Dortmund dropped points for the second week in succession as a spirited performance from Mainz in the final quarter of the game and a last-gasp equalizer proved enough to hold the league leaders to a draw.
Both sides came into this game on the back of disappointing 1-0 defeats – Dortmund to Hoffenheim, and Mainz to Leverkusen. They were the success stories of the first half of the campaign, but whereas Dortmund have stayed in good form after the winter break, Mainz have been up and down. There were a number of notable injured absentees – Shinji Kagawa and Patrick Owomoyela for the hosts, and Jan Šimák, Zsolt Lőw, Ádám Szalai and Marco Caligiuri for the guests.
Mainz took an early grip on possession, but fast-pressing and compact Dortmund kept the ball in harmless areas of the pitch. Despite the visitors enacting the same tactics when Dortmund seized possession, their width-laden 4-2-3-1 and more precise, fast-paced brand of passing ensured they used the ball with more lethality than Mainz. Nevertheless, it was André Schürrle who had the game’s first chance – a 30-yard free-kick from the left of midfield being sprinted at straight on, and hit as a right-footed bouncer which caused Roman Weidenfeller to spill (into the path of no one). Seconds later, Marcel Schmelzer fired in an equally tricky shot from range, albeit one that went over rather than summoning Christian Wetklo into a response.
But the home side’s more advanced ability on the ball was emphasised in the 8th minute after Nuri Şahin drew Bo Svensson out and won a free-kick. Curled in at a perfect weight and height by Mario Götze, Mats Hummels ignored Nikolce Noveski’s attempts to pull him away from the ball’s path by backwards-glancing the ball just wide of the right-hand post, only for Wetklo to somehow parry it backs towards goal and over the line! Dortmund didn’t let off post-goal either – they committed numbers to attacks, and got at Mainz when they lost possession, forcing sloppy, heavy passes, and thus, clunky, going-nowhere counter-attacks. Even when a quick Route One ball did manage to be held up in the final third thanks to a top-notch touch by Sami Allagui which caught Hummels out, Neven Subotić was over to LCB in a flash to help out his colleague and clear the danger. The Tunisian forward was the go-to guy for Mainz attacks, and was occasionally able to hold the ball up and wait for his colleagues to flood forward. But this Dortmund side don’t take no for an answer, and after winning the ball back with controlled levels of aggression, they looked so at ease playing one-touch triangles out of danger, towards the dropping Lucas Barrios. The Paraguayan is fantastic at controlling with his back-to-goal and spinning in a nanosecond to either play a through-ball or dribble past his static and stunned tight marker.
Barrios is just as lethal at peeling off the last-shoulder of the defence, as epitomised in the 17th minute when Şahin’s scoop picked him out over the static, high, and offside flag-wanting Mainz defence. Wetklo rushed out, flattened him, and gave away a penalty. Luckily for the yellow-carded ‘keeper, the Turkish midfielder’s effort was tame, and saved. With Barrios trudging about the pitch after the penalty miss, clearly worse for wear, Mainz were able to gain a temporary hold on possession. Due to Dortmund imposing their high midfield on the visitors’ attempted diamond, Thomas Tuchel’s shape had flattened to a 4-3-1-2 – a net in front of the defence, two wing-veering strikers looking to exploit the space left by the full-backs, and a bridge in Lewis Holtby. Still though, the hosts looked a threat – none more so than from set-pieces, which Mainz seemed incapable of defending, letting Dortmund move freely and attack the ball. The visitors’ main problem when they had the ball there was a lack of urgency and cutting-edge – balls into the box were delivered in thought-free panic, and no red shirted player was there to get on the end of them. With Barrios still moving about uncomfortably, Mainz’s lack of haste in rushing towards the box and making the killer pass means they missed a trick during this brief spell of holding the ball. Pushing their full-backs just over the halfway line and narrowly infield, they blocked potential Dortmund attempts at a counter-attack, and had them where they wanted.
Yet with Götze becoming an increasingly influential line-leader, Dortmund soon regained a grip on the game, and forced Mainz back into long and early punts from Wetklo as their only means of attack (balls which were mopped up by the Dortmund defence, and recycled instantly for a midfielder to carry into the Mainz half). However, their willingness to sample new ideas is what has given Mainz their element of unpredictability and large pool of points this season, and this was illustrated by a genius attack in the 31st minute. Aimlessly knocking the ball about just in front of the halfway line, Dortmund tried to suffocate Mainz’s ball-seeking midfielders and hurry their defence by pushing a compact 4-4-1-1 nearer and nearer the halfway line. With Schürrle and Allagui both showing infield for the ball, Jurgen Klopp’s full-backs followed them inside, congesting the area further. This allowed the defence to locate Lewis Holtby temporarily unattended, an opportunity gleefully seized upon by the on-loan Schalke man as he released Elkin Soto into the space left by Łukasz Piszczek. The shot may have been comfortably blocked, but the chance indicated that Mainz were clever enough to find a chink in the BVB armour.
As the injured Barrios had at this point gone off for Robert Lewandowski, there was less fluency from Dortmund as they tried to move the ball from bank to bank (Götze was now running all over again, acting as less of a top-of-the-pitch target). While this meant they’d lost impetus and attacked sporadically save for occasional balls over the top for the Polish international striker to chase, they did well in taking the sting out of the game, especially with Mainz increasing in confidence with the ball in the opposition’s half. But Tuchel’s side were still suffering from a lack of width (and therefore options), and made it simple for Dortmund to sit off and absorb pressure (narrow in midfield, and the full-backs essentially man-marking Christian Fuchs and Niko Bungert who flirted with the thought of overlapping). Nevertheless, after taking the lead, Dortmund never seemed able to bring their own widemen into the game again throughout the rest of the half. Tucking and mucking in, it was a homage to how serious a threat Klopp considers Mainz to be that he adjusted his system to nullify Tuchel’s.
Neither manager made tactical or formational changes for the start of the second half, but tactically, Dortmund looked to take the game to their guests again, emphasised by Kuba launching an early skip and shoulder drop past Bungert. They’d re-camped in the Mainz half, and had no intention of leaving. Even when Mainz managed to squeeze a counter-attack pass into the Dortmund half, the hosts pressed the ball with such intensity that Mainz’s limitations at passing in the final-third under pressure were shown up again. Indeed, such was the zip and spring in Dortmund’s step, Wetklo was forced into kicking a backpass into touch when Götze sprinted at him faster than a hare. Something of a natural order was restored, with Dortmund in their 4-2-3-1, and Mainz in their 4-3-gap-1-2, and looking to play *counter-attacking* football straight from the boot of Wetklo. It’s easy to dismiss this tactic as cynical and backward, but Tuchel was only using the players he had at his disposal in the most effective way he could – when your three most talented and sure-footed players are highest up the pitch, why bother using the other outfield players to feed them? Of course, Klopp had long since abandoned adjusting his side’s system to counter Mainz’s – that idea seemed to be a response to the unexpected first-half substitution, a case of shutting up shop until half time when the former Mainz coach could relay fresh ideas and instructions to his troops.
One player worth mentioning is Malik Fathi, the on-loan Spartak Moscow man who seemingly did little bar sit in front of the defence and play sideways passes. It looked as though Tuchel, whose side were now back in their midfield diamond, was using Fathi as a bollard to the fast-paced motor vehicle that was Götze. Blocking the youngster’s jinxy little runs between the centre of defence, Fathi ensured that Götze was forced to toil elsewhere. But often shimmying down or towards the left channel, the youth academy product became vital in drawing markers into his vicinity, giving Schmelzer space to come upfield on the overlap. But, with their two central midfielders lacking space due to the narrowness of Mainz’s reintroduced diamond, this was Dortmund’s only real way of getting in behind Mainz, and it created few chances. In fact, they needed a 68th minute set-piece to worry Mainz in front of goal, Hummels again meeting a corner far too easily, but heading narrowly over.
With next to no chances coming from the right channel (and with the crossing specialist Fuchs surely set to advance more as the game wore on and Mainz chased an equalizer), Klopp took off Kuba in the 70th minute, and replaced him with Zidan. Moving Götze over to the right (but slightly deeper than you’d expect, making for an occasional 4-3-2-1 system), Zidan was deployed behind Lewandowski, giving Fathi more to think about as the Egyptian is more of a striker, and thus a ball-holding, through-ball-flicking option. Indeed, Zidan was part of a sweeping first-time move which set Groβkreutz free in the box in the 74th minute. However, the ball came on his left foot, and taking too long to set himself on his right, the chance went begging.
At last responding to the fact the width his side had was too far up the pitch, and thus too far away from where his side were winning the ball back to make use of, Tuchel removed Holtby, brought on Marcel Risse, and opted for a 4-3-2-1, with Soto and Roman Polanski instructed to get up and down with more emphasis on the former direction. Although Dortmund were still struggling to create chances, a task that had become even more difficult in the last quarter-hour with Mainz furiously trying to regain possession, they did well to waste time by holding onto the ball in the away side’s half, keeping them running. In the 82nd minute, after tiring their guests by making them run side-to-side, Şahin controlled a pass superbly, stepped inside Fuchs, and curled a left-footer just wide of Wetklo’s right-hand post.
With Fathi even striding into the opposition’s half with the ball, Mainz were beginning to make regular forays into the Dortmund half. Of course, this left space for Dortmund to break, but for all the clever hold-up play, there was still a real paucity of cutting-edge when it was needed most.
And, naturally, they paid for this profligacy. Mainz, throwing caution to the wind down the wings, semi-safe in the knowledge that the hosts were posing no real goal threat, went about grabbing an equalizer with real belief. Thus, it was no surprise when two of their substitutes combined for the equalizer a minute from time. Risse burst down the right, and crossed sharply for Allagaui’s replacement Petar Slišković, waiting in the box where all goal-hungry strikers are or should be. The Croatian youngster made no mistake from close range with his right foot. If Leverkusen beat Schalke tomorrow afternoon, Dortmund’s lead at the top will be cut to seven points, down from the recent 12-point advantage they held.