So often in major sports the starters and superstars get all of the headlines, but it is the numbers and quality on the bench that make the difference. And not just over the course of a long season, but late in the second half when the fresh legs of a fast, skillful player can just break the game wide open. Such was the case Friday, when the Dortmund bench included Brandt, Hakimi, Goetze, Brun Larsen, Wolf and several others. In a game in which Dortmund was fighting for the first sixty-one minutes but just couldn’t break through the incredibly aggressive and physical Köln, the injection of the speed and skill of Julian Brandt and Achraf Hakimi was too much for the Billygoats.
Though they were just promoted, Köln does not line up like a recently promoted team. With a great history for the first decade of the Bundesliga, a beautiful and large stadium in Germany’s fourth largest City, and with the fans being as passionate for their Billygoats as any team in Europe is for their local club, they have always had the ingredients to at least be a consistent mid-table club and to push for Europe when at a peak roster.
But two seasons ago the wheels fell off, Modeste left for China, they struggled to score, and more than deserved to be relegated. They did bounce right back up, though, and have added a number of strong pieces to help them climb back up out of the relegation zone. The season could prove me wrong and this may have been more opening home game emotion than sustainably improved play, but this does not appear to be a team that should be in the relegation conversation come Spring.
Their extremely aggressive pressing in the opponent’s end, and their physical play at the back should enable them to open some distance between themselves and the bottom clubs. They start with two large, physical forwards in Modeste, having returned from China during the middle of last season, and the Columbian Cordoba, along with last season’s top scorer Terodde giving them depth. Of course, Timo Horn is on par with any goaltender in the league. Former National team left back Hector has been there forever, and they have added two impressive players in defense in Ehizibue, who is raw but big, really fast and powerful at right back and the under 20 Belgian Bornauw at centerback. Bornauw repeatedly tossed Hazard to ground effortlessly, and was everywhere in the first half.
Dortmund was frustrated in the first half to say the least. Witsel and Weigl simply weren’t able to get Reus, Hazard, Alcacer and Sancho involved enough in the game to create all that many good chances. Köln wasn’t creating all that many great chances on counters, they were just getting a foot on the ball or pushing a Dortmund player off the ball just enough to keep Dortmund from really creating anything all that dangerous. Dortmund would win the ball back, but the Kõln players would simply press hard again and prevent anything from happening. While it was a frustrating game for the Dortmund players, it was highly entertaining as the possession and tension was there where it felt as if Dortmund could break it open at some point. But they did not (at least not in the first half).
Eventually, Köln pulled off the shocking start with a first half goal on their only shot on target in the entire game. Unfortunately, Dortmund again showed their weakness on set pieces. Köln took a corner and the player at the near post simply headed it back towards the far post, where former Holstein Keil wing Drexler was waiting to finish it off with his own classic header. Nico Schulz was lost in no man’s land. Far too lax on the corner was the Dortmund defense. And despite Dortmund commanding possession and holding the ball in the Köln end for long periods of time, Köln was simply relentless in their aggressive pressing and physically manhandling the Dortmund attackers.
Dortmund noticeably was more aggressive in their attack in the second half. Reus and Hazard, in particular, were running harder and fighting through tackles. Witsel proved more than capable of battling with Köln in the first half, and continued early in the second. But it was the introduction of Hakimi and Brandt in the 62nd minute that broke the game open. From the very second they entered, Hakimi’s speed was a menace to the Köln defense on Dortmund’s left side. They just weren’t going to be able to even get ahold of him to tie him up. And Brandt instantly took over as the man of the match. He would so quickly push the ball up and accurately pick the Köln defense apart with his quick and precise passes that immediately Reus, Hazard and Sancho were a threat to even the game up. And it didn’t take long. Dortmund fans could feel the anxiousness and dread lift, as it was clear that for as heroic as Köln’s opening home game of the season had been for its fans, Dortmund was going to at least leave with a draw.
The goal came quickly. Köln setup defensively for a Dortmund corner following a Sancho shot that was deflected by two Köln players over the bar. While Köln protected themselves from the towering Hummels in the line in front of goal, they unbelievably left Sancho all alone at the top corner of the box. The Dortmund players were more than aware of the mistake and before Köln even realized their mistake, Dortmund just immediately played the ball in and got it to Sancho as quickly as they could. It took Sancho mere seconds to setup the ball on his leftside and drive a linedrive with his left foot into the goal from the outer portion of the box. Arjen Robben could not have made it look any easier. Despite their relentless pressure and incredible defensive stand for over an hour, Köln simply made one significant error against a team far too loaded with talent to let any mistakes slide.
But Köln dug deep after the Dortmund goal. They found the energy and stamina to continue to press and fight to keep Dortmund from pulling away. But their efforts simply weren’t enough as Piszczek, Sancho, Reus, and Brandt were pushing up Dortmund’s right side with quick passes. Eventually Reus found Brandt, who immediately saw a diagonal lane open for a medium length pass for Piszczeck to run onto up the right sideline, and before they knew it, Piszczek found the speed left to run onto the ball behind the Köln defenders, to turn the corner and head for goal and to float a perfect cross for the far post. Two Köln defenders were set up in front of the goaltender, but were unaware that the speedster Hakimi was flying into the box on a full sprint, jumped up into the beautiful cross and powered a beautiful header into goal. It isn’t just that the Köln defenders were caught flat footed, they just seemed unaware when Piszczek turned that corner and was headed for the box that Hakimi was blazing at goal from the other side until it was too late. Once the cross was in the air, it was too late for them to react and Hakimi was at full speed on a mission to bury it.
Even after it was 2-1, Köln continued to fight for the draw they believed they deserved. Again, they dug deep and found the energy to throw everyone forward and push for the tying score. Unfortunately for them, Dortmund just had too much left. Dortmund fought hard for the ball in their own end, and having won it, it was just too easy to launch a long ball up the right sideline for Sancho to hit the afterburners and run onto. Recognizing that the two defenders left in the Köln end would close on Sancho, Alcacer sprinted from the Dortmund box to the Köln box and waited for the effortless finish that was all too easy after Sancho recognized his run and fed him a pass into the middle of goal where it was just simply Alcacer with only Timo Horn to beat. 3-1 Dortmund and the game was over. And, what a different Alcacer this is, as he had played all 95 minutes, but still had the stamina and speed to go box-to-box on a full sprint for the nail in the coffin. Köln may be 0-2 and in the basement, but there should be much better days for this club this season. Right now, I’d be surprised if they were fighting to stay up in the Spring. As for Dortmund, bring on Union, as Dortmund travel to the German capital next week.