Arsenal face Borussia Dortmund in the first group match of the Champions League tomorrow night. Here, German football writer Bernd Schmidt evaluates the opposition awaiting the Gunners…
Borussia Dortmund were the talk in Germany last season as they raced away with their seventh Bundesliga title and first since 2002.
They were the youngest side in Bundesliga history to lift the title, with an average age of 24 years. Notably they had a very impressive record at home, the Signal Iduna Park. After losing 2-0 at home to Bayer Leverkusen on the opening weekend, Dortmund went on to pick up 40 points from their remaining 16 home fixtures (12 wins, 4 draws).
In fact, it was after their opening day loss that Dortmund did the significant part of their title chase; winning 14 of their next 15 league games before a surprise loss to Eintracht Frankfurt ahead of the Christmas break left the Black Yellows with a 10 point lead.
During the summer transfer window, Dortmund were unable to keep hold of a key player in the centre of midfield when Nuri Sahin was sold to world football giants Real Madrid. The rest of the squad remains in tact. Sahin’s replacement, Ilkay Gündogan is still settling into the side coming off the back of a stand out season at FC Nürnberg.
Another loss to start the season has been Lucas Barrios who has remained sidelined following several muscle tears in his thigh picked up as a late substitute in the Copa America final. The Paraguayan striker has been missed, with Lewandowski not finding himself in many goalscoring positions in the opening 5 games, scoring twice.
The defending champions have not made as an impressive start to their title defence this season, winning two of their opening five games, leaving them already 5 points behind title favourites and leaders Bayern Munich.
On Saturday, Borussia Dortmund went down at home to last season’s Bundesliga II champions, Hertha Berlin, managed by former Liverpool and Germany defender, Marcus Babbel. They suffered their first defeat of the season as early as Matchday 2, in Hoffenheim at the hands of a fantastic free kick from Sejad Salihovic.
Arsenal summer transfer target Mario Götze missed this weekend’s game, serving the first of his two match ban following a red card received during their goalless draw with Bayer Leverkusen before the international break.
Without last season’s star and the player highly-rated around Europe, Dortmund had a difficult time breaking down a well-organised Hertha Berlin defence. Their solo goal in a 2-1 home defeat came in the 88th minute when Robert Lewandowski flicked home Antonio da Silva’s free kick. It turned out to be just a consolation. However, it is not in Arsene Wenger’s book to play a similar tactic to which Berlin adapted.
Key Players: Mario Götze, Shinji Kagawa, Mats Hummels
Whomever plays at left back for Arsenal on Tuesday will have the biggest task for the Gunners. They will go up against the skilful Mario Götze and will almost certainly require help from a team mate if Arsenal are to keep the biggest rising star in Germany quiet. Götze links up particularly well with Shinji Kagawa in midfield and enjoys success getting beyond full backs, often producing cut backs for his team mates inside the 6 yard box. On top of that, his close control dribbling puts fear into defenders, whether he’s running down the right or through the middle. Goalkeepers don’t like to see Götze bursting through one-on-one.
Shinji Kagawa was the beneficiary of several through passes leading to one-on-one situations last season. The short, clever Japanese midfielder often gets himself into open spaces around the penalty area and finds several shooting opportunities in matches. Also being tracked by bigger clubs around Europe, Kagawa has yet to register a goal so far this season but Arsenal will want to mark him closely. He is a key player in the middle of the park with a lot of Dortmund’s opportunities coming through him with his short and quick passing ability, matched by his great technique.
The left side of the pitch should be not ignored either. Occupied by the passionate Kevin Großkreutz; a goalscorer and a workhorse. Capable of scoring from long range, Großkreutz also makes clever runs into the box and makes tackles too.
Defensively, Borussia Dortmund’s goal is protected by Roman Weidenfeller, who is one of the top goalkeepers in the Bundesliga, despite being constantly overlooked by national team head coach Joachim Löw.
Weidenfeller’s penalty area is shielded by a solid partnership between Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic. Both just 22 years of age, the former is arguably the best defender in the Bundesliga at the moment. Constantly breaking up attacks, Hummels is 1.91m in height making him virtually impossible to beat in the air. Arsenal could look to exploit this defence with their pacey forwards because there are few other paths between these two. Dortmund conceded just 22 goals in their 34 league games last season.
Mats Hummels is a goalscoring centre back who is a big threat from set pieces. He chipped in with 5 goals in the Bundesliga last season; the same number of goals he scored during Germany’s failed attempt to qualify for this past summer’s European under 21 championships. Only a handful of players scored more.
Overall, Borussia Dortmund have a number of the Bundesliga’s top players but play best as a team. There’s no selfishness in this team and their style is to play a quick, short passing game in the opposition half, with Kagawa and Götze at the heart of it. They will look to exploit Arsenal’s weakness of defending set pieces, with both Hummels and Subotic both dangerous in the air.
Borussia Dortmund are coming off the back of a 2-1 home defeat to Hertha Berlin where they fielded the strongest side available to head coach Jürgen Klopp. The head coach and many of his players are also inexperienced at this level which could be a telling factor.
The German champions should know the poor start Arsenal have made to their own domestic campaign and will believe they have the ability to tactically outclass their opposition as they find space behind both the Arsenal holding midfielders and vulnerable defence.