Borussia Dortmund provided the perfect answer to a week of controversy surrounding their head coach, Thomas Tuchel, with a 4-1 win over Borussia Monchengladbach on Matchday 13 of the 2016/17 Bundesliga season on Saturday.
Tuchel had been heavily criticised by large parts of the German media for an emotional outburst after the recent 2-1 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt, when the 43-year-old bemoaned in his post-match press conference a performance that "was deficient" and "merited no points."
Local BVB reporter Matthias Dersch of Ruhr Nachrichten, among many others, felt Tuchel avoided fair criticism himself, deflecting blame to his team.
Perhaps more importantly, Dortmund's head coach came under fire for his rotation policy. Does his constant tinkering with the team not hinder their jelling and becoming a cohesive unit?
If Saturday's match against Gladbach is anything to go by, Tuchel will not change his methods. He again made four personnel changes and played a system Dortmund had never before used. It was precisely what his critics argued is a major reason behind an up-and-down season so far.
Only this time, his changes worked to perfection, and the unusual formation was the key to not only the three points but also to a proper annihilation of a Gladbach side that had played better than the league table indicated ahead of the match.
The Foals had only won one point from home matches against upstarts Cologne and 1899 Hoffenheim but were the better side in both games. A solid 1-1 draw with Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League also showed how Andre Schubert's men are better than their standing in the German top flight, 13th, would have one believe.
Saturday seemed to prove that notion in the early going, as Brazilian attacker Raffael scored the opener after just six minutes. Marc Bartra had put the ball on a plate with a weak headed clearance on to his foot.
Going behind and conceding a fairly cheap goal seemed to play into the narrative of Tuchel's ever-present changes being the problem. Dortmund played with a back three and wing-backs who pushed far up the pitch, which left the centre-backs isolated for the goal.
The Black and Yellows, however, showed an immediate reaction that proved they would not be denied in this match.
"I'm not exactly sure how we fell behind," star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang said after the match, per the club's official website. "But it meant it was important to hit back straightaway."
It took them all of 59 seconds from the moment they conceded the goal, or 14 seconds from the consequent kick-off, to hit back. Marco Reus got on the end of a simple long ball, poking it toward Aubameyang, whose thumping effort could perhaps have been saved by goalkeeper Yann Sommer.
It was almost poetic that Dortmund would find such a quick answer only a week after conceding twice from kick-offs against Frankfurt, which played a part in Tuchel's outburst.
Lukasz Piszczek put them in front five minutes later, poaching a goal from a corner after Bartra failed to properly connect with the ball. From then on out, the Ruhr side was in absolute control, suffocating the opposition with long spells of possession and always looking good for a third goal.
This is where Tuchel's tactical plan worked to perfection. For the first time all season, Dortmund played in a 3-4-3 formation.
Bartra and Matthias Ginter, playing outside of Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the back three, pushed wide and high, often leaving midfield duo Nuri Sahin and Gonzalo Castro as the second-deepest line of the team.
Sahin lasted only 36 minutes, suffering a knock to the knee, but during that time, he was instrumental as a deep-lying buildup player in what was his Bundesliga debut this season.
With the wing-backs also providing width, Tuchel employed attackers Reus and Ousmane Dembele in the half-spaces, from where they terrorised Gladbach all game. With Aubameyang, the Germany international and the 19-year-old Frenchman formed a fluid attacking trident that was simply unstoppable.
They produced countless dangerous moments and a number of scoring opportunities with interplays in short areas, shredding Gladbach's back three to pieces with surgical precision.
"We needed to play fluently in offensive areas of the pitch," Tuchel explained in his press conference after the game. "Our three strikers achieved that spectacularly up front today. The other seven players had to remain incredibly compact."
For the most part, they accomplished that, allowing Gladbach next to no counter-attacks and not one real scoring opportunity after the sixth minute, as Michael Caley's expected-goals graphic below indicates:
The story of the game, however, was the play of Dortmund's attacking trio. "This was a performance that flowed, was fun to watch and showed just how much of a connection Dortmund's attackers have with one another," Deutsche Welle's Jonathan Harding summarised.
"It was the first time the three had started together, but it looked like the hundredth," Matt Pearson wrote, also for Deutsche Welle.
Aubameyang has 15 league goals in only 12 appearances, meaning he has already hit more goals than all but five players managed across the entire 2015/16 season. Even more impressively, the Gabon international has scored more goals than a third of all Bundesliga teams into the month of December.
Reus picked up three assists and had a cheeky backheel flip ruled out after being caught offside. The 27-year-old played well against Legia Warsaw in the Champions League and off the bench against Frankfurt, but there was still the question about how he would hold up from the start in a more competitive setting.
The fact he was not only productive but looked to be in banner form on his full season debut in the league has to be incredibly encouraging. It seems Dortmund's patience with the attacker will be rewarded, seeing as it historically takes Reus a few games to get up to speed.
"It is fantastic how he has returned and the intensity with which he trained to get himself back," Tuchel lauded his No. 11 after the match. Reus' complete performance, capped off by a brilliant backheel assist for Aubameyang's second goal, showed just how big of a quality boost he can offer the team.
Astoundingly, though, Reus was not even the best Dortmund man on the pitch. That distinction belonged to Dembele, who celebrated a bit of a coming-out party against Gladbach. Defenders never got a hold of the 19-year-old, whose incredible burst and technical abilities were on display time and time again.
His goal made it 3-1 18 minutes into the second half, effectively killing all hopes of a Gladbach comeback, and it showed Dembele's vast potential. Receiving the ball from Reus, he turned his hips twice to shake off defenders and slotted home with ease.
What looked like a simple goal required incredibly concentration and body control, something Dembele offers in abundance, as his stats from the game proved:
Tuchel was naturally full of praise for the youngster, arguing "he played one of his best-ever games today" and "made the difference in those situations in which we wanted him to do so and in which he himself wanted to do so."
Effectiveness and decision-making are the big question marks with the 19-year-old, who has the talent to become a superstar. So seeing him involved in almost every dangerous situation for Dortmund against Gladbach was just as encouraging as Reus' full season debut in the Bundesliga.
Of course, Dembele and his team-mates have to follow up this strong performance until the winter break.
In Cologne and Hoffenheim, Dortmund face two teams in their vicinity in the table, while Wednesday's Champions League clash with Real Madrid will sort who wins Group F and avoids some of the toughest draws for the round of 16.
The Black and Yellows have too often followed up a strong performance with a stinker in the Bundesliga, which has not been lost on Reus, who watched on from the stands for most of those matches.
"I still think that we simply need more continuity," the 27-year-old said, per BVB's website. "And that will only come from matches like this one against Gladbach."
If nothing else, the comfortable 4-1 victory should stop the over-the-top talk about Tuchel. It also showed that the best way to get better is working on the training pitch, as Dortmund made good use of their first full week of training since the start of the season.
For example, it seemed as if they worked on set pieces, which Gladbach struggled with all game.
After a week in which Tuchel's methods and personality came under absurd scrutiny, the team gave the perfect answer on the pitch—where these things ought to be settled.