For the third time in nine days, Borussia Dortmund proved their mental resilience on the road, once again coming from behind to earn a vital point against 1899 Hoffenheim on Friday in the Bundesliga.
Unlike the late 1-1 draw with Cologne on the previous matchday, the 2-2 result against the south-west Germans will feel like a victory for the Black and Yellows. Everything that could have gone against them did go against them.
It started with a number of key injuries, as Dortmund were without 10 men, including regular starters Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Lukasz Piszczek and Gonzalo Castro.
It continued with another blunder from backup goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller less than three minutes into the game and ended with a few incredible refereeing mistakes that could easily have cost them the match.
Head coach Thomas Tuchel was proud of his team in his post-game press conference: "The reaction that we subsequently showed to all those things that were going against us was, I think, extraordinary. I feel that given the unlucky way in which the match developed for us, we deserved to take a point home."
While the entire team put in a fantastic effort to fight against the odds, the man who deserves the most credit for Dortmund's latest comeback is Ousmane Dembele.
The 19-year-old was simply electric, his dashing runs time and time again causing confusion in a Hoffenheim defence that had been quite sturdy in recent weeks. The hosts had no legal answer to Dembele's excellence on Friday.
The Frenchman was only fouled four times during his 69 minutes on the pitch, per sport magazine Kicker (link in German), but that number is misleading and speaks volumes about the way referee Benjamin Brandt failed to protect Dembele.
He had to be taken off with heavy bruising, per the club's official website, after a number of crushing collisions that did not even yield free-kicks for Dortmund. Tuchel correctly pointed out that his substitution "was a real disadvantage" for his side, as "the tiring opposition would not have been able to deal with his turns."
Given the way he had punished Hoffenheim throughout the game to that point, it is no stretch to assume Dembele could have made the difference and perhaps provided a winning goal for the Black and Yellows.
Bagging two assists—one with determination and the vision to find Mario Gotze in space, one with a perfect pass to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang—Dembele was "breathtaking," as ESPN FC's Stefan Buczko put it, rating the 19-year-old's performance at nine out of 10.
The vine below shows the quality of his second assist early in the second half:
It was the kind of match that made this writer think Dembele could win the Ballon d'Or some day, as detailed in an earlier piece.
His outburst of efficiency over the last few matches of the calendar year are a credit to Tuchel as well, with Dortmund's head coach finding the perfect role for his talented youngster, as Deutsche Welle's Ross Dunbar pointed out on Twitter during the match:
With four goals and 12 assists over 23 matches across competitions, per Transfermarkt.com, Dembele is putting up elite statistics that would be phenomenal for a veteran attacking player. For a 19-year-old in his first full senior season and in his first campaign after moving to a new league, those numbers are out of this world.
Other than his substitution, the only downer about Dembele's performance is that it did not come in a winning effort for Dortmund. Then again, given the way the game went, a point was the most the Black and Yellows could hope for.
Weidenfeller's indecisiveness gifted Hoffenheim's Mark Uth a goal three minutes into the game, when Dortmund's high line was uncoordinated and gave the hosts a free run following a simple long ball.
Perhaps this is where the injuries play their part, as defensive leader Sokratis missed the match and his replacement Sven Bender made his season debut coming back from a foot injury. Perhaps the Greek would have been able to make Weidenfeller come out of his goal with more conviction or to get Matthias Ginter to hold the high line and play Uth offside.
Still, more has to be expected from Weidenfeller, whose main quality should be his vast experience. On the contrary, however, his age seems to work against him, as Goal USA's Seth Vertelney joked about after the goal:
The 36-year-old has not played well as Roman Burki's replacement outside of a magnificent performance against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.
Dortmund have now conceded 11 goals in six matches with the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner between the sticks, and while it would be harsh to make him responsible for all of them, he provides no security to his team-mates at this point. The club's decision-makers will have to think long and hard about adding a new No. 2 goalkeeper in the summer—at the latest.
Weidenfeller also looked awkward for the second goal, when a soft header from Sandro Wagner slipped over his fingers, but the goal should have been ruled out for a clear push from the German striker on Bender.
It is inconceivable how the assistant referee failed to spot it, he had a clear view of Wagner's full arm extension inside the six-yard box. The 29-year-old himself admitted to his transgression after the match, per Dortmund's website: "It was a foul by me, I have to be honest."
If that was not enough to enrage the Black and Yellows players, coaches and officials, a sending off for Marco Reus later in the first half did the trick. His first booking for a clear foul on Niklas Sule was a good call from referee Brandt, but the second yellow was simply asinine.
In real time, it may have looked as though Reus rushed into the challenge of Nadiem Amiri a bit too clumsily, but replays showed it was actually the Hoffenheim midfielder who pulled Reus deeper into the challenge, made him lose his balance and thus bring Amiri down. This picture says it all:
The same assistant referee who failed to spot Wagner's foul was again in perfect position, the incident happening right in front of him at the sideline, and again he let his referee down as much or more than Dortmund.
The Ruhr side deserve massive credit for the way they fought and, for the most part, defended with 10 men for more than 50 minutes. While they certainly missed Reus, they never looked to be a man down, thanks to passionate efforts from a number of players.
Gotze's work rate was especially impressive, given the 24-year-old is still mostly considered an attacking player. He ran tirelessly, filling gaps all over midfield and often dropping into a holding-midfielder position.
Seeing as he had not played since November 26 due to injury himself, it was a commendable performance from a player who has yet to receive his due recognition during his second stint with Dortmund.
His contributions were not as obviously brilliant as Dembele's, but a draw would not have been possible for the Black and Yellows had they not done the grunt work during the second half. Hoffenheim were closer to a potential winner, with Andrej Kramaric wasting a golden opportunity with only three minutes to go.
But a defeat would have been incredibly harsh on the visitors. "In the half-time interval we resolved that we wouldn't leave here tonight without any points," Tuchel said after the match. "We wanted to fight with everything we had to stop that from happening."
Fight they did and thus earned a draw that could prove vital for the rest of the season. It keeps them in shouting distance with Hoffenheim, who could have moved to four points of advantage over the Black and Yellows.
With a home match against Augsburg as the final game of the year for Dortmund—an encounter they will be expected to win comfortably—they should not be too far away from the Champions League spots during the winter break.