Three Points: Dortmund vs. Leverkusen
Three quick thoughts from Bayer Leverkusen's 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in their Bundesliga opener on Saturday.
1. Leverkusen's revival
They are hungry, they are young and they are hard-running. Three years after Jupp Heynckes left Bayer Leverkusen for greater things to come at Bayern Munich, a transition period under the coaches Robin Dutt, Sascha Lewandowski and Sami Hyypia finally seems over for Leverkusen.
Forty-seven-year-old Roger Schmidt has arrived from Red Bull Salzburg, where he left his mark during a two-year stint. Schmidt's idea of Gegenpressing, a high-intensity closing down of opponents, was brought to European attention by an impressive 3-0 win at Ajax in the Europa League.
Seven seconds into his Bundesliga career, and with no Gegenpressing, his side took the lead. Son Heung-Min, Sebastian Boenisch and Karim Bellarabi, who walked past World Cup-winner Matthias Ginter and slotted home, combined to score the fastest goal in Bundesliga history.
"That's no coincidence," Schmidt said after the match. "We talked about this before the match. It might have been a bit of luck, but we've tried. It worked out."
Bellarabi had been a surprise in preseason. Returning from a yearlong loan at relegated Eintracht Braunschweig, he was not in many Leverkusen supporters' dream formation.
He started it all, and he ended it when he stole the ball off Erik Durm with only seconds to go. Leverkusen's veteran attacker Stefan Kiessling put the ball past BVB's Australian keeper Mitch Langerak to make it 2-0.
"It was very intense today," Kiessling said after the match. "But you want that, and you just have to go through that. And looking at the result, it was great."
The striker was the man of the match, he won balls, he covered ground and he led Leverkusen's high press.
"We defended like crazy," Kiessling added. Everyone defended like crazy. In Leverkusen's Champions League qualifier at Copenhagen, the Danes found spaces between the lines with long crosses through midfield. On Saturday, the full-backs attacked high and controlled their Dortmund counterparts.
Leverkusen, it seems, can go a long way this season, if they don't get too carried away by their newfound love for attacking football.
2. Docile Dortmund
"They always score when they leave Dortmund," people muttered in Dortmund's press box as they stood and watched the replays of Julian Schieber's first brace for Hertha Berlin. "Robert Lewandowski would have controlled that ball," another one said much later, some 15 minutes before the final whistle. Both attackers left the club in the summer.
But, on Saturday, BVB's midfield looked a much bigger concern. Starting in their new 4-diamond-2 formation, with former captain Sebastian Kehl taking the role as the sole holding midfielder, Dortmund lacked creativity. The two outside midfielders, Milos Jojic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, played too narrow, and Leverkusen won the majority of battles in the centre of the park.
When a Dortmund player was able to shake off his opponent, he made the wrong decisions, or played a sloppy pass and conceded possession. Their buildup play was nonexistent in the first half, and the largely invisible Ciro Immobile rarely got on to more than half chances. Jurgen Klopp's XI failed to produce that final pass.
"That first goal did us no good," Klopp explained. "We were not on the pitch, and it's my job to make sure the team is awake from second one."
Marco Reus was still looking for his form, and even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had impressed in preseason, was reduced to a couple of aimless runs down to the right flank. Dortmund's World Cup-winners Durm and Ginter, who both returned from Brazil without a minute of football, looked out of place too often.
Of course, there were eight players out injured, among them Adrian Ramos, Nuri Sahin, Oliver Kirch and Ilkay Gundogan. It was a bad day for Dortmund, and Leverkusen were strong opposition. It's not the end of the world for Klopp and his men. However, BVB continued their poor form against the Bundesliga's top-nine clubs. They travel to Augsburg now, and are already hoping for the national team break that's to follow. Dortmund need time, and Leverkusen did not allow them any today.
3. Travelling through Germany on a Saturday in August
Not any Saturday, but the restart of Bundesliga, the Weltmeisterliga. The show started in Munich on Friday, but the Bundesliga day is -- and always has been -- Saturday. All over the country games are played in front of fans who travel by car, bus, plane and train.
In addition to Dortmund entertaining Leverkusen, Hamburg played at Cologne, Schalke travelled to Hannover, Hertha hosted Werder Bremen. Those four pairings take place on the country's busiest and main train line, which runs between Cologne and Berlin. At 9:00 in the morning, therefore, the Deutsche Bahn ICE trains were packed with Bundesliga fans of every colour.
"Who are you playing?" asked a guy wearing a Hamburg jersey with Milan Fukal's No. 18 printed on the back when walking past a handful of Dortmund fans.
"Just beat those pill spinners [Leverkusen's nickname is "Pillendreher"], I can't stand them."
"We'll sure do so."
At the other end of the carriage, a group of Schalke fans chatted with a Leverkusen supporter who was hoping for reverse fortunes.
After Germany's glorious summer at the World Cup, the whole country is full of anticipation for the restart of the league. Yes, it was fun to follow the adventures of Joachim Low's men, but what really matters is the league. Coming home to your loved ones, the flirt with the Nationalmannschaft is over.
Like a magnet, the Ruhr area draws people to its heart, with the stadiums of Schalke and Dortmund, along with those just outside in Cologne, Leverkusen and Monchengladbach. This is the heartbeat, the epicentre of the Bundesliga.
Five hours prior to kickoff, fans from Finland, Scotland and all over Germany were outside Dortmund's Westfalenstadion, excited for a unique experience. Seven seconds into the match, they knew that they were at the right place as Leverkusen took the lead.
Meanwhile, a train passed just two kilometres north of the stadium, no doubt with that Hamburg fan on board. His team picked up a point at Cologne.