Match Week Review (5/16-5/18)

Isn’t it so great to talk about actual live football again?

Feature Image by Michi S from Pixabay

Welcome to a new series, the Match Week Review, where we look back at the previous match week, naming a player of the match week, as well as the winners and losers and some things we have learned. With only one of Europe’s top five leagues currently active, this will be fairly simple. We will expand or revise this as more leagues return, especially going into the 2020/21 season, but for now, this, like the Match Week Preview, is decidedly Germanic.

So, let us look back at a refreshing and exciting Match Week 26 in the Bundesliga…

Player of the Match Week:

Raphaël Guerreiro, Borussia Dortmund (2 goals in Dortmund’s 4-0 win over Schalke)

Dortmund’s attack, despite missing a few key players and despite the long hiatus, was on fire in their rout of derby rivals Schalke. Guerreiro was the pick of the bunch, marauding down the left from his wing back position and scoring two goals, while being involved in several attacking moves and pinning back key Schalke player Daniel Caligiuri. Him outshining Achraf Hakimi, the league’s best right back, who also was quite good, shows the sheer amount of problems that Dortmund can cause opponents from multiple positions. His second goal in particular was his best highlight, and one of the best goals of the match week. Guerreiro charged into the attack, playing a pass to Håland, who played a perfect return pass right into the path of the Franco-Portuguese player. Guerreiro then curled an outside-of-the-boot shot past the keeper and into the top right corner, rounding out Dortmund’s comfortable victory.

Honorable Mentions: Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen), Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Mönchengladbach)

Winners of the Match Week

1.) Borussia Dortmund: Missing four key players, many, including myself, thought a Revierderby match coming back from a two month hiatus would be an immensely difficult test for Lucien Favre’s men. Well, it appears I was wrong. Dortmund were fantastic, especially going forward, and outside of the first 25 minutes, Schalke were very unremarkable. Håland scored again, continuing his incredible goalscoring run this season, and Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard starred in the absence of Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho. The defense, despite the absence of Dan-Axel Zagadou, was very good, limiting the influence that Amine Harit and Suat Serdar could have on the match. It does not get any easier for die Schwarzgelben, with a trip to red-hot Wolfsburg acting as a warm up for the final Klassiker of the season, but this dominant performance should give them plenty of confidence moving into the business end of the season.

2.) Hertha Berlin: Hertha needed a good result to reverse the course of their season. The Jürgen Klinsmann saga, combined with Salomon Kalou’s self-isolation violating hijinks, created an air of negativity around the club going into the restart of the season. Bruno Labbadia really had his work cut out for him. Well, his team responded well, with a comprehensive 3-0 win away to Hoffenheim. Vedad Ibišević, after a long period of being frozen out of the team prior to the hiatus, came in and proved to be influential, creating several chances and scoring the second goal. This win gave Hertha some much-needed breathing room between them and the relegation playoff place and should give them a needed momentum boost to finish the season well. The Berlin Derby next weekend suddenly becomes the biggest game of the season for them, as a win there would not only right the wrong that took place earlier in the season, but it could truly solidify die Alte Dame in the mid-table instead of being roped into the relegation fight.

3.) Robert Lewandowski: The Polish striker was admittedly not at his best in Bayern’s win over Union Berlin, but he still found a goal, scoring from the penalty spot in the first half. Originally not fit to play in this fixture prior to the hiatus, the two month delay in the season has allowed Lewandowski to return to the team fully fit and recovered from his shinbone injury. The goal was his 26th of the season, and he moves ever closer to Gerd Müller’s league record of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season. He needs 15 in Bayern’s final eight league games to surpass Müller’s record, nearly two goals in every game. Bayern’s final run in is not easy by any means, but matches against Fortuna Düsseldorf and Werder Bremen do present opportunities to pad the stats. While the odds are not necessarily in his favor, he is arguably the best striker in the world at the moment. I would not bet against him.

Losers of the Match Week

1.) Werder Bremen: Oh no, Werder. Oh no indeed. 17th, club in crisis, everything going wrong, and they restart the league season with a 4-1 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen in a match that was not as close as the scoreline indicates. Werder look like a team that is out of ideas, largely looking to winger Milot Rashica to make things happen and create opportunities. Manager Florian Kohfeldt looks a despondent character on the touchline, staring grimly at a reality that is becoming more and more apparent for die Werderaner as the weeks go by. Werder Bremen have nine matches (having one match in hand compared to the rest of the league) to make up the nine point gap that separates them from safety. With matches remaining against Bayern and Gladbach, as well as the in form Freiburg and Wolfsburg, things are looking dire. Relegation might be all but decided, unless they are able to survive through the playoff.

2.) Schalke: There are not many worse ways to restart the league season than with a 4-0 shellacking at the hands of your biggest rivals. Outside of the first 20 to 25 minutes of the match, Schalke were largely absent, almost incapable of saving themselves from the onslaught of Dortmund attacks. Their poor form before the hiatus threatened their status in the final European place, and their loss, combined with good results for Wolfsburg and Freiburg, knocks Schalke out of the final Europa League place. This match will only heighten the pressure on manager David Wagner. Many hypothesized that Schalke’s success this season has come from individual talent, namely from Amine Harit and Suat Serdar, instead of good coaching or strong tactical thinking, and this match will do nothing to dissuade those critics. If Wagner hopes to have his team in Europe next season, he has to turn around their form and quick. They cannot afford to lose ground.

3.) RB Leipzig: After a slight dip in form, combined with Bayern’s soaring form, Leipzig found themselves slowly falling out of the title race. A fast start to the restarted season was imperative for the Red Bulls’ hopes at getting back into the fight. However, a frustrating 1-1 draw, a match that they were millimeters away from losing, has nearly finished their chances at the title. Seven points off the top and now in a massive fight to maintain their top four place, Julian Nagelsmann may have to shift the priority of the season away from the title and toward maintaining Champions League status. Their chances at the title are not completely dead, especially with them and Bayern still having to play Dortmund, but it is not looking good.

Five Things We Learned

1.) This may just be a two-horse race for the title:

…and it is exactly who we all initially thought it would be. Yes, Gladbach, Leipzig, and even Leverkusen are theoretically still in it, but it appears that Bayern and Dortmund are pulling away from the pack. Yes, Dortmund could still lose it, but based on their incredible showing against Schalke with several key players missing, they look like the most likely to challenge Bayern for the title. Bayern remain the best team in Germany, but with their trip to Westphalia coming up in a week and a half, the title is not decided at all. Bayern still have a match against Gladbach and Dortmund still have a match against Leipzig, but for those other two to really get into the race against Bayern and Dortmund, they will need some help from other teams.

2.) Dortmund are a lot more than just Håland and Sancho:

With several key attacking players, including both Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho, missing, many thought Schalke could find a way to get a result. The exact opposite happened, however, as the Dortmund attack blew away die Knappen behind stellar performances from Julian Brandt, Thorgan Hazard, and Raphaël Guerreiro. Yes, Håland did score, but there were others around him who put in phenomenal performances. Dortmund’s defense, despite their good performance, still remain a question mark, but if their attack remains that potent, then they will easily be a contender for the title and become the ideal challenger to Bayern’s hegemony.

3.) Bayern are a lot more than just Lewandowski:

I mean, we all did sort of know this already, but it is worth restating now that we have had two months off. Lewandowski, despite scoring, was not great against Union Berlin, but there were several other players who picked up the slack to help Bayern to a comfortable win. Thomas Müller, Thiago, Alphonso Davies, and Benjamin Pavard all starred in the Bavarians’ victory in the former East Berlin, showing how much talent Hansi Flick has at his disposal. Their defense, which remains largely makeshift due to injuries to Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernández, is still very resolute, with Jérôme Boateng experiencing a renaissance in form. All eyes remain on their trip to Dortmund, and if they maintain their squad health, and they get closer to match fitness, they should feel confident going into a potential title-deciding match.

4.) It is very, very, VERY difficult to prepare players to be match fit:

While the quality and energy on display in the Bundesliga’s first match week was at a higher level than I anticipated, there was still some rust, and exhaustion did overtake some players as we got into the final 15-20 minutes of matches. I still have a vivid image of Köln midfielder Mark Uth laying on the pitch, red-faced and dog-tired, following Effzeh‘s 2-2 draw against Mainz. This is the perfect demonstration that match fitness, a quite enigmatic concept, is hard to truly prepare. Every club left their players with fitness regimes to follow during the hiatus, but even if every player followed them to the most minute detail, it is still very likely they were not physically prepared for the matches. You can ask any professional footballer, and they will say that there is no fitness program in the world that can help replicate and promote match fitness. They can do all of the runs and Wattbike rides and weight sessions necessary, but they could still find themselves exhausted come the 70th minute of a match upon their return. It will likely take another two weeks or so to get players up to near the necessary fitness level, and managers will still likely take advantage of the five available substitutes, especially in big matches, to make sure they have the best and most energetic team out on the pitch.

5.) These matches behind closed doors just aren’t right:

Yes, the matches needed to be behind closed doors. Yes, the Bundesliga probably needed to finish now, and the only way they could do so is with matches behind closed doors. No, the stupid football purist argument of why even play these games if there are no fans does not work when we are talking about the financial lifeblood of these clubs that are so central to communities and societies (I’m looking at you, Piers Morgan). But there is something haunting about watching these matches in empty stadiums, especially in Germany, where fan culture and atmospheres are such a massive part of the country’s football culture. Hearing the players and coaches yell at each other, and then hearing that sound echo throughout a large, empty stadium, is quite unnerving when you first hear it. Opening the weekend with a Dortmund match inside the 80,000+ seater Westfalenstadion only heightened this feeling. Sometimes the soundtrack of player yelling was enhanced by other noises that you would normally not hear during a match with fans in attendance. In Union Berlin’s match, you could hear the chirping of the birds nested in the trees surrounding the Stadion An der Alten Försterei. At one point in Köln’s match, the echoes of an ambulance siren could be heard, serving as a chilling reminder of the times we find ourselves in. The stadium’s PA announcers remained at work, but their work was obviously much less energetic than it usually is. When Håland scored the first goal for Dortmund against Schalke, Dortmund PA announcer Norbert Dickel, instead of energetically announcing the goal scorer’s first name and waiting for the fans to respond with his surname, almost matter-of-factly announced the goal was scored by number 17 Erling Håland. Before Eintracht Frankfurt’s match against Gladbach, the starting line ups were still read out and shown on the stadium’s jumbotron, as Eintracht’s stadium PA announcer read out the team to a crowd of 51,000 empty seats. All of the color, all of the atmosphere, all of the energy that usually characterizes German football and makes the Bundesliga so fun to experience was not present, and it felt…weird. Former Celtic manager Jock Stein once famously said “football without fans is nothing”, and while that is clearly not true, it certainly does take quite a bit away from the game. Let us all hope for the safety and well-being of our fellow human and football fan, and let us all hope that some day soon, we can all return to stadia again to enjoy this game we all love.

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