Opinion: Champions win even when off form

Derbies are easy to lose at the best of times. Yet Dortmund salvaged all three points away from home, despite a contentious penalty decision against them and despite a pretty lackluster performance. Captain Marco Reus even touched on this after the match. 

“We hadn’t won here for a long time, so a victory was our target. We earned it, because we dominated for 90 minutes. [But] we let Schalke put us to sleep. Schalke were playing strange football,” Reus said on Sky. 

Read more: Bundesliga: Prodigious Jadon Sancho shows up strikerless Schalke

With practically every attacking option in the squad injured, and Domenico Tedesco’s side barely managing to notch a goal a game when fit, perhaps it’s not such a shock that the hosts were playing unusually defensive football. 

Lucien Favre’s crew only came anywhere near their incisive best at the beginning and end of the game, looking purposeless and lethargic for much of the match, especially when defending a 1-0 lead. Many of their better attacks and opportunities were due to Schalke’s errors, not their own creativity. And at the back, Roman Bürki was forced into action more than once.

When Amine Harit won a controversial penalty after a VAR intervention, and Daniel Caligiuri calmly wrongfooted Bürki, the script seemed poised for Dortmund’s first domestic setback of the season. 

No fewer than eight starters in Dortmund’s new-look XI were playing in their first-ever Revierderby, with five of them aged 23 or under — cheered on only by the vocal block of traveling fans in the away section.

Schalke supporters must have been thinking it was time for Dortmund’s inexperienced side to finally crack under the pressure of such a stellar start to the Bundesliga season. 

And yet Dortmund rallied, led by their next generation. Jadon Sancho, just back from England after a bereavement in the family, and the youngest player on the pitch, finished his big second-half chance with the calm maturity of a player twice his age. Sancho has played far better than this in recent weeks, and seemed a real candidate for a second half substitution, but the 18-year-old was clinical when the moment came.

Five minutes later, with an almost identical chance laid on by Sancho, the much more experienced Marco Reus couldn’t find a way past Ralf Fährmann to seal the deal. 

Dortmund have been rightly coy about accepting the mantle as favorites in the Bundesliga, given that misfiring Bayern Munich are still gunning for a sixth straight title and Borussia Mönchengladbach have been playing above expectations.

But if Favre’s side can beat bogey team Schalke while themselves playing sub-par, you have to wonder who in Germany can stop them.