a bit higher, but as economists say, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Sometimes, if you want to keep a clean sheet, you have to stifle your own offense as well.
During the second half, BVB had a bit more possession of the ball, which meant viewers everywhere were treated to a fantastic spectacle: witnessing the likes of Thomas Delaney, Jadon Sancho, and Lucas Piszczek attempt the herculean task of trying to break down Schalke’s press and play out the back. It was harrowing to watch, like witnessing wildebeest crossing crocodile-infested rivers in Africa, or watching salmon try to jump by Grizzly Bears in the cold mountain streams of Alaska. (The only difference, I suppose, being that some of the wildebeest and salmon actually make it through to the other side). Jadon Sancho, in a display of unbending conviction even Sisyphus would admire, tried again and again to dribble through multitudes of Schalke defenders, to no avail. As the old saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh... you know where I’m going with this.
With Schalke’s press tearing apart every BVB foray into midfield, Lucien Favre analyzed the situation, and determined that what he needed was even fewer midfielders and more defenders. With the game up for grabs, Favre subbed on Manuel Akanji for Thomas Delaney, instantly changing the complexity of the game by making BVB’s setup even more defensive.
Fortunately, BVB’s strategy of letting Schalke run roughshod over them for eighty minutes meant that the Smurfs gradually tired themselves out. Favre even made a positive substitution, adding in Julian Brandt for Achraf Hakimi. With renewed energy and some offensive talent on the pitch, BVB actually managed to pin Schalke into their own half, and seemed to finally seize the initiative in the match— just in time for it to end 0-0. Oh, well. If it had been 100 minutes, who knows what could have happened.
With this result, BVB are up to third place. A win would have drawn BVB level with Bayern at the top of the table, but when you’re a small club like Borussia Dortmund, a point away from home is nothing to complain about. You’re just happy to be in the top four. With Mönchengladbach, Frankfurt, Wolfsburg, and Leverkusen yet to play, that probably won’t be the case for long. It’s a long race to qualify for Europe, and this point could prove to be very helpful in the end.