So who saw Saarbrücken becoming a serious part of the narrative this week? Bayern Munich‘s Blamage (a great German word for “disgrace”) in the DFB-Pokal has only added another layer of interest and complexity to assessing how Saturday’s showpiece event might go.
Internationally, the Borussia Dortmund-vs.-Bayern “Klassiker,” as it has come to be known, is an important selling point for the Bundesliga. Recent history means there’s always a temptation to frame it as the game to decide … well, everything, the assumption being Dortmund must always prevail if Bayern are to be denied the Meisterschale.
The events of April 1 in Munich gave lie to that. Bayern ran out comfortable 4-2 winners in Thomas Tuchel’s first match in charge to reclaim top spot, yet Dortmund still went into the final week of the season holding all the cards. It wasn’t losing to the Rekordmeister in a direct duel that ultimately cost the Schwarzgelben the title.
This season is complicated for both sides by the presence at the summit of Bayer Leverkusen, whose aesthetically pleasing style under former Bayern choreographer Xabi Alonso has everyone purring. They were good value for the 2-2 draw they achieved in Munich in September.
RB Leipzig — although, like Bayern out of the Pokal — have shown themselves to be a team that can take points off the other main protagonists and did just that against Bayern little more than a month ago.
In other words, the old notion that Dortmund alone have to stop Bayern, or forget the whole thing, is outdated. There is a lot more subtlety to this season’s title fight.
BVB and Bayern go into Saturday’s clash as pursuers, trailing Leverkusen by four and two points, respectively, yet both remain unbeaten in the Bundesliga.
Bayern’s Saarbrücken debacle may not in itself play into the tactical back and forth as the challenge of a 3. Liga side with different, more limited tactics can’t be compared to the cut and thrust of the Klassiker played out before 81,000 fans.
Still, Wednesday’s loss is another blot on Tuchel’s escutcheon to go with the Pokal defeat to SC Freiburg just days on from the win over BVB last spring. There’s a feeling that as highly regarded as Tuchel is, not much looks better than it did under Julian Nagelsmann. There still seems an overdependence on individual qualities rather than superior tactics.
Individual qualities are not to be sniffed at, mind you. Leroy Sané has been in the form of his life and his partnership with Harry Kane has been a joy to watch. Kane himself has been an enrichment as you would expect from a player who commanded a transfer fee of more than €100 million, but it’s clear the England captain feels he’s embracing something new and different in the Bundesliga. His astonishing goal from inside his own half against Darmstadt was one to take the breath away.
Then you consider Jamal Musiala, who put the final dagger into Dortmund on May 27 to secure an 11th successive title, in addition to Kingsley Coman and Thomas Müller, the latter of which could be seen as a bit-part player at times. Bayern can still damage any team with their sheer footballing ability.
But the balance of the side remains problematic, the legacy of poor planning leaving themselves short in particular positions, most notably defensive midfield, right-back and in central defence (where, in fairness, Bayern have been a bit unlucky.)
Tuchel raised the discussion about a “holding six” in the summer but instead got “holding nix” from the club (“nix” is a colloquial form of nothing). Joshua Kimmich, who some internally feel is more of a No. 8 type, is nevertheless suspended. Bayern have an even bigger hole than usual to fill on Saturday. Leon Goretzka, who recently suffered a broken bone in his hand, will likely have to play alongside Konrad Laimer. Neither is a natural “holding six” to once again use the term that has been doing the rounds in German football.
Injuries have taken hold in central defence affecting Dayot Upamecano recently and now Matthijs de Ligt, who suffered a knee injury in Saarbrücken, will be out for a while. In retrospect, transferring Benjamin Pavard and sending Josip Stanisic on loan to Leverkusen looks hasty.
And right-back? Noussair Mazraoui now becomes virtually the only option for that position, assuming he has overcome his bout of illness.
See what I mean about balance? There’s not a lot of equilibrium across the board here, but the talent in the creative positions is undeniable. Manuel Neuer is back after almost a year out and Saturday will probably represent his first sustained test since breaking his leg in a skiing accident last December.
Dortmund’s season has improved after a stumbling start that saw them draw with VfL Bochum and Bundesliga newcomers Heidenheim, following an undeserved opening win over FC Cologne. Trying to replace Jude Bellingham was, of course, an impossible task.
In recent weeks the performances have been looking up, and yes, at times it has been no-frills football, as coach Edin Terzic has said “less sexy, more successful.” But BVB have demonstrated that, while Wednesday’s 1-0 Pokal win over TSG Hoffenheim is to their liking (they’ve recorded five such victories in all competitions this term), they also have the ability to fight back in high-scoring contests, such as the 4-2 win against Union Berlin and last week in the turbulent 3-3 draw at Eintracht Frankfurt.
A bit like with Bayern, much hinges on their three attacking midfield players: Julian Brandt, Donyell Malen and Dortmund-born Marco Reus, who at 34 can still contribute mightily. His decision to relieve himself of captaincy duties was the right one.
Brandt has carried BVB in most of their matches and is always likely to be involved in the setting up or scoring of a goal. Malen was netting early on when no one else seemed able to do so. All this leaves the United States‘ Giovanni Reyna and others mostly on the sidelines.
The presence of Niclas Füllkrug, the Bundesliga’s joint-top scorer last season, gives Dortmund a true attacking focal point. In defence, Mats Hummels has put together a strong body of work alongside Nico Schlotterbeck while Gregor Kobel — forget his meltdown moment in the April meeting with Bayern — exudes confidence and hasn’t made a significant error this term.
The full-back positions are relative weaknesses where BVB are concerned, and new captain Emre Can hasn’t consistently found the form that drove Dortmund on in their 2023-23 title push.
Who will prevail here on Saturday? History speaks for Bayern, but don’t forget in the corresponding fixture last season, Dortmund battled back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. Only once in the past nine Bundesliga Klassiker meetings at the Signal Iduna Park has the Rekordmeister prevailed by more than a one-goal margin.
I won’t be at all surprised if Dortmund can follow in the footsteps of Leverkusen and Leipzig, and take something from the game to emphasise that it’s a multi-team tussle for silverware this season.