The Bundesliga is set to restart on Saturday after a two-month hiatus, continuing where it left off with the fixtures of Matchday 26 which entails one of the most attractive matches the German top flight has to offer: The Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke.
The derby is dubbed the “Mother of all Derbies” because it is between the two biggest clubs from the ‘Ruhr Valley’, Germany’s most densely populated area where the passion for football is ingrained into the culture like nowhere else in the country. There is no love lost between the two sets of fans who refer to their respective rivals as ‘Herne-West’ and ‘Lüdschenscheid-Nord’ in a refusal to speak the names the 36 kilometre apart cities of Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen.
In normal times, BVB’s Westfalenstadion would have anticipated a belting atmosphere by over 80,000 visitors. However, due to the ongoing threat of the Coronavirus this game, like all the other remaining Bundesliga fixtures of the 2019-20 season, will be played behind closed doors, at best making the 180th edition of this illustrious rivalry the mother-in-law of all derbies.
Indeed, the way every fan perceives the return of the Bundesliga is a deeply personal thing. For many, football is not just about 22 men chasing a ball but a special past-time spent with friends and family. Due to the restrictions of social distancing or the preoccupation with more pressing concerns can tarnish the experience of football to something entirely undesirable for some at the moment.
Others might just be glad live sport is back on television regardless of how much empty stadiums will diverge from the normalcy the German Football League markets as “Football as it’s meant to be”.
At least from a sporting perspective, this upcoming clash between Dortmund and Schalke is bound to deliver. The Black and Yellows have propelled themselves back into second place by winning seven of eight games since the winter break. With only a four-point deficit to league leaders Bayern Munich, the Westphalians are back in the conversation for the title race.
Meanwhile, there is nothing Schalke 04 would love to do more than to kill BVB’s title-challenge in its tracks like they did in the previous season with an epic 4-2 upset at the Westfalenstadion on Matchday 31.
After all, there isn’t much else left to play for for the Royal Blues, who are currently in sixth place with a 12-point deficit on a Champions League spot. David Wagner’s initial positive spell as the new coach at the helm of the Veltins Arena quickly derailed with only one win out of the last 10 league games as a seemingly refurbished Schalke turned back into the old lacklustre side.
Though the recent form is to be ignored after a two-month break — which could be ruled a positive in BVB’s case as they haven’t exactly lived up to their favourite-tag, winning only one of the last eight Revierderbies.
Furthermore, Lucien Favre has to contend with key-injuries going into the all-important fixture. Next to team captain Marco Reus, who is still recovering from a muscular injury he suffered in February, defender Dan-Axel Zagadou is out with a ligament injury and will likely be replaced by the right-footed Manuel Akanji on the left centre-half position in BVB’s 3-4-3 setup.
Even costlier may be the absence of both Emre Can and Axel Witsel. The duo has formed a very successful double-pivot since Can’s arrival from Juventus in the winter break, bringing much-needed balance and defensive stability to Dortmund’s midfield. Though, at least on paper, the 62-year-old coach should be able to field a capable alternative with the Julian Brandt in the role of the elegant playmaker and Thomas Delaney in the role of the bloodthirsty destroyer.
Delaney’s last game for Dortmund was the scoreless draw against Schalke in October. The 28-year-old Dane has been sidelined with several injuries but his long absence should be mitigated by the fact that the players around him will also be without playing time for at least two months.
In that regard, it is really hard to predict how Bundesliga games will look like after the restart. Favre said at Thursday’s news conference that it will take a couple of games until players will have regained their full fitness. So don’t be surprised if games are slower and scrappier than they were in mid-March.
Though opposed to the scoreless draw at the Veltins-Arena earlier in the season, the new circumstances should help bless the tv audience with at least a three-goal match.
For starters, the lack of rhythm of both sides should lead to an increased amount of mistakes. Schalke, who rely on a very aggressive Gegenpressing will be very susceptible once their players are caught out of position. Meanwhile, the Black and Yellows might be missing their defensive routines during dead-ball situations to allow their rivals the first goal ever in 2020.
In its own, eery way, it will be interesting to see how the complete lack of atmosphere will factor into the game. As sporting director Michael Zorc said on Thursday: “I can’t say much about it because I’ve never witnessed such a derby, so ask me after the game.”
On first look, the absence of a home crowd should be a major disadvantage for BVB. However, with the memories of recent derby games in mind, the lack of pressure and expectation exuding from the stands onto the pitch may help this particularly frail Dortmund team not to implode. The fewer characteristics of a derby there are, the more it could be an advantage for the favourites.
But when you’re looking for reasons why this game won’t be another drab scoreless draw, look no further than Erling Haaland. No striker has had a bigger impact in such a short time frame at BVB than the 19-year-old Norwegian since arriving from RB Salzburg in January.
The 1.94 m tall serial net-rupturer has scored nine goals within the 512 minutes of his eight appearances in the Bundesliga, which are more than double the amount of Schalke’s four goals in the same time frame.
With an average of 1.58 goals per 90 minutes, Haaland will instil fear in the hearts of the Royal Blue defenders. And there is little doubt that the phenom will be ready — with or without fans — as his unbreakable will to win is arguably what ascended him to such heights at a very young age in the first place. In tandem with an equally prolific Jadon Sancho, BVB’s attack should rekindle some appetite for Bundesliga football.
Lastly, watch out for a new perk in the tactical battle. Favre and Wagner each have five substitutions at their disposal due to a novel rule change that is supposed to alleviate the strain on players who will have to contend with nine matches within six weeks. In order to prevent time-wasting, the coaches are still only limited to make changes on three occasions plus the halftime break, which may lead to double, triple or even quadruple swaps at a time. Maybe the Bundesliga will even see a quintuple swap before its conclusion.
Due to several injuries in the team, Dortmund fans may look forward to seeing appearances of youngsters like Tobias Raschl, Leonardo Balerdi or Mateu Morey in addition to the more obvious candidates for substitutions like Giovanni Reyna, Mario Götze and Mahmoud Dahoud in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, this derby will quickly determine whether football is enjoyable in its “new normal”. Whether Dortmund are able to add the suspense of a title race will very much factor into that adjustment.