Hansi Flick’s deep-end debut, Robert Lewandowski’s hot streak, the Mats Hummels factor and more: Saturday’s Klassiker between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund is littered with talking points - and that’s before a ball has even been kicked!
Down in fourth, Bayern could overtake Dortmund in second with a win. BVB could even go top if results go their way - but where will the latest edition of German football’s modern-day clash of the titans be won and lost? bundesliga.com takes a closer look…
1) The defence
Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed "attack wins you games, defence wins you titles" - is Manchester United's revered ex-coach right? Bayern will be hoping he's not. The record champions have already shipped 16 goals this season - more than any team inside the top half of the pre-Matchday 11 standings. Even at this juncture in 2018/19 when Kovac’s side trailed leaders Dortmund by four points, they had conceded 11 - the joint-third fewest number of goals league-wide.
In their defence - honestly, no pun intended - five of those 16 goals fell away to Eintracht Frankfurt on Matchday 10. Eintracht's handsome bounty fell after Jerome Boateng’s ninth-minute sending off, and he was arguably only playing because Kovac’s first-choice centre-backs Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez are injured. With all three absent for the visit of Dortmund, Flick has no choice but to field a cut-and-shut back four.
Benjamin Pavard is a shoo-in, and would have been in contention regardless of Bayern's personnel problems. Despite winning the FIFA World Cup with France as a right-back, he has operated in the middle on eight occasions for this season, winning a healthy 60 per cent and 63 per cent of his attempted challenges and aerial duels respectively.
David Alaba tucked in alongside the Frenchman for most of the game in Frankfurt, but should revert to his accustomed position of left-back at the weekend. Notwithstanding his glaringly prodigious talents, Canadian whizz Alphonso Davies is still getting to grips with the left-sided defensive role, and cannot be expected to go toe-to-toe with the 5,000 horse-power Jadon Sancho for the full 90 minutes. The 19-year-old is himself a winger by trade, after all.
That leaves Javi Martinez - a world-class defensive midfielder first, and capable centre-half second – as well as 19-year-old Lukas Mai as the alternatives in the middle of the Bayern defence. Needless to say in such a high-stakes contest, it seems unlikely Flick would be willing to roll the dice on a teenager whose only prior top-flight experience came in late 2017/18 season wins over Hannover and Frankfurt, with the title already sewn up.
Mats Hummels was on the list of options when the teams last met in March, but Bayern allowed him to return to Dortmund in the summer. Suffice to say the record champions’ loss has been BVB’s (re)gain. The 30-year-old has slotted back into the Dortmund defence almost as if his three title-winning years in Munich didn’t happen, missing one league game through injury. Dortmund have kept four clean sheets on his watch - and notable ones at that, blunting Bayer Leverkusen, leaders Borussia Mönchengladbach, Schalke and Wolfsburg.
Bayern have recorded two shut-outs - against Schalke, albeit before the Royal Blues had lift-off under David Wagner - and at home to promoted Cologne, the Bundesliga’s tamest attack. Setting up former captain Hummels with Manuel Akanji - who is averaging a rude 77 per cent for ground duels won - it’s little wonder Dortmund boast the third most watertight defence in the division after 10 matches (11 conceded). If they can’t stop Lewandowski, who can...?
2) The attack
The answer might well be nobody. LewanGOALski continued his odds-defying record of scoring in every league game this season with a quite brilliant solo effort against Frankfurt. Scant consolation on the one hand, but alarm bells for every defender on the planet on the other. With 14 Bundesliga goals for the current campaign, 21 in all competitions, 39 in 2019, as well as a bumper-crop 16 in 18 meetings with former employers BVB, there is no one across Europe’s top five leagues who can hold a candle to Bayern’s poker-hot No.9.
Watch: Find out what makes Robert Lewandowski so damn good
If second-tier Bochum kept the Polish goal machine out in the DFB Cup second round, it was only because he didn’t have time to warm up, having come on at half-time. The Westphalians also did a pretty fine job of cutting off the supply line until the dam finally broke with seven minutes of normal time remaining. Lewandowski was lurking for both goals, in any case. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise why talk of Lewandowski missing out against his former club due to a muscular complaint would represent such a heavy blow for Bayern.
That’s not to say they are a one-man band - far from it. After Lewandowski, Bayern’s chief goal threat has come from Serge Gnabry. The man Tony Pulis had next to no time for at West Bromwich Albion has struck six times this season, albeit operating from out wide. Fellow winger Kingsley Coman, Philippe Coutinho (Kovac’s preferred occupant of the No.10 role), Pavard and attacking all-rounder Ivan Perisic each have two goals; while the inimitable Thomas Müller is one of five Bayern players on one for the campaign.
Should Lewandowski do the unthinkable and miss a game - he’s only sat out 16 across his 10 full seasons in the Bundesliga - Müller along with Gnabry, who has become Germany coach Joachim Löw’s first-choice forward in recent months, as well as Perisic will almost certainly be the primary candidates to fill the substantial void.
Should the need arise, Flick could do worse than look for some out-of-the-box inspiration from opposite number Lucien Favre. In Paco Alcacer, the Dortmund tactician has his very own Lewandowski. The Spain international was BVB’s top scorer last season with 18 goals, and already has five to show for his first seven appearances this term. Remarkably he made just 11 starts in 2018/19, while injury has forced him to miss three of Dortmund’s 10 top-flight assignments in the new campaign.
Goals are his bread and butter - Pacoman snaffled up the winner against Bayern in Dortmund last November and opened the deadlock with a trademark first-time finish in the 2019 German Supercup earlier this summer - but physical setbacks are his Achilles’ heel. Happily, no Paco doesn’t necessarily mean no party.
Whereas Lewandowski has accounted for 56 per cent of Bayern’s 25 Bundesliga goals this season, Alcacer has only had a hand in 22 per cent of Dortmund’s 23 efforts. Captain Marco Reus co-heads the BVB charts with five; Sancho has three; Axel Witsel, Achraf Hakimi, Raphael Guerreiro and Mario Götze have two each; and Thorgan Hazard joined Julian Brandt on one after opening his account in the 3-0 win over Wolfsburg on Matchday 10. Reus, Götze, Hazard and Brandt have even played through the middle in Alcacer’s stead.
3) Everything else in-between
If attack wins games and defence decide titles, midfield does a little bit of both and everything in-between. Bayern know that better than most. When Dortmund ruled the roost circa 2011/12, the Munich giants turned to Athletic Bilbao battering ram Martinez, partnered him with cerebral great Bastian Schweinsteiger, threw Toni Kroos and Müller into the mix, and flanked them with inverted wing legends Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. The result was a resounding Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League and DFB Cup treble, and the blue print for a further six years of domestic dominance.
Dortmund came closer than anyone to ending Bayern’s reign last season, only to fritter away a nine-point lead down the back straight. A chastening 5-0 loss at the Allianz Arena proved decisive as Bayern put destiny back in their own hands in the most punishing style imaginable. Lewandowski and Gnabry were among the goals, but Martinez was arguably the star of the show. The Spaniard snapped into tackles, competed for headers and used every inch of his 6'2" frame to bully a free-scoring Dortmund attack into submission. He even got on the scoresheet for the third time in four games to underline his importance to the Reds' operation.
Watch: Javi Martinez's crucial role in last season's Klassiker in Munich
The case for Martinez is only reinforced by the numbers. Bayern lost two of the 33 games last season in which Martinez was stationed as a holding midfielder, but suffered defeats in three of the four league matches he missed. It is a theme which has continued into 2019/20. The Bavarians have taken 10 points from a possible 15 with him compared to eight from as many games without. He is the weapon of mass disruption that could transform Bayern’s season, but will in all likelihood have to settle for a place in the defence against Dortmund.
Martinez shoring up a makeshift back line leaves the midfield darling of the Kovac era, Thiago, in need of a collaborator. No midfielder boasted more touches in 2018/19 than Thiago's 2,916, while he found a man with 93 per cent of his attempted passes. Dortmund counterpart Witsel completed more, but the Belgian produced one assist whereas Thiago racked up six - another season best-mark for a Bayern midfielder.
It seems unlikely Flick would demote Thiago to the bench, so it then becomes a question of who best to drop in alongside the matador to combat the devilishly hawkish Witsel? This season alone, Thiago has had the world’s best right-back in Joshua Kimmich, a World Cup winner in Corentin Tolisso, one of the unsung heroes of last season’s double win in Leon Goretzka and fellow countryman Martinez by his side. Each one has his merits, but the inevitable uncertainly created by a lack of continuity in such a key area of the pitch could play into Dortmund’s hands – and Witsel’s in particular.
The Belgium international has missed just one of Dortmund’s 16 competitive matches so far this season, and ranks in the Bundesliga’s top three for successful passes (95 per cent) and the top 12 for touches (638). He has the experience of winning domestic titles in four top-flight European leagues, and with a couple of goals and three assists to his name, he’s also got the whole box-to-box thing going on. You might say he’s the complete midfielder.
When Witsel advances, he does so safe in the knowledge that either Thomas Delaney or Julian Weigl will be holding the fort. Delaney is notorious for his uncompromising, heel-snapping streak that could cause Bayern playmaker Coutinho a real headache, but has started fewer games. The slightly more tempered Weigl has turned out nine times to Delaney’s six in the Bundesliga, and got the nod to partner Witsel in last season’s 3-2 triumph on home soil and the more recent 2019 Supercup victory. In the 5-0 defeat in Munich, he dropped to the bench as Favre abandoned his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation altogether.
Assuming Dortmund’s strategist doesn’t throw another curveball and Flick sticks by Bayern’s tried and tested set-up, whichever Klassiker combination of the midfield double pivot wins the day could go a long way to settling the contest.
Watch: Highlights of Borussia Dortmund's 2019 Supercup triumph over Bayern
Bayern’s title-shaping rout was built on sheer dominance and ruthless execution; Dortmund’s aforementioned triumphs were lessons in counter-attacking football at its finest, steered by the runaway Sancho. Repeat showings or even complete role reversals cannot be ruled out, not least a) given the individual quality on show and b) against not just the backdrop of Der Klassiker, but the most open and unpredictable title race in living memory. Call it at your peril; watch it for your delight.