Madrid will travel to Germany this week to meet a young and exciting Borussia Dortmund team. Let's have a look at the team, its tactics and style, and its record against important recent opposition.
A scouting job on Real Madrid's opponents wouldn't be complete without a comment on its rather magnificent location. So we begin with -
Welcome to the Signal Iduna Park (formerly the Westfalenstadion). It has a famous terrace because UEFA exempted German clubs from its ban on terraces when stadiums were required to redesign after Heysel and Hillsborough. That is how important terraces are to German footballing culture. The sight of 25,000 rocking, swaying and singing fans on match-day (and particularly during a derby against Schalke, as on the weekend) is absolutely staggering. A sea of yellow and black.
Madrid will not play to the terraces; Germany's exemption does not extend to European nights, when UEFA requires seats to be moved in for the occasion. Expect a loud and good natured support from Dortmund fans however. They will be at home, and at an even more significant advantage when it comes to out-singing the opposition fans than they were during their visit to the Etihad stadium on October 3 - when they entirely drowned out the home fans.
Team, Tactics And A Note On Manchester City
Dortmund are the bright young things of German football. The more Joachim Loew tries to turn his German footballers into the Spanish ones he so admires with a fast-paced, short-passing game that presses high up the pitch, the more they seem to become like Dortmund. The first hour of Germany's game in Berlin against Sweden last week (that is to say, before the Germans imploded defensively), with fast, precise and elegant passing around the six yard area, typifies that style.
A significant number of Polish Internationals play for Dortmund too. With 7 Germans and 3 Poles in their preferred starting line-up in the Champions League, the side is nearly a combination of the best of both national teams' young talent.
Things that are interesting to note: Dortmund rotates its attackers less than most other teams. Robert Lewandowski, until he was rested the weekend before the team met Manchester City, had played an excess of 60 games in a row. He's no Karim Benzema when it comes to natural technique, but he benefits from a situation that means he has around him attackers who are very fluent and attuned to one another - and he doesn't share minutes with Gonzalo Higuaín. Dortmund is never more impressive, or seems more automatic, than when they are making quick, but calm, one-touch passes around the penalty area of an opponent.
Lewandowski has 17 assists to his 35 goals in those 60 games. Those statistics speak for themselves and for the involved and collaborative nature of Dortmund's game.
That game is marked by its fast pace, relentless pressing and 200-miles-an-hour effort, but also by its relative lack of experience and extreme youth. For all that, Dortmund are tactically intelligent in a way that suggests more than just carefully trained moves or pointless, badly-directed effort. The team obviously reacted, and reacted intelligently, to Mancini's unexpected 3-man-at-the-back set-up - a move, incidentally, that suggests he had never watched a Dortmund game. The Citizen's left was ridiculously exposed to Dortmund's powerful right-wing of Łukasz Piszczek and Jakub Błaszczykowski and the team was so fluid it was hard to tell at first where Mario Götze (more on him below) was even playing - centre, left or right.
The team played, as they always do, "on the chalk" - a wide game that exploited Manchester City's lack of width. They had about 30% possession but almost double the shots and their transitions from defence to attack were dangerous and impeccable. But for an unlucky penalty awarded against them in the dying moments of the match, they should have won the game.
These quick transitions between defence and attack are something Jose Mourinho, famously, tries to make his teams aware of - changes in momentum, and opportunities to break. And as it happens, Mourinho said this week that Dortmund and Madrid are similar in style.
Players To Watch For
Please note: against Manchester City, Dortmund's entire line-up cost less than 40 million Euros.
Robert Lewandowski - see above.
Marco Reus - nicknamed "Rolls Reus" - Dortmund's "big" marquee signing at 17 million Euros and one of the German national team's new stars. This lad is a testament to the general stupidity of a transfer market anomaly that sees perpetually under-valued and outrageously talented young Germans being sold for almost nothing. He was the Bundesliga's player of the year last year and chose Dortmund over a much-expected move to Bayern. He is one of the best young left-wingers in Europe with a strong and precise shot, good dribbling ability, perfect close-body-control, perfect touch, pace, and an eye for the final pass.
İlkay Gündoğan is another young German international. He was perhaps the best performer of the Bundesliga's second half of the season and the reason, primarily, why the absence of Nuri Şahin was hardly noticed. Indeed, the team did better last year than the year before. It's not easy to make the usually brilliant Yaya Touré look clumsy on the pitch. See Gündoğan's performance against the Citizens for details.
Mats Hummels is perhaps the best young centre-back in Europe. Though occasionally prone to mistakes due to inexperience, he has a great natural talent and good positioning.
Jakub Błaszczykowski, Poland's captain, will be missing this game. It is a significant loss to Dortmund, and the German press consider his absence on the right to be a major reason why the team lost to Schalke on the weekend. His partner on the wing, Łukasz Piszczek, was a transfer target of Real Madrid's over the summer. On the other wing is Marcel Schmelzer, a fullback with plenty of running in him and an excellent eye for creative passing.
Mario Götze has returned to Dortmund's starting line-up after an injury plagued season. Nominally a 10, he spent much of the match against Manchester on the right wing and was rested on the weekend against Schalke. He reminds me very strongly of a 20 year old Özil for Werder Bremen. He is relatively small and has the same casual elegance and perfect ball-handling skills. He also benefits from a better natural physique; Özil will never, no matter how hard he works at it, be that robust. Götze has an eye for goal and his movement around the box is spontaneous and intuitive - as is the entire forward line's.
That final observation on Götze sums up Dortmund's style. It's difficult, in fact, to talk about Dortmund's individuals without talking about the team around them.
In general: this is a team that makes up for a lack of individual brilliance of the type that Madrid's performers have (though they are not without brilliance) through a relentless, fluid, pacy, automatic team effort when they are on the top of their game. Everyone runs for everyone else. Everyone moves for everyone else.
Jürgen Klopp is one of the few managers in world football who can outdo Mourinho on the touchline. He is considered slightly "touched" even by Bundesliga standards. Goal celebrations involve much enthusiastic jumping up and down and effusions of joy.
In the press conference room however, the difference couldn't be more extreme. Klopp is boring (read: modest) in press conferences. His players aren't much more exciting. Marcel Schmelzer's typical post-match interview (and you could put these words into the mouth of any Dortmund player, post-match): "We played well. We're not concerned about the Championship. We just want to enjoy our football." - and this from a two-time championship winner, and winner of the domestic double last season, by the age of 24.
In a commentary published by The Guardian, Rafa Honigstein considered the level of humility shown by the players and by Klopp to be nearly obnoxious, considering their talent, to the point of self-parody. Fans of the team take a different view, and there's no doubt there are few more likable teams, or managers, anywhere.
Readers can draw their own conclusions. Comparing this team to Madrid is difficult. It's too simplistic to say that Madrid relies on individual brilliance and Dortmund is all team-effort, but the stereotypes exist for a reason. Madrid has the internationals of Spain, Brazil, France, Portugal, Germany, Croatia and Argentina. Dortmund developed players like Götze and has bought the rest for almost nothing and at an earlier stage in their development. Their "big" signing was actually a home-coming, since Reus developed in their youth set-up. The teams have met fairly recently in a friendly (during which Kaká scored his first goal for Madrid in a 5-0 shellacking - away - at Dortmund) but friendlies played 3 years ago indicate nothing and the teams would never meet outside the Champions League otherwise.
I leave aside the differences between the domestic leagues, which are too many to count and make even an argument about which is stronger almost impossible to make. Too much depends on luck and form on the day.
This would be true even before one considers the injuries to both teams, which have weakened Madrid's defence and appear to have also weakened Dortmund on the weekend, when they lost to Schalke in the most important game of their league season. They add an air of unpredictability to the encounter that was not expected and that the coaches will have to work around.
Dortmund were unexpectedly poor in Europe last year, finishing bottom of their group. They topped their league however, and capped off their performance by winning the DFB Cup against Bayern Munich in the final by putting an amazing 5 goals past Manuel Neuer.
Bayern made the final of the Champions League and should have won it. They matched Madrid on the way, and reached the final after a penalty shoot-out at the Bernabéu in the semi-final. Dortmund couldn't even scrape into the Europa league. But they beat Bayern twice in the league and once in the cup.
Why mention Bayern? Because when teams never meet, comparisons can only be drawn (and it is a shaky proposition to begin with) from the way in which the players react against similar opposition.
Madrid are on their way to face a team that floundered last year because playing at the rate they do requires a stamina and experience the team didn't have yet - and couldn't sustain twice a week. This year they are doing better in Europe while floundering, ever-so-slightly, at home. They have injuries to contend with that they didn't have against Manchester City and that appear to have hampered them on the weekend. The big test for Dortmund in Europe this year, so far, will be Real Madrid.
And it seems, from the look of this group, that the big test for Real Madrid could be Borussia Dortmund.