Borussia Dortmund returned from the international break with a bang, an explosion, and maybe a few whimpers in between, en route to a blockbuster 4-3 victory over Bayer Leverkusen. Although Die Werkself held the lead no less than three separate times over the course of the match, BVB managed to claw back each time and eventually secure a winner. Goals from Julian Brandt and Raphael Guerreiro were sandwiched by an Erling Haaland brace, including a lucky penalty that pushed BVB over the top and earned three points for the black and yellows.
In between hyperventilating into a brown lunch bag, I was able to jot down some notes, enough to form some observations. Here’s what I thought of today’s game:
Who Needs Defending, Anyway?
The great NHL commentator Mike ‘Doc’ Emerick used to use the term “fire-wagon hockey” to describe games like today, in which the play goes back and forth at a breathless pace, with neither side taking much care to patiently build the play up through midfield, maintain any semblance of defensive stability, or generally do anything to keep the game under control.
BVB set up in a diamond midfield with Julian Brandt at the top, Jude Bellingham and Mahmoud Dahoud behind him, and Axel Witsel ostensibly in a holding position to shield the back line. In reality, all four midfielders had a tendency to fly forward with abandon. Because Marco Rose employed no wingers in his lineup, one or both of the full backs were often caught forward as well. Leverkusen’s attackers, especially Moussa Diaby, have incredible speed, so this tactical setup led to many situations in which the center backs, Marin Pongracic and Manuel Akanji, were relied upon to defend three-man, and sometimes four-man attacks.
Please see the following regrettably low-resolution screenshots that demonstrate what I’m talking about:
These were only those included in ESPN’s highlight compilation on YouTube. If I had access to the full tape of the game, I’m sure there would be much more. Ideally, these are the type of situations you want to avoid at all costs. While Pongracic and Akanji did the best they could, there was only so much they could do when they were so heavily outnumbered. In fact, I thought Pongracic looked absolutely superb; if BVB could give him a solid back line to work with, it looks like he could be a formidable defender.
Thankfully, this fire-wagon football worked in BVB’s favor as well. Dortmund’s second goal, in particular, featured Thomas Meunier ripping down the right wing with no Leverkusen defender to stand in his way:
Even though BVB ultimately escaped with three points, this was a result that easily could have ended as a win, draw, or defeat. Marco Rose still has much to work out defensively if this squad is going to be able to sustain this level of success this season.
Some Beautiful Goals Amid Some Awful Performances
It’s always important to get goals from multiple players. Erling Haaland may be a beast but he isn’t going to single-handedly carry BVB all year. While I’m happy that Julian Brandt and Raphael Guerreiro found the scoresheet, and that Thomas Meunier notched an assist and was robbed of a second, I feel compelled to point out that aside from these goals, all three players were not good at all.
I’m not exaggerating when I write that Raphael Guerreiro’s performance today, prior to his magnificent direct free kick, may have been the worst of his career with Borussia Dortmund. He was shoved off the ball in the buildup to Leverkusen’s first goal. He was completely AWOL on Leverkusen’s second goal. It seemed like every single touch he took led to a turnover. His performance was so bad that I began to think certain dangerous, unspeakable thoughts: Oh my word, do we need a new left back now too? Would Nico Schulz be better? Can Emre Can play on the left as well? But just as I was beginning to doubt our Portuguese Maestro, he scored one of the most gorgeous free kicks you’ll ever see:
Two other players on the scoresheet, Julian Brandt and Thomas Meunier, also looked completely dreadful, especially for the first forty minutes. Brandt missed an easy goal in the 11th minute when he was in alone on Lukas Hradecky, and instead of burying the ball, sputtered a shot over Hradecky that bounced harmlessly wide. Thomas Meunier also looked off the pace of the game, getting caught forward numerous times, before putting in two beautiful crosses, including one that led to a rightful goal that was called off.
Speaking of which...
Live by the VAR, Die by the VAR
Normally, I don’t like to complain about the referee’s decisions, because I find that most fans who do so are simply making excuses for their own team’s performance. However, today, Daniel Siebert’s strange decisions benefited and detracted from both sides fairly equally, so they’re worth mentioning.
Let’s start with the VAR callback. Mere minutes after equalizing off a header from Erling Haaland, it looked like BVB had scored an almost identical goal, with Erling Haaland knocking a Thomas Meunier cross to Jude Bellingham, whose header finished the play. After the ball struck the net, after BVB’s players celebrated, and the two teams lined up to kick off again, Siebert blew his whistle to indicate a VAR review. There had been no foul in any of the moves that actually resulted in a goal, but Mahmoud Dahoud had indeed brought down Moussa Diaby in a challenge prior to the buildup. It must have been at least 20 seconds prior to the goal actually going in, but after a video review, the referee determined that this foul had led to the goal, which he promptly called off.
Just like every BVB fan I knew, I was livid. Yes, it was a foul by Mahmoud Dahoud, but it had happened so far back in the buildup and the play had gone on for so long, that it seems absurd to have called the goal back for it. Setting a precedent of calling goals back for anything deemed a foul in the minutes prior could have disastrous results.
Luckily, after BVB robbed of a fair goal by VAR, they were completely gifted a cheap one later in the match. As Odilon Koussounou was challenging for a ball that was rolling out of play with Marco Reus, the Leverkusen center back inadvertently struck Reus with a little, wimpy, limp-wristed slap that somehow drew blood. It was not intentional at all and never a foul. After video review, however, the referee awarded a penalty. It was a completely soft penalty, and if it had gone against BVB I would have been very upset. Fortunately, Haaland buried the penalty and Dortmund went on to win.
There were other mistakes too, notably a challenge from Thomas Meunier that really should have been a red card. The referee declined to issue a second yellow to Meunier, but feeling he needed to give one to a BVB player, randomly gave one to Haaland for complaining. It was all-in-all a baffling night from the referee, and both sides have the right to take issue with his decisions.
What did you think of today’s game? Leave your thoughts below!