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Christopher Nkunku is Class. That, and Three Other Observations From BVB’s 2-1 Defeat Against RB Leipzig

BVB limped into the international break with their first defeat to Leipzig in 4 years.

RB Leipzig v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Today, for the first time in four years, Borussia Dortmund lost to RB Leipzig. The last time this happened was on October 14th, 2017, during the dark days of Peter Bosz. Ever since, BVB have had the Red Bulls’ number. Unfortunately, today broke that long streak, with Jesse Marsch’s side thoroughly dismantling Dortmund to the tune of 2-1, a flattering scoreline for Borussia Dortmund that, more than anything, reflects the stellar play of goalkeeper Gregor Kobel.

The shot map tells you all you need to know:

Source: Understat.com

Christopher Nkunku grabbed a goal for Leipzig after 28 minutes, who continued to look like the better side throughout the match. BVB managed to grab an equalizer early in the second half, when Thomas Meunier slid a brilliant pass into the path of Marco Reus. Marco rifled it past Peter Gulasci. Unfortunately, Leipzig would wrestle back control of the game, and managed to take the lead later in the second half thanks to Yussuf Poulsen.

Overall, it was a good performance from Leipzig and a disappointing end to this current stretch of the season from BVB. Here are my thoughts:

Christopher Nkunku, take a bow

It’s important not just to criticize Borussia Dortmund when they underperform, but to also recognize exceptional opposing players when they play well. Today, RB Leipzig’s attacking midfielder Christopher Nkunku was terrific, showing why he’s one of the most highly-touted young players in the Bundesliga. Every time he touched the ball, something magical seemed to happen, even when the play didn’t result in a goal.

His first goal demonstrated both his explosive pace and maturity to dribble the ball around the goalkeeper Gregor Kobel, and Leipzig’s second goal demonstrated his passing ability. On another play, he performed two consecutive roulettes on Mats Hummels and Thomas Meunier:

He hit the post on one shot, and forced a save from Kobel on a one-on-one on another. It was an incredible performance. With how he’s been playing both in the Bundesliga and in the Champions League, I wouldn’t be surprised if big clubs from around Europe begin taking a closer look at Nkunku.

Dortmund’s fatigue was palpable

Borussia Dortmund have now played seven games in the last three weeks, and because of the club’s injury woes, Marco Rose has barely been able to rotate, with many players like Manuel Akanji and Marco Reus, and others playing almost every single minute of every game. Many of the players on the pitch today were also run ragged against Ajax on Wednesday, having to play down to 10 men for almost an hour. Axel Witsel, who’s already laboring under the burdens of age and his recent achilles injury, looked gassed at the 30-minute mark, and only looked more tired as the game went on. Manuel Akanji looked tired as well, and his fatigue may have caused him to stop chasing Christopher Nkunku while he was running towards the goal.

Leipzig, by comparison, looked much more fresh, even though they also played on Wednesday. They did a good job picking the right moments to press, especially when Witsel was on the ball in front of BVB’s back line. They rightfully noticed that Thorgan Hazard was out of position at left back and specifically targeted him towards the end of the game. There were plenty of individual battles throughout the match where it was painfully obvious that Leipzig had more spring in their step, and it’s my theory that fatigue was an influential reason, if maybe not the only one.

Hopefully, BVB’s players will be able to take advantage of the coming international break to recover from their grueling schedule over the past month. Certain players like Manuel Akanji will need to appear for international duty, but others like Mats Hummels might be able to get some crucial rest before the season resumes.

I’m running out of patience for Donyell Malen

I’ve held my tongue for a while on this subject, because it’s pretty common for a player to struggle when they first arrive at a new club, especially one in a more difficult league. The same happened with Thomas Meunier, who struggled during his first season with BVB but has since become much more comfortable and has started to thrive.

That being said, I’m officially starting to worry about Donyell Malen. He still has neither a goal nor an assist in the Bundesliga. Even that wouldn’t concern me too much if he was actually creating chances, taking shots, beating players with dribbles, or doing anything else that would indicate that the tangible results are around the corner. Unfortunately, I just didn’t see any of that. He was completely useless today. Every decision he made seemed to be the wrong one. There was a particularly egregious example when he had Jude Bellingham to his left, alone on goal and onside, but he instead chose to try (and fail) to dribble pass the center back. Apparently, Malen thinks he’s still in the Eredivisie, where defenders can be passed by any average winger with a few step-overs.

Malen has now played 674 minutes in the Bundesliga, and is only averaging 0.26 xG + xA per 90 minutes. When he does take shots, they’re often from outside the box or in dangerous areas. Even the little things, like accidentally blocking a decent shot from Jude Bellingham, epitomize how frustrating the start to his BVB career has been. I’m not ready to write him off yet, but he needs to show that he has something to offer, or he’s going to find himself on the bench sooner rather than later.

We’ll have to adjust our expectations during this injury crisis

I saw a few people on the match thread suggesting that Marco Rose’s job should be in question concerning the last few results. While I have my issues with some of the decisions Rose has made over the last few weeks, I don’t think they’re enough to put his job in jeopardy.

Let’s zoom out for a second: BVB are still in second place, and an 8-0-3 record is actually very good. Last season, Dortmund were 6-1-4 after match day 11. Furthermore, Rose has achieved these results with a dramatically injury-riddled squad. Could you imagine how bad BVB would’ve been last year under Lucien Favre without Reyna, Haaland, Dahoud, Can, and Guerreiro (and don’t forget, Favre also had Sancho)?

There’s really only so much Rose can do. He was clearly tactically outclassed in BVB’s first game against Ajax, but he actually adjusted well, and I thought that Dortmund looked far more dangerous on Wednesday before the red card. Red Bull looked better than BVB today, but if you compare the two squads objectively, there was a pretty clear gulf in quality between the two sets of players in favor of Leipzig. Furthermore, the injury crisis has forced Rose into putting various players in positions far from what suits them. Look at Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt: typically two wingers, they were pressed into service as a left back and box-to-box midfielder respectively.

Very few squads can survive injuries to five of their 10 best players and not show a drop in quality. Clubs that do have the requisite depth, like Manchester City, PSG, or Bayern Munich, are the exceptions and not the rule.

My advice to BVB fans is to be patient. It’s safe to say that barring an absolute miracle, this probably won’t be our year. Don’t be outraged at Marco Rose for failing to turn stone into gold