The German Bundesliga has to sometimes bear the criticism that it is a league with great fans and great stadiums yet mediocre teams. But mediocrity does certainly not apply to the two clubs which are expected to have a close title race this season. Borussia Dortmund are currently leading the league by four points ahead of Bayern Munich who will travel to Dortmund for their highly anticipated ‘Der Klassiker’ showdown on Saturday.
Bayern Munich’s head coach Niko Kovač does not have the easiest job in the league right now. The 47-year-old Croatian took over last summer after two successful years at Eintracht Frankfurt that ended with Frankfurt beating Bayern in the German Cup final in May. Kovač’s authority in the locker room and his energetic style were supposed to reinvigorate an ageing Bayern side.
The winningest club in Bundesliga history has not spent much money on big signings the past few years. The only transfer of note prior to this season was Leon Goretzka who came on a free from Schalke. Bayern’s issues, however, are more profound than just the quality of the squad which is still superior to every other squad in the league and most in Europe.
Since Pep Guardiola left Bayern in 2016, the quality of their possession football has slowly but steadily declined. And Kovač has been chosen to counteract that decline, with limited success so far. Bayern usually do not find ways to move through the centre and, therefore, rely on wing attacks. However, these can be defended more easily and are not as forceful as they once were, now that Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry have a lost a step or two athletically.
Creativity hole in midfield
This season, the Spanish playmaker Thiago has had to carry Bayern’s build-up on his shoulders, while other midfielders such as Javi Martínez were easily taken out by tight man-to-man coverage. The injury bug, however, struck once again and took out Thiago a few weeks ago.
The Spaniard has joined the list alongside Kingsley Coman and Corentin Tolisso. Since Bayern already had a small squad, those injuries are clearly hurting Kovač’s tactical options.
Turn the switch to the left to see all of Thiago’s attacking actions in his three Champions League appearances this season.
He tried out Joshua Kimmich in the holding midfielder position, just like German national coach Joachim Löw did a few weeks prior, but Kimmich seemed shaky against Freiburg last Saturday when Bayern only drew with the underdogs from the Black Forrest. It is somewhat debatable if his underwhelming performance was solely on him. Bayern’s current 4-3-3 system and the way it is set up makes the life of any midfielder tough.
Kimmich had to pick up the ball deep between the two centre-backs and saw no open men down the field. Renato Sanches and James Rodríguez moved into Freiburg’s tight formation and basically disappeared in many situations. That was the main reason Bayern once again had to play over the flanks and try their luck with cross-passes which were mostly inaccurate and easily denied by Freiburg’s back four.
Seemingly unstoppable offense
As for Dortmund, the Black-and-Yellows are on a roll and still unbeaten in the league. While new head coach Lucien Favre needed a couple of weeks to fully implement his tactical system and iron out some of the flaws that occurred at first, BVB look more and more comfortable playing out of the back and dominating matches.
What Dortmund may lack in terms of defensive soundness they can easily make up for with sheer unstoppable attacking power. Even when Favre’s team had trouble linking up between midfield and the front four which basically left the front four on their own, Dortmund scored plenty of goals.
The attacking corps is so talented and has still plenty of upside to gain. Jadon Sancho, Christian Pulisic, Maximilian Philipp and Jacob Bruun Larsen are led by more seasoned players like Marco Reus and Paco Alcácer. Add to the mix Mario Götze and Shinji Kagawa, who are still able to rip through defences on a good day.
Dortmund’s style of possession has improved in recent weeks, because Favre was able to make the secondary a factor by introducing Achraf Hakimi at left-back and giving Thomas Delaney more freedom to advance through the middle following the first phase of the build-up. That second wave is crucial to secure rebounds and pressure opponents from the backfield. Hakimi, Delaney or Axel Witsel could overwhelm Bayern’s somewhat lethargic defence.
Who creates better match-ups?
The outcome of the game on Saturday night comes down to how Kovač will be able to create favourable match-ups on the pitch. Both teams will most likely stick to their preferred formations. Bayern’s 4-3-3 and Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 will lead to natural one-on-ones. Witsel and Delaney would meet James and Goretzka in the middle of the park; Reus could battle Bayern’s holding midfielder; and the four wing players on each side line up against one another.
Kovač has to figure who he lines up against Hakimi, who will make plenty of runs, either diagonally as a left-back or vertically as a right-back. Robben may not hold up against the Moroccan athletically but could outsmart Hakimi who tends to act a bit light-headed at times.
Serge Gnabry, Bayern’s powerhouse on the wing, on the other side, would be an unfavourable match-up for Łukasz Piszczek. These duels and the necessary in-game adjustments make the battle between the best two teams in Germany so intriguing.