x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Domestic disturbances run deep in Germany

Holtby and Schalke will be keen to exploit a leaky Dortmund in the Ruhr derby, but defensive woes are widespread, writes Ian Hawkey.

Schalke’s Lewis Holtby is taking a more cautious approach to the Borussia Dortmund tie.
Schalke’s Lewis Holtby is taking a more cautious approach to the Borussia Dortmund tie.

German football has presented a Jekyll and Hyde image to the rest of the world over the last nine days.

The national team, widely tipped as the most coherent future threat to Spain's dominance of the European stage, scored 10 goals in their two World Cup qualifiers. And not just against minnows, either.

Both Ireland, a team Germany put six goals past, and Sweden - four - were at the last European championship tournament.

The problem for Joachim Low's free-scoring, young side was what then happened in Berlin in the second half against the Swedes. Germany were 4-0 up as the game crept into its last 30 minutes. The final score? 4-4.

An old stereotype caricatures strong German teams as resolute in defence, jealous of a lead and ultra-efficient once in control of a match, in padlocking their advantage firmly. As the players emerged from their Swedish trauma, they all lined up, shaking their heads, to explain they had never before experienced a turnaround like it. Germany - nor the West Germany of the second half of the 20th century - had never let go a four-goal lead before.

The reverberations from that dramatic night continue to shudder into the weekend, where domestic football resumes with some intriguing fixtures.

Bayern Munich, the league leaders, now go to newly promoted Fortuna Dusseldorf today with genuine questions being asked about whether a shell-shocked sextet of Bayern players - the Bayern goalkeeper, three of their back four, plus two deep midfielders were all in action against Sweden - might suddenly lose their club impregnability after the drama in Berlin. Bayern have conceded only two goals in seven matches so far in the Bundesliga.

But that hermetic defensive record is by no means typical of the Bundesliga. Modern German football is not all about mean rearguards and stoicism. Just as the national team put an emphasis on youthful dynamism, so too do the reigning champions Borussia Dortmund.

Dortmund, who take on their keenest local rivals, Schalke, in the big Ruhr derby, have been suffering this season from some of the symptoms Germany showed - albeit the national side suffered them in a more extreme form - against the Swedes.

Dortmund sit only fourth in the table, two points behind Schalke, largely because they have conceded goals too freely. Three times in their last four games, against Hannover, Manchester City - in the Champions League - and Eintracht Frankfurt, leads have been conceded and only a point taken. Although they thrashed Borussia Monchengladbach 5-0 in their last home game, Dortmund had let in six goals in their previous two fixtures, a defeat at Hamburg and the 3-3 draw with Frankfurt.

There is an element of risk in the style of football encouraged by Dortmund's head coach Jurgen Klopp, with full-backs pushing forward and counterattacks supported by heavy numbers of advancing midfielders, but the recent laxness has concerned Klopp, who has fitness doubts today over the defender Marcel Schmelzer and the midfielders Kuba and Ilkay Gundogan, while Mario Gotze, the young striker, is definitely out.

Schalke are also experiencing some of the frailties at the back that seem to be something of a national complaint. Only Bayern, of the Bundesliga's top six, have conceded goals at less than an average of a goal-a-game so far.

Schalke so far have found enough potency to compensate, having hit 10 goals in their last four matches and among their attacking resources is Lewis Holtby, the forward-thinking midfielder who captained the German Under 21s in their successful play-off against Switzerland to book a place at next summer's European Under 21 finals.

Holtby is the son an English father and German mother, who met when Holtby senior was stationed with the British air force there. The player was eligible to represent England, but is committed to the country where he was born and grew up.

So the English look on in envy as he rises within the German game.

Germans meanwhile applaud the way he is maturing. Ahead of the Ruhr derby last season, he stirred controversy by refusing to say the word "Dortmund" and, seeking approval from fanatic Schalke supporters, called them "that other team" and predicted a Schalke triumph. His team then lost.

Speaking to Kicker magazine in his capacity as national junior captain, a more temperate Holtby said last week: "I won't be such a loudmouth ahead of this derby". Very wise. As the senior German team would testify, too much swagger can swiftly be punished.