Gotze thriving but Dortmund need Aubameyang, Pulisic on form vs. Hannover
On Saturday, Borussia Dortmund travel to Hannover looking to get back to winning ways after a 3-2 defeat to RB Leipzig and a disappointing 2-2 draw away to Frankfurt. A five-point lead over Bayern Munich at the top of the table has evaporated to a mere advantage on goal difference.
Since Dortmund's neighbours VfL Bochum were relegated to the second division in 2010, the "18th home match" has since passed on to the match at the HDI-Arena in Lower Saxony, where the entire away end is usually packed with fans wearing the black and yellow.
Dortmund fans had to make do without one of their favourite away trips of the year last season due to the 96ers being relegated to the second division. Since coming back up to the German top flight, Andre Breitenreiter's side have looked comfortable, sitting in sixth place.
"They are not your average promoted team," Dortmund manager Peter Bosz said at his news conference on Friday -- a line that has been mostly used to describe fizzy-drink-funded RB Leipzig last year, but also holds true to BVB's next opponents.
Unlike many promoted teams, Hannover kept the style of play they utilised as heavy favourites in the second tier. In the Bundesliga, they enjoy the sixth-most possession on average; a refreshing sight in a league that includes a lot of teams that try their luck with transition football.
Whether Hannover are able to keep the ball long enough to evade Dortmund's pressing remains to be seen, but chances are they won't have to. When Bosz studies tapes of his next opponents, the first game to look at should be Hannover's 1-0 home victory over Schalke on Aug. 27, when Breitenreiter applied a man-marking scheme to stifle his opponent's midfield.
Opposing BVB with a man-marking scheme in midfield has been the latest trend against the Black and Yellows, as Niko Kovac's Eintracht Frankfurt perfectly exercised last Sunday, bringing Dortmund's build-up play to a halt. Even third-tier side Magdeburg frustrated the Black and Yellows for long stretches of the first half in Tuesday's second cup round, albeit ultimately losing 5-0.
So for Bosz, it will be all about winning the battle in midfield in order to revitalise his team's possession play that has been sub-par in the past week. Long balls down the field are not an option against Hannover, who have imposing centre-back Salif Sane waiting to pick them out of the air.
Bosz will be able to rely on Mario Gotze, who was rested during the midweek fixture. "I am finally back at 100 percent," Gotze told Sport Bild this week, adding: "I have a really good feeling out there on the pitch. I realise that I want to take on responsibility and that I can actually do so as well. The team gives me the trust."
The 25-year-old has easily been Dortmund's best outfield player in recent weeks. Although not as flashy as in his first stint at BVB, when Gotze played as No. 10, he is no less important deeper in midfield for his team.
His ability to hold on to the ball, even when pressured, has been phenomenal and there is a good chance the Ruhr side would be still five points ahead if his teammates were playing on a similar level. On the contrary, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Christian Pulisic have both seen their form dip through the busy weeks and are both questionable for Saturday.
"I have to watch them in training today before I can decide whether I'll take them to Hannover," Bosz said on Friday.
With Andrey Yarmolenko, Maximilian Philipp and Jadon Sancho, Dortmund have options to replace Pulisic if need be, but it could be a bit trickier to make do without Aubameyang, who has scored 10 of the 25 league goals for BVB.
The great performance from 18-year-old Swedish centre-forward Alexander Isak against Magdeburg might have just come at the right time for the youngster to convince his coach he is a valid alternative in case BVB's star striker is sidelined.
"Isak's an option. Several players could replace Auba. But let's first see what's up with Auba," Bosz said. "Auba's been a key player for Dortmund for several years. Isak is very young, he only turned 18, only came here in January. He's a very talented player, and every minute he plays is important for him."
At the back, meanwhile, Dortmund will have more players at their disposal with centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos coming back from suspension. Experiments such as midfielder Julian Weigl playing at the heart of the defence, as it was the case in Frankfurt, should be a thing of the past.
That is especially the case after Dan-Axel Zagadou showed impressively on Tuesday night that he is more than capable to play at centre-back if need be.
Dortmund need this win desperately after a run of bad results, especially with Bayern Munich visiting the Westfalenstadion next week. With three points in Hannover, the Black and Yellows could even rebuild a gap at the top of the table, as the clash between RB Leipzig and Bayern is viewed as a wide-open contest.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.