After two and a half months, there is, finally, a big match–a game that matters not just because it is happening, or because it evokes memories of past derbies, but because it could settle a title. Tuesday's meeting between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich would have been huge anyway, but with the stage clear, Der Klassiker–as the Bundesliga’s international marketing department has dubbed it–is indisputably the center of the footballing world this week.
Bayern’s lead at the top is four points. Win on Tuesday and, with just six games remaining, an eighth straight title would be all but guaranteed. The other sides who might potentially have challenged a duopoly that has endured since 2009 have dropped points since the resumption, with RB Leipzig held at home by Freiburg in the first game back (their third straight Bundesliga draw prior to Sunday's rout of Mainz), while Borussia Monchengladbach lost at home to Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. Barring something remarkable, it’s just Dortmund vs. Bayern now.
The sides have been in very similar form since the Bundesliga began again. Both have had comfortable home wins–although Bayern may perhaps be a little unnerved by conceding two to Eintracht Frankfurt–and both have recorded slightly disjointed but ultimately comfortable 2-0 wins away against dogged and well-organized opposition.
Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller have both returned looking as sharp as ever, but it is that defensive laxity shown by Bayern that gives Dortmund reason for optimism. Bayern had hit the woodwork and drawn a fine save out of Kevin Trapp even before taking the lead against Frankfurt, but Martin Hinteregger’s goals were both the result of weirdly lax marking. The temptation in such unusual circumstances is to assume that the break must be responsible for every glitch, and perhaps Bayern’s vulnerability is simply the result of a lack of practice, particularly given how much of the training that has been possible over the past couple of months has been socially distanced. Or perhaps not; mistakes can happen at any time.
Either way, Dortmund is probably the team in the Bundesliga most likely to expose weaknesses in the back four. Central to that is Erling Haaland, a remarkable center forward who seems physically built to a different scale than almost every other player. Perhaps his touch is not quite so silken as that of some others, perhaps he lacks a little tight technical ability, but he is a brilliant finisher–as his guided first-time side-footed goal against Schalke demonstrated–and his physique presents an almost insoluble problem.
With muscular forwards who are so good in the air, the orthodoxy is to defend high up the pitch, to make sure that if they are winning headers or overpowering defenders they are doing so at a safe distance from goal. But with quick forwards, the logic is the opposite: defend deep and deny them room into which they can accelerate. With Haaland, what do you do? Jerome Boateng, presumably, will look to pick him up, but get too deep and every cross becomes perilous. The last thing a team can do against Haaland, though, is get too high: again and again over the past year, we’ve seen him surging into space before thumping the ball past the keeper.
But it’s not just Haaland that represents a threat for Dortmund. The two creators–Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard so far, although Jadon Sancho appeared fit again in his substitute appearance against Wolfsburg on Saturday and Giovanni Reyna lies in reserve–are adept at finding space and drawing defenders out pf position, which is one of the reasons Raphael Guerreiro, surging forward on the left, has been so effective in the past two games. The presence of Joshua Kimmich as the right side of Bayern’s two holding midfielders is beneficial given his familiarity with the fullback position; but still, that triangle of Kimmich, right back Benjamin Pavard and Boateng as the right side of the two central defenders, will come under intense pressure.
Defensively, in as far as it’s possible to judge over two games against lesser opponents, Dortmund has looked rather more secure than it did before lockdown, but there is a sense here that it is not playing just against Bayern but against recent history. Bayern beat Dortmund 4-0 in November, but, more than that, in each of the past three seasons when Bayern has met Dortmund late in the campaign, it has won handsomely, by an aggregate score of 15-1. Each of those three games has been in Munich, which may make some difference–although whether home advantage means as much in a closed stadium is debatable. Dortmund is battling the sense of Bayern superiority.
Whatever the outcome, however the game goes, there is clear sense of how refreshing it is to be talking about actual football again, about tactics, players and the psychology of the game.
Tuesday’s game gives a welcome sense of at least some kind.