The beginning of the Rückrunde is perhaps the most exciting time of the Bundesliga season, and is definitely my favorite time of the year. For me, what makes the first couple of matchweeks as the clubs return from their extended winter breaks is the renewed sense of commitment to a singular goal that each team displays. This is true of the beginning of the year, of course, but come January, teams have not only played enough matches already that they have come into form, but they have also learned about what their capabilities are as a team, where they stand in the Bundesliga and, most importantly, what their goals realistically are.
When Bayer Leverkusen travelled to Dortmund during matchweek one, both teams had dreams of finishing in the top two and, less realistically, giving Bayern Munich a run for the top spot. Leverkusen would emerge 2-0 victors and have played exceptionally well this year, currently sitting in third. Dortmund, on the other hand, have not. Rankled by injuries, injuries and more injuries, Dortmund have been not only the biggest disappointment in Germany, but probably the biggest surprise in all of European soccer. They currently sit at 17th in the table and rather than preparing for a battle for yet another UEFA Champions League spot, they find themselves in a relegation battle.
Bayer Leverkusen comes in 17 points behind Bayern, a gap that sporting director Rudi Voller recently described as “a gap which you will never be able to close…because that gap has grown so big that you can’t scout well enough that you will be anywhere near the same level as them. We are poles apart.” They are just nine points behind second place Vfl Wolfsburg, however, and that gap will be much easier to close. Just as important, five clubs sit within 4 points of Leverkusen, so they will need to improve their form to ensure a Champions League berth.
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In this match, and for the rest of the year, look for Roger Schmidt to continue with his high-pressing, incisive and aggressive style of soccer, especially against a Dortmund side that has conceded 26 goals this season. The key will be to use these tactics to create as many set pieces as possible, as these have consistently troubled Dortmund. By keeping the ball in the attacking third, they will give themselves a better chance to score, but just as importantly, they will prevent a Dortmund attack that has not spent a lot of time together this year from building a rhythm and gaining momentum.
Schmidt does face some roster challenges in doing this however. He will be without Robbie Kruse and Heung-Min Son due to the AFC final between Australia and South Korea, and he will also be without Tin Jedvaj due to injury. Schmidt is creative with his players though and Leverkusen had impressive depth. The key player for them will be Josip Drmic. Since signing from Nurnberg last summer, Drmic has struggled mightily. Now would be the perfect time for him to right the ship, especially as the rumors begin to swirl about his future with die Werkself.
Meanwhile, Dortmund needs to counter Schmidt’s high line with patience and precision. Regardless of the lineup that Jurgen Klopp chooses, it will a squad that has spent very little time together on the pitch. This will be a problem that is consistent for Klopp’s side; inexpercne with each other. Through the first of the season, Dortmund was decimated by injuries. Through the Rückrunde, the key for Klopp will be establishing a steady eleven that can compete with not only Leverkusen but also Bayern, Scahlke, Wolfsburg and the other tope clubs in the Bundesliga.
Dortmund should rely heavily on Marco Reus and his return to heath. For all of the problems that have surrounded the side this year, a player of Reus’s ability is a cure-all. When he is 100%, Reus has the ability to change the way a team functions. Leverkusen is incisive and aggressive, Dortmund needs to fight fire with fire if they should have hope in this match, and Reus is their only hope to do so. The story of the second half of the season for Der BvB may very well be how Reus returns from his injury. Their first match will set a precedent for how their Rückrunde goes.
The Rückrunde represents a chance for Leverkusen to recommit and for Dortmund to rebound. Look for both clubs to attempt to do so from the second tomorrow’s match begins until the final whistle.
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