Borussia Dortmund's season started with a stutter, but a dominant win over Bayer Leverkusen saw them purring along at their best. This team, playing in this style, can go all the way, writes Janek Speight.
Borussia Dortmund finally appear to have pieced together a blueprint for their assault on the Bundesliga title. The embarrassing loss to newcomers Union Berlin saw age-old problems in defense reemerge, but a more rounded, disciplined and street-smart performance against Leverkusen is the reason to back them for the title.
This Dortmund team, the one that fired home four unanswered goals against a genuine rival, has the goods to finish on top.
Adapted game plan
Lucien Favre's decision to let Leverkusen have possession and focus on fast transitions set the groundwork for a performance that grew more dominant as the game wore on. Despite holding just 37% of possession — they'd previously averaged 75% this season — Dortmund made it count when they did have the ball.
All four goals came from wide players delivering balls into the box. The opener arrived thanks to well-timed pressing, as Hakimi stole possession high up the pitch to provide an inch-perfect cross for Paco Alcacer to convert. In the second half, Marco Reus (twice) and Raphael Guerreiro all converted after quick surges forward and low crosses. It was a perfectly executed game plan.
Midfield fulcrum returns
A crucial factor in this improved display was the reinstatement of Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel as Favre's two central midfielders.
The tireless Dane and towering Belgian work seamlessly together. The pair's positioning allowed them to break down attacks and forced Leverkusen to attack down the flanks, with little success.
Their tendency to out-muscle and out-maneuver Leverkusen's midfield also provided opportunity for Dortmund's frontline to shine, and their screening gave the defense more room to breathe.
Having scored 13 goals after just four matches, it's no surprise that Dortmund's attack is getting all the praise but the defensive solidity on display against Leverkusen was just as eye-catching.
In the first half especially, Mats Hummels and defensive partner Manuel Akanji looked more than comfortable. Their fledgling partnership will take time to gel, though this was their most impressive performance to date.
The second half did still produce a few shaky moments, particularly concerning Hummels, who has yet to slip comfortably back into life in Dortmund. But a first clean sheet of the season - for a side that had conceded in the 1st, 22nd, and 29th minutes respectively in their previous three matches - will do them wonders.
One match is not enough to shake the doubts around this Dortmund side and their mentality. Too often last season they found themselves overawed in high-pressure situations and their toothlessness in attack against Union and continued defensive mishaps are still fresh in the memory.
This victory must be the benchmark for the rest of the season. Titles are won through consistency, a trait this Dortmund side are yet to showcase under Favre.
But if they can build upon the foundations presented in this win, those pre-season predictions of glory will be looking very pretty come the end of the campaign.