Borussia Dortmund secured their third win from four to start the 2020/21 Bundesliga campaign as Marco Reus netted the winner in a 1-0 victory at Hoffenheim.
It was a hard-fought three points for BVB, who were facing up against a combative Die Kraichgauer outfit well drilled by young coach Sebastian Hoeness – formerly of Bayern Munich.
However, with Andrej Kramaric absent and the likes of Florian Grillitsch and Christoph Baumgartner on the bench, the hosts were certainly weakened against a Dortmund side who were also heavily rotated from their 4-0 rout of Freiburg last time out.
BVB, of course, have a Champions League clash in Rome against Lazio on Tuesday night in what has the makings of a defining clash in Group F (despite it arriving on the opening matchday).
Nevertheless, the most notable omission from Lucien Favre’s altered side at the PreZero Arena was superstar Erling Braut Haaland, who dropped down to the bench after enduring a heavy workload during the international break – as if he cared.
And overall, Dortmund’s slender triumph on Saturday afternoon underpinned just how pivotal the Norwegian phenom is to Favre’s side.
Haaland was replaced in the starting XI by Julian Brandt, who was supported by interchanging inside forwards Giovanni Reyna and Jadon Sancho to make up BVB’s front three. However, it was a dynamic which just didn’t work.
With Brandt functioning as a false nine, Favre essentially had three forwards who wanted to do the same thing: receive between the lines before combining to penetrate the opposition. What that meant was that Dortmund had little source of penetration in behind, which allowed Hoffenheim to minimise the space for the visitors’ craft triumvirate to operate by playing a higher defensive line.
There was the odd occasion where Brandt’s crafty movement would unbalance Die Kraichgauer’s defensive line and allow Sancho to exploit the space in behind, but the success Dortmund had from this was sporadic. Plus, with Thomas Meunier and Felix Passlack occupying the wing-back roles, BVB’s woes were exacerbated further.
It’s an insult to even compare the aforementioned duo in the same breath as the Achraf Hakimi/Raphael Guerreiro tandem, such is their incompetence in the final third.
Nevertheless, while BVB struggled for fluidity going forward up until the hour mark, it almost seemed inevitable that they’d score once the likes of Haaland entered the fray. The hosts rarely posed a threat to BVB’s makeshift back three, with Thomas Delaney admirably filling in at left centre-back following the early exit of Lukasz Piszczek through injury. Emre Can and Mats Hummels, meanwhile, were impressive.
Then, that much-needed, dynamic altering double change arrived with Haaland and Reus replacing Brandt and Reus.
Thus, Dortmund weren’t overly reliant on supreme bits of combination play to overwhelm a breachable Hoffenheim back three. Now, they had a genuine outlet in Haaland who could stretch their defence at will with his demonic speed and remarkable knack of timing runs to perfection.
The arrival of Guerreiro swiftly after further enhanced Dortmund’s attacking fluidity and efficiency as well. The Portuguese international enjoyed a superb cameo, with one sequence in particular epitomising BVB’s distinct improvement as Guerreiro slipped in Haaland with a deft pass in behind before the usually so clinical forward sliced wide.
Fortunately, Haaland’s uncharacteristic miss had come after Dortmund had already taken the lead, with the Norwegian turning provider for fellow substitute Reus after making the most of a woefully unorganised Hoffenheim defence following a Reyna flick-on.
Reus’ strike was his first in the Bundesliga since February, and they won’t come much easier as he tapped into an empty net from Haaland’s selfless lay-off.
In the end, Dortmund could’ve had three and four as they started to manipulate the hosts’ defensive structure at will as a result of Favre’s substitutions. Spurned opportunities offered Hoffenheim a glimmer of hope for an equaliser but they failed to test Marwin Hitz in the closing stages.
The visitors were far from their best today, but their improvement from an attacking perspective once their 20-year-old phenom entered proceedings was distinct.
It wasn’t just their struggles as he sat on the sidelines or his composure and selflessness to tee up Reus for the winner, but it was Haaland’s simple ability to stretch the Hoffenheim defence and serve as a prolific outlet which demonstrated why he’s the most pivotal piece in Favre’s puzzle.