Midweek Preview: Der Klassiker Edition

A potentially title-deciding match in Westphalia…

Feature Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Welcome to the Midweek Preview, where we are going to do something a little bit different than usual. Instead of giving a quick preview of the major matches in the Bundesliga’s first Englische Woche since the league’s resumption, I will be offering a more in-depth preview of the biggest match of the midweek, and likely of the whole season: Der Klassiker. We will look in more detail at each team, then give a final preview and prediction at the very end.

Bayern travel up to Westphalia sitting four points clear of their title rivals, knowing how the result of this match could massively change their season. Dortmund know that it is now or never; they must win this game if they want to win the league. A win for Bayern is a massive step toward yet another title, while a draw or win for Dortmund opens up the title race further, with Leipzig, Leverkusen, and Gladbach not far behind. Bayern demolished Dortmund 4-0 in their previous meeting in November, but both of these teams have changed drastically since then. There are very good justifications for saying that either team could win this match, and it is a shame that this will have to be played behind closed doors, but it is likely to be an intense slugfest from beginning to end.

Dortmund enter this tie confident and in good form, having beaten Schalke and Wolfsburg since the league season restarted. They have won their last six in the league, a streak dating back to before the hiatus, and are seemingly firing on all cylinders going forward despite the absence of some key players during the last two matches. While Jadon Sancho and Emre Can have returned to the team, Marco Reus has not, and it appears the Dortmund captain will join center back Dan-Axel Zagadou in missing the remainder of the season for Lucien Favre’s team. In his stead, Thorgan Hazard has come in and been fantastic, arguably being one of the stars of the show in their wins against Schalke and Wolfsburg. His positional sense, movement within the front three, and ability to provide for his teammates makes him the ideal replacement for Reus, embodying the characteristics that makes the German such a great player. Jadon Sancho will likely make his return to the starting XI and be the key player in Dortmund’s attack, and his ability to find space, exploit overloads with Hakimi, and make things happen will dictate how effective Dortmund’s attack will be in this match. The defense is still a worry, especially with the absence of Zagadou. Mats Hummels has enjoyed a very good season in a black and yellow shirt, but is prone to the odd slip up here and there. He is joined in a back three by Manuel Akanji, a player sort of known at this point for inconsistencies and errors, and Łukasz Piszczek, a natural fullback who has done a passable job filling in for Zagadou. It is a defense that has had a reputation of leaking goals in the past, and with Dortmund’s fast attacking play sending midfielders and both wing backs forward on attacks, there can be quite a bit of room left to attack the exposed back three on the counter.

Bayern will likely aim to capitalize on this defensive frailty through counters, so the old “the best defense is a strong offense” cliché may have to be the plan for Dortmund in this match. If they are able to be relentless enough on the attack, using their wing backs, as well as Sancho and Hazard, to pin back the Bayern wingers and fullbacks, they should at least slow down Bayern’s ability to catch them on the break. The wingers (and the notably-fond-of-attacking left back Alphonso Davies) needing to stay back to cover the runs of wingers and wing backs will mean they may take less risks going forward and counters will take longer to develop. Attacking pressure in the middle of the park (likely from Julian Brandt) could also preoccupy one of Leon Goretzka or Joshua Kimmich, slowing their ability to play passes out to advancing wingers to start counter attacks. Basically, I get the feeling that Dortmund will have to score more than one goal to win this match. They will likely be exposed on the counter at least once, and Bayern have too much attacking talent to not score at least once, but if Dortmund are able to attack in the same overwhelming way they did against Schalke, they will be able to eventually score, and possibly score more than once. This is not a match where Dortmund could just park the bus for an extended period of time to hold onto a one goal lead, as giving players like Goretzka, Kimmich, and Thomas Müller time on the ball will only lead to chances and goals. Whatever last vestiges and spirits of Jürgen Klopp and his “Gegenpressing” system remain in Westphalia need to be summoned up for this encounter. High intensity and attacking will have to be the name of the game for BVB.

Now for Bayern, who come into this match in similarly strong form, having comfortably beaten Union Berlin and ripped apart Eintracht Frankfurt in their two matches since the restart. Hansi Flick has continued his revolution in Bavaria, creating a free-flowing attacking team akin to the Bayern sides of the early and mid-2010s, when Bayern were at their modern peak. They are a side with multiple weapons and danger men that can hurt you in many different ways. They, like Dortmund, enter this match on a six match winning streak, but the reigning champions also boast the accolade of being unbeaten in the league since mid-December. They have suffered from injury issues throughout the season, especially in defense, but they are seemingly no longer an issue. Alphonso Davies cementing himself as the team’s starting left back opened up the opportunity to use David Alaba as a center back, and he has done a fantastic job in that position in place of the injured Niklas Süle. Jérôme Boateng, once thought to be leaving the club in January, is enjoying a renaissance in form under Flick and has seemingly taken a starting place from Lucas Hernández. With Kimmich’s move into midfield, Benjamin Pavard has filled in at right back admirably. The once-patchwork Bayern defense is now possibly among the best in the league, despite the absence of arguably their best center back.

However, there is significant injury news for this team as you move up the pitch, and there is good news and bad news for Bayern fans. In good news, it appears that Serge Gnabry will be taking his place back in the starting XI, joining Müller, Kingsley Coman, and Lewandowski in an absolutely terrifying front four. In bad news, Hansi Flick has confirmed that midfield maestro Thiago will miss this match due to injury. Leon Goretzka, who deputized in midfield in place of the Spaniard against Frankfurt, will likely keep his place in the team for this match. This is an important development, as the midfield pairing of Thiago and Kimmich has been quite important for Bayern in both defense and attack, protecting the back four while also using their range of passing to start Bayern attacks. Do not get me wrong, Goretzka is definitely no slouch and will be a more than capable replacement, but Thiago is a very important player for Bayern in how their team functions. It is one thing going without him against Eintracht, but Dortmund will obviously be a much tougher test.

Bayern’s plan of action should revolve around exposing the Dortmund back line, creating overloads down the wings that preoccupy at least one of the back three and allowing opportunities for the wingers (or Alphonso Davies) to create chances for Lewandowski and Müller. Dortmund have two very attack-minded wing backs, so the opportunities to counter down the wings will be available if Bayern take them. With two rapid and dynamic wingers like Coman and Gnabry, they should be incredibly effective if they have the space to run at or get behind the Dortmund back three. Lewandowski, the man of the moment for Bayern, has not been at his goalscoring best since the season resumed, although his goal against Frankfurt should be a boost. Whether Lewandowski is at his best or not, his mere presence is enough to instill fear in defenses, and he should be able to draw the attention of one or two center backs every time Bayern attack. This attention should allow a player like Müller to find space, making him the most likely Bayern goal threat for this match in my eyes. Similar to Sancho on the other side, I would look to Müller to be the man who is making things happen for Bayern in attack, and his level of performance will be an indicator of how effective Bayern’s attack is as a whole.

Defensively, Bayern will be up against arguably the strongest attack they have faced all season. Dortmund attack in waves, able to use their wing backs in conjunction with their wingers to create similar overloads on the wings and open up space in the box. They have a striker in Erling Håland (surprised we made it this far without talking about him?) who, like Lewandowski, is able to occupy the minds of multiple defensive players due his ability to score if given a single chance. Boateng’s physical presence in the heart of defense will likely have to counteract the physical attacking presence offered by Håland, but it is important that the back four does not spread too far out when dealing with overloads. It is also important that Bayern have a midfielder able to cover the fullbacks, especially Davies, when they venture forward. When Bayern win the ball back in their own half, they cannot fall victim to any Dortmund counter press, and the onus will be on Kimmich, Goretzka, and Müller to find the breakout runs of the wingers or Davies in order to hit Dortmund when they are caught further up the pitch.

Dortmund will likely line up in a 3-4-3 formation, with my prediction for their likely team being:

Bayern will likely line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with my prediction for their likely team being:

So, what is going to happen? That is the ultimate question; how will this clash of titans end? A win for Bayern will not seal the title, but it will leave them feeling like they already have one hand on their eighth consecutive Meisterschale, while a draw or win for Dortmund sees the title race open up even further.

There is just very little to separate these two teams. Both are incredible attacking sides with the ability to cause the other’s defense a multitude of problems. I anticipate both sides scoring, and I would not be surprised if both sides scored multiple goals. If I had to pick a winner, I would say Bayern narrowly. The combination of Dortmund’s suspect defense, Bayern’s experience in big matches, and the fact that Dortmund do not have a home crowd to support them make them the likely winner. I still keep coming back to this match being a draw, and while I do think it will be a very interesting one, I do not see either team going away with all three points. My take is bet on goals but not on a winner.

Prediction:

Borussia Dortmund 3-3 Bayern Munich

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