ESPN’s lead German Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae tackles a variety of hot topics in his regular column. From a potential thriller this Saturday as RB Leipzig host Borussia Dortmund, one of their most fruitful cities to visit, (stream LIVE, 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+) to the delights of unbeaten Freiburg, who face Bayern (stream LIVE, 10:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+). Plus why one coaching change might have another tactician sitting uncomfortably.
Leipzig and Dortmund pitched up front and centre in the Champions League for German football enthusiasts on Wednesday night against PSG and Ajax respectively. A return of just one point from the two matches was below what was really required, but you can’t legislate for an early Andre Silva missed penalty that would have given Jesse Marsch’s team a 2-0 cushion against an elite side, or a dubious Mats Hummels red card for BVB that German commentators remain incredulous about.
Let’s hope both clubs plan on saving a serving of hearty and unpredictable Bundesliga fare for Saturday evening in Germany. There is every chance, although anyone with knowledge of an admittedly short head-to-head history knows, this is another Angstgegner (“bogey team”) situation for Leipzig.
Dortmund have won four competitive encounters in a row against them, including a 4-1 triumph in last season’s DFB-Pokal final in Berlin. You can go further back and find a similar story: six wins out of seven for BVB. Leipzig’s lone home win against the Schwarzgelben arrived in the very first meeting of the two — more than five years ago — when all teams were still figuring out how to contain RBL’s power and Gegenpressing style.
Jesse Marsch’s maiden season as a Bundesliga head coach has been a roller coaster as Leipzig have been up one week and down the next. Last week, at Eintracht Frankfurt, Tuta‘s last-gasp equaliser ruined the coach’s dinner as he was closing in on his first Bundesliga victory against fellow Euro representatives. As he later told German outlet ZDF: “It’s like a broken record. We’re not sharp or consistent enough in front of goal and there are too many simple mistakes at the back. We can’t yet say we’re a top side in this league.”
Quite simply, Leipzig have struggled to put a complete performance together this season. It’s all been in fits and starts, and there are those in the Bundesliga ex-player fraternity who aren’t quite sure about the change from primarily a “ball-control” game under Julian Nagelsmann back to the wilder, higher-tempo style under Marsch that used to be the club’s hallmark. Last week, Didier Hamann questioned on TV whether it was right to take players who have developed in football terms and make them enter a “time capsule” in this way.
Somewhere along the line, Marsch and Leipzig need a win against a team on a level or better than them, and it’s entirely possible that it comes this weekend. As I wrote last week, Dortmund are having to piece things together game by game given the extended absence of the talismanic striker Erling Haaland. It’s not going to be perfect without him, so it’s a matter of finding a line leader for the day – whether Thorgan Hazard, Steffen Tigges or Marco Reus – or a combination of all three in a kind of hybrid attacking system.
Will Dortmund continue to profit on the pitch against Leipzig, or is Saturday when RBL — with their unbridled energy — change things for the better?
The timing of events in the past week or so has meant not having any scope to dwell on Bayern’s 5-0 DFB-Pokal debacle in Gladbach. It was a historic evening by any stretch of the imagination, but typically “Bayern-like” — an expression in that exact English form now widely used in German — was their response against Union Berlin away and Benfica at home in the Bundesliga and Champions League respectively.
Both performances featured defensive deficiencies — in fact, Bayern have conceded as many goals in three matches as in their previous 14. But when Robert Lewandowski is scoring hat-tricks while still squandering an opportunity from the penalty spot, it tells you all you need to know. Bayern are not going to lose many games.
Were it not for Leipzig vs. Dortmund on Saturday, top billing would undoubtedly go to Bayern vs. Freiburg instead. The team, from the scenic Breisgau region in the glorious south-west of Germany, are a club for which everyone has a bit of a soft spot. That they are the last remaining Bundesliga club boasting an unbeaten record this term is a tribute not just to avuncular coach Christian Streich, who regularly charms with his Suedbadisch accent and dialect, but also to the long-time servants around him, assistants Jochen Saier, Klemens Hartenbach and Oliver Leki.
Streich is not pretending for one moment that Freiburg, with their minuscule budget and limited resources, can win the Bundesliga, but it will be fun to see Vincenzo Grifo and Co. go toe to toe with the Rekordmeister. Afterwards, Streich will be the live guest on ZDF’s popular highlights show, which takes place in front of a live studio audience. He rarely disappoints.
Florian Kohfeldt didn’t miss a beat. For years, many whom I greatly respect in the German game have told me what a fine thinker and organiser the former Werder Bremen coach is. That may seem like a strange thing to say if you focus solely on his being responsible for Werder’s first relegation in more than four decades, but he was always going to end up back in the game before long. When Wolfsburg managing director Joerg Schmadtke brought Mark van Bommel’s unimpressive and chaotic few weeks at the helm to an end, he called Kohfeldt.
There’s something about Kohfeldt in Wolfsburg that just fits. Maybe the green strips help! Seriously: in just two games, Kohfeldt has had them playing the kind of football we associate with the team from the Autostadt. The emphasis is once again on a tight defence with a switch to a back three, more transitional play and a stronger sense of on-pitch solidarity. After a horrendous run, with four straight league defeats and no wins in their first three European games, you can’t quibble with back-to-back wins against Leverkusen (in the Bundesliga) and FC Salzburg (in the UEFA Champions League).
With Schmadtke having had immediate success with his appointment, one wonders who else might be on a shaky footing. Oliver Glasner, who left the Wolfsburg post in May after internal disagreements with Schmadtke, is the one to watch and Eintracht Frankfurt’s match away to Furth is an important barometer.
Failure against the team anchored at the foot of the Bundesliga, just before an international break, is something Glasner must avoid at all costs.