Borussia Dortmund visit the Weserstadion on Saturday as they take on Werder Bremen in round 20 of the Bundesliga.
Bremen’s record is five defeats in their last five games against Dortmund. However, in the reverse leg last August, Werder nearly nicked a point from BVB; the Ruhr side only claimed the spoils thanks to Robert Lewandowski’s solitary goal in the second half.
Bremen have struggled all season long and are in the bottom half of the league table, but they will be highly motivated as they take on a strong but vulnerable BVB side that in the absence of Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels will feature a makeshift defense. Dortmund, meanwhile, will be aiming to draw closer to Leverkusen, who are currently four points clear in second place.
Both BVB and Bremen will have some clear and certainly exploitable weaknesses. Here are some of the key tactical considerations that could make the difference in Saturday’s match.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang vs Lukas Schmitz
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang enters Saturday’s fixture on a fine run of form. Last week, the Gabon native’s brace drew him level with Robert Lewandowski as BVB’s top scorer in the Bundesliga, despite often featuring as a substitute or even being benched for entire matches. Few players in the German top flight come close to matching Aubameyang’s strike rate.
Disconcerting for Bremen is the fact that their first choice in the position to match up against Aubameyang, left-back Santiago Garcia, is suspended following his sending off last week. In the Argentine’s stead, Lukas Schmitz is likely to start. The ex-Schalke man will have his work cut out for him as he takes on Aubameyang, whose pace and form would make him a handful for any defender.
Nils Petersen vs Sven Bender
A physical striker with superior height and upper-body strength, Nils Petersen could make the difference for Bremen on Saturday as he faces off with Dortmund center-backs Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Sven Bender.
Although Sokratis has enjoyed good form and considerable playing time this season, Bender is standing in for the recently injured Mats Hummels and is inexperienced in a defensive role. Bender played at center-back in matchday 18, a 2-2 draw with Augsburg in which the ex-1860 Munich man could be faulted at least in part for both goals conceded, including an own goal.
Petersen has scored just Bundesliga five goals this season, but will be keen to put one or more into Roman Weidenfeller’s net. The question is: When he gets his chances, will the ex-Bayern Munich man finish?
The Midfield Battle
Dortmund’s weakness is clearly in central defense, and the key to their success therefore is keeping the ball away from their own goal. If their midfield can nullify the Bremen attack before the ball gets to Nils Petersen, BVB’s makeshift defense may not be so much of a concern after all.
To this end, the five-man unit of BVB midfielders must work together, with each member providing a different quality. Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will need to pin Bremen back on the wings, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be required at both ends, helping in the build-up and especially tracking back to close down space in midfield.
Nuri Sahin’s role will be crucial; the 25-year-old will be called upon to control the flow of play. And Sebastian Kehl will have to be especially mindful from a tactical defensive perspective, closing down space and reading the movement of his teammates and the opposing midfielders.
Bremen's midfield will likely consist of Cedric Makiadi and Felix Kroos in holding roles, behind attackers Eljero Elia, Aaron Hunt and new signing Ludovic Obraniak. The dual defensive midfielders will have to be careful to limit space between themselves and the center-backs while venturing sufficiently forward to supply the attackers, especially the wingers.
Elia and Obraniak were very highly rated in previous years and, despite not exactly living up to their potential on a regular basis, still have the class to inflict serious damage. Hunt may be the most critical player for Bremen; if he's able to play close to Petersen while still having access to the ball, he has more than enough quality to finish.
Marco Reus vs Gebre Selassie
Since Mario Gotze’s sale last summer, Marco Reus has time and time again been Dortmund’s main source of inspiration in creating play in the attacking third. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jakub Blaszczykowski (prior to his season-ending injury) have provided few assists, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been more of a finisher than a set-up man. Thus, Reus has been left with the burden of producing attacking play.
To his credit, Reus has again and again been able to force openers, either by scoring, assisting or being a key part in the build-up to a go-ahead goal. There will be pressure on BVB to win, so the impetus will be on them to be first to score; an early opener would take a great load off and open up play for the BVB attackers to put the game to rest early.
Facing Reus will be Gebre Selassie, the Czech Republic international of Ethiopian origin who joined Bremen from Slovan Liberec after impressing at Euro 2012. The 27-year-old had his ups and downs in his first season at Bremen, but the current campaign has been rather disastrous. He will need to show the form that made him a coveted transfer target two summers ago if Bremen are to stand any chance on Saturday.