Borussia Mönchengladbach’s unbelievable self-destruction away to Schalke on Friday night aside (“an epic battle that looked like the gods were having fun up on Mount Olympus,” Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote after the Royal Blues’ grotesquely fortunate 2-1 win), Bundesliga matchday 27 was rather low on unexpected results and sensational matches.
And no, Hamburger SV losing 3-1 at home to TSG Hoffenheim doesn’t really count either, I’m afraid. But plenty of beauty and wonder could be found in the ordinary, too.
Take Dortmund’s 3-1 win at Augsburg, for example. Coming at the end of their sixth consecutive Englische Woche (a week with midweek fixtures), their trip to Bavaria had all the hallmarks of a tired 1-1 draw. The Black and Yellows were even lucky to go in level at half-time, after Augsburg’s Icelandic striker Alfred Finnbogason had given the relegation-threatened home side an early lead. Thomas Tuchel’s men looked sluggish: “we appeared like a side that had carried a heavy load, physically and mentally, in the recent past” admitted the BVB coach, “there were many small mistakes, no pace. It was difficult to cover the spaces, to pass into spaces, to be aggressive and tight in the Gegenpressing.” One of their very few decent moves in the first half, a combination between Marco Reus, Nuri Sahin and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, resulted in the latter squeezing in a deflected equaliser seconds before the break.
Dortmund came back stronger, calmer, more focused, and in the end, their movement overwhelmed the hard-working home side. Gonzalo Castro and striker Adrian Ramos, deputising for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was on compassionate leave, secured all three points for the second-best team in Germany. It was Dortmund’s 13th win in 15 games since the winter break, only the mighty Hertha (0-0) and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern (0-0) have managed to hold them in 2016.
Dortmund’s outrageous consistency in all three competitions has banished all talk about the Europa League’s alleged negative effect but it was interesting to hear Mats Hummels suggest that they might have been even closer to Bayern – who are still ahead by five points – if it weren’t for the Thursday-Sunday rhythm that has had them playing catch-up throughout the season. “We would love them to be in a situation where we win our game [first] and then maybe see them feel a bit of pressure,” said Dortmund’s captain. “But you have say they’re playing with incredible dominance. But if they stutter, we’ll be there, on their coat tails. Let’s see how long this will carry on.”
The result at Augsburg might have been regulation, but the performance was still exemplary. Hummels praised his side’s maturity while Tuchel said “they showed extraordinary attitude and willingness to win.”. The ascetic, mostly-vegan 42-year-old has toned down the volume and the rhetoric after Jürgen Klopp’s departure, his sentences carry fewer exclamations marks and his team’s buildup play is more measured. But the team’s relentless drive is reminiscent of Klopp’s title-winning years, where winning had also become a habit and the team is completely at ease with their hard-working ways. “We have to enjoy overcoming resistance,” Tuchel had vowed with typical, monk-like devotion. His former president at Mainz, Harald Strutz, once said that he was afraid to greet the coach in the morning during training camps, for fear of breaking his concentration. It’s become patently clear that his combination of an improved dietary regime (no wheat, no sugar) and tactical and mental fine-tuning of the players have taken this side to a new level. Tuchel has looked at their sleeping habits and prescribed books to read. Mkhitaryan, one of Europe’s most gifted technicians but also fragile soul, has learned to stop worrying after reading Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis.” “It’s like it was written especially for me,” said the Armenian midfielder. “I used to make all the mistakes mentioned there. I’m really grateful that the coach has changed the way I think.”
At White Hart Lane on Thursday, Tuchel said the team’s professional, positive attitude was “the glue” that held everything together. He’s been a stickler for politeness and humility since his arrival in Westphalia, and there’s no question that his ultra-dedicated yet modest ways have rubbed off on his squad. Back in December, local paper Ruhrnachrichten reported that upon his return from the training camp in Dubai, Julian Weigl found a note in his letterbox from a young boy living next door; they both shared the same first name and the lad had written to his idol. Weigl, Dortmund’s 20-year-old shooting star, a midfielder generating interest all over Europe, decided to pay him a visit with his girlfriend Sarah. The two of them end up staying for two hours at their neighbour’s house and at the end of that afternoon, Sarah offered to babysit for young Julian in the future. It’s a story that seems barely credible. But it’s true.
In a pure sporting sense, their rapid return to greatness is all the more remarkable if you consider that they lost the iconic Klopp after seven years in May and have had to fend off bids – both dreamt up by interested parties and real – for many of their star performers on a daily basis. Players’ wages come in at €130m per season, roughly half of Chelsea’s outlay, which just goes to show that their elite-level football doesn’t have to command elite-level pay-checks and transfer fees. It’s a minor miracle in this day and age, and should be appreciated as such, even if Tuchel’s brilliantly re-engineered Dortmund machine has made winning all the time look almost ordinary.
Michael Henke, the man best known for high-fiving Ottmar Hitzfeld on the touchline at Dortmund and Bayern, revealed a shocking conspiracy at the heart of the German game on Saturday. “You get totally robbed here,” the Ingolstadt assistant coach thundered from beneath his tin foil hat after the Bavarian club’s 2-1 defeat at Hertha, “it’s all because German capital has to play in the Champions League.” It’s one explanation for Pal Dardai’s men doing so well but leaves one, very troubling question: does Angela Merkel know how the Uefa coefficient works?
Hertha, incidentally, are looking for a new ground as it’s tricky to fill the old Olympic stadium. “We need to start the discussion (about building our own),” said sporting director Michael Preetz. Berlin-based Max Kruse, who occasionally turns out for reasonably nearby VfL Wolfsburg in between poker competitions, might soon be looking for new home, too. The 28-year-old forward was suspended from Joachim Löw’s Germany squad, with the club’s backing, after getting into an argument with a woman who had taken photos of him in a nightclub on Saturday night (Kruse had taken her phone and deleted the offending pics). “It was time to send a signal,” said VfL sporting director Klaus Allofs, who hinted that Kruse’s bon vivant ways had been a problem in the past as well. After losing €75,000 (£59,000) in a Berlin cab recently, Kruse was also ticked off for eating too much Nutella by his manager Dieter Hecking last week. He is, in other words, most unlikely to receive an offer from Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund any time soon.
Results: Schalke 2-1 Borussia Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg 1-1 Darmstadt, HSV 1-3 Hoffenheim, Werder Bremen 1-1 Mainz, Köln 0-1 Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin 2-1 Ingolstadt, Eintracht Frankfurt 1-0 Hannover, Stuttgart 0-2 Leverkusen, Augsburg 1-3 Borussia Dortmund.
This article was written by Raphael Honigstein, for theguardian.com on Monday 21st March 2016 18.50 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010