The race for Champions League qualification has come down to the wire for Borussia Dortmund, but the stage was set for success coming into the Sunday match-up against Mainz. The squad’s confidence level was at a season high thanks to a perfect storm: Schalke’s giftwrapped win over Eintracht Frankfurt, BVB’s winning streak (they’d won their last five league matches) and oh yeah, you might have heard they are now the reigning Pokalsieger.
The only task at hand for BVB was to not get in their own way against a formidable opponent in Mainz. We’d be remiss if we overlook that Mainz managed to win one of their matches against Bayern which is where the Black and Yellows failed. Over the course of 90 minutes, BVB cooked up a storm comprised of increasing trust between coach and squad mixed with some of the “same ol’ Dortmund” and a heavy dose of rediscovered sureness.
The Rhythm is Gonna Getcha...to Champions League Qualification
When Edin Terzić assumed the role of Head Coach, he asked the squad for a major trust fall. There were bumps in the road, as can be expected with any transition, but he asked them to trust the process. Rhythm: Found. Raphaël Guerreiro’s technique alone is fun to watch but look at the buildup to his goal: Thomas Meunier (more on this fella below) with a cross that’s found by Jadon Sancho to connect with his left-side buddy who then puts it in the back of the net!
It’s a shame the season is winding down as players are hitting their stride and finding their form. Marco Reus haters everywhere were silenced again when the Skipper netted the second goal of the match, continuing his solid form. And can we please talk about Manuel Akanji bringing the thunder lately?! His performance today was absolute. Offensively, he had a couple of shots, but his passing accuracy and presence in defense gave the backline some desperately-needed reinforcement. It is encouraging to see increasingly more players turn in solid performances for an entire 90 minutes. This is Terzić’s leadership at work. He has proven to be fully capable of seeing Dortmund through the end of the season with both the Pokal and Champions League qualification in hand. #InTerzićWeTrust
The Second Half Slump
Dortmund is consistently plagued by playing two matches in one. The team, at the start, exhibits one style of play that is inverted after the half. It’s such a glaringly obvious problem that even match commentators make mention of this. We just don’t always know what team will emerge and what we often find is BVB allows the opposition to capitalize on our inconsistencies.
With the start of the second half (after a weather delay, which I so totally had on my BVB bingo card by the way) the team began to exhibit the same patterns of behavior. There were cringe-inducing passes from Guerreiro and Mahmoud Dahoud which provided Mainz opportunity for counter attacks. While that might be expected from some players, it is troubling when stalwarts such as Rapha and Mo make sloppy errors. For the first 15 minutes of the second half, Mainz was allowed to threaten on multiple occasions. It’s safe to say we know that the boys’ summer homework is to flush out weaknesses in the backline and midfield.
Mind over Matter
The mentality of a team, and this team in particular, is a subject really worth dissecting. As Patrick Owomoyela noted, they have all the tools and quality needed to win the league, but were plagued by both mental and physical challenges (and not of the Double Dare variety). For today’s match, jokes were aplenty regarding the sobriety level of the squad after the requisite celebrations following the Pokal victory. And, sure, maybe some of the lads were tired (I’m choosing to gloss right over Sancho losing that ball!). But you know what was even more noticeable? They didn’t look tired. They didn’t look dejected. Everything about their mental state was evident in their body language and facial expressions and their determination!
Let’s start with Meunier. Meunier has a stormy relationship with the fans, and he was called in to start in place of an injured Łukasz Piszczek (I know we’re collectively holding our breath until we receive an update on his condition). Meunier is certainly no Piszczek; it would be unfair to expect him to fill those boots. However, like a bolt from the blue, Thomas Meunier turned in what was arguably his best performance of the season. This is something we all want more of.
Let’s also address the 6’2” elephant in the room that is Roman Bürki. The keeper position is a significant weakness. The Number 1 lost his spot only to gain it back by default, not because he earned it. His turn in goal today was just, wow. Where the heck was this guy all season? Racking up a total of four saves, Bürki’s command of his area was on full effect particularly in the 64th minute when Mainz’s Danny Latza took a shot from the right side of the box that deflected off Dahoud. Bürki reacted quickly and aggressively leaped to push the ball over the bar, helping to maintain Dortmund’s lead. That is precisely the type of fire needed between the sticks. He needs to catch that lightning in a bottle for every starting chance going forward.
The last note on this subject is that, hey - newsflash, the team can win without a single Erling Haaland goal! This is massive! No doubt, we love it when Haaland scores, almost as much as he loves scoring. For a team that is under a constant threat of the star striker departing, it speaks volumes to the confidence levels of all players that they are able to net goals and create scoring chances without putting all of the pressure on a solitary player.
The match today was electric (I know, I know...) in that we had a chance to see results of the effort put in by both coach and team to work as a cohesive unit. Sure, there is still room for improvement (please see homework assignment above), but the biggest win today is the mental win. Think back to Mats Hummels, angrily punching the interview board after losing to Union Berlin last December. That is just one example of (unfortunately) many when players allowed setbacks to control their emotions. Fast forward to today...did you catch that moment at the half when Jude Bellingham came up behind Mo and slung his arms around him? The strength on show is not that of a team, but a brotherhood.
Oh, and for those of you following along at home, the count is eight. Eight weather puns.