Borussia Dortmund returned from the international break with a convincing 3-1 win against Mainz today, courtesy of a goal from Marco Reus and a brace from Erling Haaland. BVB hit the grind early, keeping Mainz hemmed in and creating a girl within four minutes. A cross from Thomas Meunier bounced around in the box before Marco Reus lashed a loose ball into the top corner of the net. Dortmund would continue to maintain pressure and eventually grab a second goal at the start of the second half, and continue to maintain full control of the game until a lapse in concentration from Gregor Kobel gifted Mainz a lifeline. Fortunately, BVB grabbed an insurance goal in stoppage time and saw off the remainder of the game to win comfortably by three goals to one.
Here are my four observations from today’s game:
Marco Rose’s setup worked
So far this season, I’ve been yet to be impressed by Marco Rose’s tactical acumen. Today was the first time where I really thought that the way he set up the squad built on each player’s strengths and allowed the team to effectively control the play. Forgoing his favored 4-1-2-1-2 for a more traditional 4-3-3 with Julian Brandt and Donyell Malen starting on the right and left wings respectively, Rose’s system allowed BVB to operate more effectively out wide.
Whereas in the diamond formation, Thomas Meunier would be more or less alone on the right wing, and be forced to cover offensive and defensive responsibilities, today Julian Brandt would drift towards the touchline and receive passes from Meunier in an advanced position, or drop deep and cover for him while the right back was advancing. It was this tactical development that led to Dortmund’s first goal:
What you’re seeing isn’t particularly advanced in its innovation. Brandt, the winger, draws the defender out wide and receives a pass, and Meunier the full back takes advantage of the created open space with a straight-line run. It’s the type of play that eighth graders practice, but that works just as well when professionals are able to consistently execute it in a system. It’s also the exact opposite of the type of play that a much narrower system with a midfield diamond. It allowed Meunier to run to the edge of the 18-yard-box undisturbed, and his cross from there eventually led to Marco Reus’s goal.
Which leads to my next point:
The rebirth of Thomas Meunier
I don’t think I was ever too viscerally negative towards Thomas Meunier, even when his form hit its lowest points last season, but I was definitely critical of his play. When BVB declined to sign a new right back this summer, I took it as a sign that the front office had complete trust in Thomas Meunier to recover his form that earned him a spot on the Belgian National Team. I thought this decision was a mistake at the time. However, with Meunier’s form in the opening months of the season, I’m beginning to see why BVB had faith in him.
Meunier has gone from more or less useless offensively to a bastion of ball progression. In per-90 terms, he’s third on the team in progressive distance and third in total progressive passes, third in assists, and has more than twice as many completed crosses (7) as the next player (3). Today, he was great. While he was not credited with an assist on Marco Reus’s goal, it was his movement and cross that created it. He looked excellent otherwise, combining well with Brandt, Reus, and Haaland to create numerous chances. If he can continue this form, he will assuage the fears of many who wanted BVB to go after a new right back this year.
The clean sheet that got away
Today, on match day eight of the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund continued their search in vain for what is becoming an increasingly elusive Bundesliga clean sheet. They almost made it, lasting until the 86th minute, when Gregor Kobel committed an unnecessary turnover passing out the back, leading to an easy goal by Mainz’s Jonathan Burkhardt.
What was most disappointing about the goal that BVB conceded was that to that point, it had been Dortmund’s best defensive performance of the season. Mainz could barely make it into their attacking half in the opening 45 minutes, failing to register a single shot attempt from open play in the first half. By the 86th minute, Dortmund had only conceded 4 total shot attempts, amounting to a paltry 0.32 expected goals. That would have been a superb result. Instead, BVB got too careless passing the ball out of the back with a 2-0 lead, and momentarily threw Mainz a lifeline. While they ultimately failed to capitalize on Dortmund’s mistake, conceding a goal to Erling Haaland minutes later, they were temporarily back in the game.
If healthy, this squad could be flat-out dominant
We saw a somewhat-but-not-quite fully healthy squad today. Mahmoud Dahoud, Raphael Guerreiro, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Gio Reyna, and several others were absent. Despite the injuries, BVB put together a very convincing win. The squad’s success therefore makes me wonder just how good it will look when Guerreiro, Dahoud, and company finally return. Nico Schulz looked out of place today, and Guerreiro would have been a significant upgrade and would have added another dimension to the attack. This says nothing of the attacking options waiting to return in Youssoufa Moukoko and Gio Reyna, who could lessen the burden on Brandt, Haaland, Malen, and Hazard.
With such a plethora of options, Marco Rose could field a truly dangerous squad. If BVB can manage to get healthy by the time the knockout stages in the Champions League begin, then I can hardly think of any team in Europe that BVB couldn’t beat.
What did you think of today’s performance? Leave your thoughts below.