For most of the season, Jadon Sancho has befuddled all comers in the Bundesliga, catching opponents on the hop much as his Borussia Dortmund team has done. As evening drew into Nord-Rhine Westphalia on Saturday, he was left scratching his head at the end of an extraordinary afternoon, the majority of which he had spent looking as if he was walking on water.
The English teenager had been outstanding, again (albeit after a few fairly quiet weeks, by his now lofty standards), and Hoffenheim hadn’t got near handling him. In the first half he sizzled down both flanks, scoring the opener from an absurd angle and seeing another shot palmed out by Oliver Baumann for Mario Götze to follow in and net a second. Perhaps the moment which best underlined his majesty was when the visitors’ Kerem Demirbay snapped, cleaning him out with a sliding lunge and earning a yellow card for the privilege, after Sancho ran a series of rings around Stefan Posch.
By the end of the game, it felt like all that happened on a different day. Dortmund had led 3-0 with a quarter of an hour to go (and Sancho was inches from making it 4-0 with a shot that came back off the post), which would have left Bayern Munich staring down a 10-point deficit before their evening kick-off against Schalke. Instead, three Hoffenheim goals in the space of 12 minutes – including a brace from substitute Ishak Belfoldil – carved out an improbable point for the visitors.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Sancho gasped at full-time. He already has a reputation among German media for being friendly and polite. He wasn’t being evasive. He just couldn’t find the words. It was the third time in a week that Dortmund had let a winning position slip, after last Saturday’s Bundesliga draw at Eintracht Frankfurt and Tuesday’s DfB Pokal match with Werder Bremen, which eventually saw BVB exit on penalties.
Excuses could be made for those other two games – Eintracht are a dangerous side, and key players were rested in the Pokal – but not for this one. For the first time this season, when Bayern wheeled out their psychological brickbats about the leaders feeling the heat (such as James Rodríguez’s “the pressure is all on Dortmund” after his team went on to close the gap to five points), it felt like their words were more than spitting in the wind.
For the more pessimistic Dortmund sympathisers, this brought back bad memories of the first half of last season and their struggles under Peter Bosz, specifically when they had led Schalke 4-0 after 25 minutes of November 2017’s Revierderby, only to concede a draw in the dying seconds.
Catching Dortmund should still be a tough task for Bayern, given that only two teams have overhauled a lead of five points or greater at this point in the season – two surprise title winners in Stuttgart in 2007 and Wolfsburg in 2009. Yet this comes with caveats. Firstly, that Bayern are the chaser this time, and try saying that out loud without wavering a little. Secondly, there is the perception – almost certainly unfairly, given that Bosz’s and Lucien Favre’s teams are like night and day – that Dortmund might still be soft.
Clearly goalscoring is not a problem. They continue to lead the way in the Bundesliga (their 54 so far is seven more than Bayern) and they created opportunities almost at will in the first half, despite the absence of the totemic Marco Reus and Paco Alcácer’s mini-drought. The Spain striker has not scored since December, and his tears after a shootout miss against Werder suggested a level of frustration.
The easy conclusions, though – that Dortmund either felt they were home and dry and knocked off early, or that they panicked after Hoffenheim got a foothold in the game – are not necessarily the correct ones. Dividing the match into before and after the 3-0 doesn’t make sense. After half-time Hoffenheim had already “begun to put us under serious pressure”, as Julian Weigl put it, “[and that] we scored a third goal was vital”. If that third Dortmund goal was footballing art, with its irresistible Götze-Sancho-Götze-Guerreiro flow, it was also anomalous during a second period in which they were clearly second best. Julian Nagelsmann’s ire with his team’s display saw him make a double change at the interval, hooking two of his biggest players in Demirbay and Andrej Kramarić, for Belfodil and Dennis Geiger. It kick-started their afternoon.
Hoffenheim are not, though, the first team to inconvenience Dortmund this season and even if this result was a bolt from the blue, the uneven performance was not. Goalkeeper Roman Bürki has been one of the team’s better players and he again saved them a few times in the second half, notably with stellar stops from Joelinton at 2-0 and Pavel Kaderábek at 3-0. Their defensive issues, which have never totally gone away, led to the goals and will interest Tottenham before Wednesday’s Champions League clash.
With Favre suffering from bronchitis – sporting director Michael Zorc stood in for him in Thursday’s press conference – assistants Edin Terzić and Manuel Stefes took charge on the touchline, with Terzic communicating with the boss via mic and earpiece. It did feel as if a little bit of leadership to negotiate the tough spells was missing in the second half, whether Favre on the touchline, the inspirational captain Reus has become on the field, or the banned Thomas Delaney’s poise in midfield. “We have a very young team who are allowed to make mistakes,” reasoned Terzić.
Sancho ended up making one of them, giving away a free-kick that led to the equaliser on the edge of his own box with clumsy foul on Florian Grillitsch. The question is whether this will prove to be a useful lesson, or the weekend where it began to fall apart.
• Bayern were cnever going to let their chance to capitalise pass, especially against a Schalke team that now haven’t beaten them in 18 attempts. If 18-year-old Ahmed Kutucu briefly fired Domenico Tedesco’s visitors level as they remembered legendary coach Rudi Assauer, it was Rodríguez’s vision that really made the difference, as he has for Niko Kovač’s team ever since returning to the starting line-up. They have the chance to close the gap to two points, at least for a few days, at Augsburg on Friday.
• By then, Augsburg might have themselves a new coach, with Manuel Baum under further pressure after Sunday’s miserable 4-0 loss at Werder Bremen, who celebrated their 120th anniversary. Baum’s newly-appointed assistant, Jens Lehmann, would certainly make an interesting caretaker.
• Markus Weinzierl has been confirmed in his job as Stuttgart head coach by sporting director Michael Reschke – despite their abject defeat at Fortuna Düsseldorf and amid what Kicker described as “intensive talks” on his future.