Well, well, well! It appears that the lesson from Matchday Six of the Bundesliga is that the gap between Bayern, Dortmund and the rest of the league has, at least temporarily, shrunk! It began with Cologne earning a draw at the Allianz Arena, despite getting outshot 27 to 5 as the Bayern players managed to get just three of their 27 shots on goal and occasionally being saved by Timo Horn and/or the post. The madness continued with Leverkusen copying the RB Leipzig blueprint on how to beat BVB, and when it was all over the Bundesliga suddenly had a title race! Hertha announced their claim to the throne with a typical Hertha win, in which they don’t do much, lose the shots battle to an actually decent-looking Hamburg side (Pierre-Michel Lasogga revenge game!!!), but win the war thanks to a couple of Vedad Ibisevic goals. Interestingly, the Bosnian is in a five way tie for the top scorer award with five goals, alongside Anthony Modeste, Chicharito, Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. (That’s four of last year’s top five, with Ibisevic replacing Thomas Müller). Leipzig added another dominant performance in defeating Augsburg and are deservedly fifth in the table. Gladbach remained on ten points after getting destroyed by Breel Embolo and Schalke in the second half, while Leverkusen and Hoffenheim joined them thanks to a couple of impressive wins. Eintracht remain one point ahead of Freiburg after a close match was decided by Vincenzo Grifo’s classy finish. The bottom half of the table remained relatively unchanged, as four of the teams from 11-15 drew. Mainz are perhaps the weirdest team in the league, equally capable of playing an eight-goal thriller of a draw, as well as a scoreless borefest. Augsburg are gonna be in trouble, due to extended injuries to Dominik Kohr, Raul Bobadilla and Caiuby and an aging squad lacking depth. They do have Dirk Schuster to rely on, who knows a thing or two about getting a lot out of an old and limited side. Wolfsburg have also been bitten by the injury bug and continued their frustrating finishing spell to extend their winless streak to five games. The chances that their stars, Julian Draxler and Mario Gomez are missing, some of them empty netters and tap-ins must be driving Dieter Hecking crazy (who can point to his team being third in the league with 6.2 shots on target per match), and it won’t be long before some changes will need to be made…Darmstadt and Werder played a funky 2-2 draw, that had a couple of cool goals (Antonio Mirko Colak and Serge Gnabry), some bad defending and a goalkeeper injury. On the day, Werder were the better team, but the Lilies have made a living of getting a point out of these kinda games versus more talented teams. Ingolstadt and HSV continued their miserable seasons, with FCI still dreadful on offense and not able to find that defense that carried them last year. Hamburg actually deserved more in Berlin, but Nico Müller and Albin Ekdal made crucial mistakes to let the Dinos down. These two teams remain winless, because Schalke are on the board, people! After a miserable first half, die Knappen overran a naive Gladbach side, who seemed to yet again lack a coherent plan away from home. Led by Breel Embolo and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting the Royal Blues poured in three goals in six minutes and the game was effectively over – even Franco di Santo was brought on.
After that wrap-up let’s see who made Matchday Six’s Team of the Week?
1. Bernd Leno – Leverkusen made four saves, including a crucial late game stop on a streaking Aubameyang at 1-0. There weren’t a lot of standout performances in goal on Matchday Six in the Bundesliga, so keeping a clean sheet against a potent Dortmund attack seems as good a pick as any.
2. Dominique Heintz – Cologne was a vital players in the draw at the Allianz Arena, contributing four tackles, five interceptions, ten clearances and a team-high 56 touches. The 23-year-old put in a great shift at left central back, as he rarely got caught out of position, or made a bad challenge, despite going up against a right side attack of Bayern that featured Arjen Robben and Thomas Müller for one half each.
3. Giulio Donati -Mainz was an absolute monster at right back versus Wolfsburg, racking up four tackles on a 100% success rate. He also contributed four interceptions, with five clearances -including a perfect goal line stop of Julian Draxler’s goalbound shot. The former Leverkusen man also had a team high 68 touches, with three blocked shots as well. The whole Mainz defense deserves a ton of praise as the back four for Stefan Bell,Alexander Hack, Gaetan Bussmann and Donati amassed 22 clearances, 15 tackles and 11 interceptions.
4. Bernat – Bayern had probably his best ever match in a Bayern jersey with SEVEN key passes, five dribbles completed, two shots – one that hit the post, and a beautiful move that led to his assist to Joshua Kimmich. You know how I wrote that it is unfair that Rafinha has to back up Philipp Lahm? Well Juan Bernat having to sit on the bench behind David Alaba is quite ridiculous as well. Those seven key passes are the same as Marcel Schmelzer – widely considered to be one of the best left backs in the Bundesliga – has so far this season!
5. Benjamin Henrichs – Leverkusen is quickly becoming a “shutdown cornerback” in the Bundesliga, to borrow a phrase from the NFL. Does the other team have a speedy winger with excellent dribbling, a’la Filip Kostic, Ousmane Dembélé, or say even Christian Pulisic? No problem, just dial 1-800-BENNY and he will shut him down on either side of the field! The 19-year-old had himself a day with seven tackles, three interceptions and four clearances plus one French and one American Hopeful crushed. Pulisic and Dembélé managed to go 3 for 14 on successful dribbles for the game, and the American was subbed after just 23 touches in the first 45 minutes, while the Frenchman had his worst game in a Dortmund shirt!
Of course the irony is that, the 19-year-old Henrichs was a highly-touted attacking midfielder from the Bayer youth system converted into a left/right back after Leverkusen lost the first five options for the position last season.
6. Emil Forsberg – Leipzig has long been considered one of the brightest prospects that Sweden has had to offer. The 24-year-old, who shocked many of his fans in Malmö by signing with second division RBL, was one of the best players in die Zweite Liga last season. In 2016/17 he wasn’t an automatic starter for a deep Leipzig team, but his recent performances and his ability to win the ball back should earn him more playing time. Two shots, two key passes and a great goal showed why he is a difference-maker at the Bundesliga level. For more on him, I recommend this excellent profile by the Guardian.
A special apology to Marcel Sabitzer who has been one of the unsung heroes of his side, as RBL are quickly becoming challengers for the Champions League spots. The Austrian is an excellent dribbler and a forceful player, and is also vital to Leipzig’s press system. He is also quite the threat on offense, averaging 2.7 shots per match so far and he can provide the final ball, as he did to Yusuf Poulsen for the winner.
7. Hakan Calhanoglu – Leverkusen four key passes (had just five in the first five matches) and two (open play) assists are numbers that have been a rarity for the Turkish playmaker as of late. For the last 18 months or so, Calhanoglu has undergone a bizarre transformation from one of Europe’s most promising young attacking mids to an ineffective long-range bomber who rarely made his teammates better. On Saturday, Calhanoglu was close to his best, always providing an outlet for teammates despite being deployed as left midfielder.
That’s certainly promising, and so is averaging just one shot from outside of the box this season, compared to the career average of two per match. Roger Schmidt will hope that he will be able to replace the production of Karim Bellarabi with Julian Brandt, but Calhanoglu remains a vital part of this Leverkusen side and with these kind of performances they can go far.
8.Kerem Demirbay – Hoffenheim and his two shots, two key passes, and an excellent goal would’ve made the cut, if not for a foot injury cutting his afternoon short after 52 minutes. The 23-year-old has been a revelation since his inclusion in the starting eleven that began with the Darmstadt match. He was voted man of the match against Schalke, where he actually started his career, and he arguably had a great case against Ingolstadt as well. On a sidenote, Schalke, Dortmund, HSV, Kaiserslautern, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Hamburg again all deemed him problematic enough to make just three career appearances at the age of 23. Maybe it’s those sexist comments and the subsequent embarrassment that have turned things around, but the Turkish U 21 international looks like an impact player, full of confidence and TSG are flying with him. Cue to Hamburg fans, forced to watch Alen Halilovic rot away on the bench, while Aaron Hunt tries to orchestrate the attack, crying into their pillows.
Demirbay’s spot will be awarded to his Hoffenheim teammate Andrej Kramaric – who took over the attacking duties from the Turkish midfielder and finished with SEVEN shots, one hitting the post. The Croatian is now second behind Robert Lewandowski in shot attempts with 24. His two key passes included a sublime ball to Sandro Wagner for the opener, which gave him his fourth assist on the year, putting him in second place behind Franck Ribéry (who really should be on four assists at most, as his dump-offs to two long-range bombs from Rafinha and Xabi Alonso in the Ingolstadt match should count as half assists). The only negative I can think of describing the former Leicester man is his tendency to miss high with his shots, but his pace, dribbling, passing and shooting bring so much to Julian Nagelsmann’s side
9. Vincenzo Grifo – Freiburg was voted man of the match against Frankfurt, collecting a goal on two shots and three key passes. The Italian playmaker leads the league alongside teammate Max Philipp in long-range shots attempted. His 20 key passes are tied with Pascal Groß, and that’s funny, because Grifo is basically Freiburg’s version of Pascal Groß with a little Hakan Calhanoglu thrown in there for good measure. They are also basically the same height and build, and both made their Bundesliga debuts at 23 on the backs of excellent Zweite Liga campaigns – 14 goals and 15 assists for Grifo last year, and 7 goals 23 assists for Groß in Ingolstadt’s 14/15 season. The comparisons don’t end there, both players started out in the Hoffenheim youth system and then both also played at Karlsruhe before finding their success elsewhere. In fact, Grifo and Hakan Calhanoglu were teammates at Karlsruhe’s U19 squad in 2011, while Groß was trying to break into the first team!
Back to Grifo, he like the other two attacking mids, excels in dead ball situations, but is capable of finishing off chances on counters as well. He isn’t a polished finisher right now, and his ridiculous 92% shooting accuracy – taking two-thirds of his shot from outside box, mind you! – means that he is getting some shots on goal that don’t really trouble the keeper. His huge chance inside the first five minutes against Dortmund was a great example why he has just one goal, despite missing the target just once so far, as his weak side footed shot on a breakaway was comfortably saved by Roman Bürki.
His other issue is getting his shots blocked – he also leads the Bundesliga with NINE of his 21 total efforts thwarted. Still, Grifo remains the heart and soul of a pesky Freiburg team that is capable of hanging with every Bundesliga side.
10. Vedad Ibisevic – Hertha brace on four shots, making it four goals in two matches for the new BSC captain. While two of his five goals are penalties, Ibisevic’s five tallies – half of last season’s total! – are tied for the Bundesliga lead in goals and it looks like another stellar year for a player that Stuttgart essentially gave up on. Much like Claudio Pizarro last season, Alex Meier and Raffael in the last couple of years, the Bosnian is proving that the Bundesliga is the place to be for strikers over 30. He is now on 97 goals in 234 games and I wouldn’t bet against him getting to 100 soon, though perhaps not on the next matchday against Dortmund.
The Bundesliga doesn’t appear the place to be for another 32-year-old veteran striker in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, as he missed the derby against Gladbach due to illness and might not get his spot back anytime soon thanks to
11. Breel Embolo – Schalke. The 19-year-old summer signing has hitherto been a disappointment for die Knappen, but had his coming out party vs the Foals. His two goals offered glimpses of why he was drawing comparisons to Mario Balotelli and why Schalke paid 22.5 million Euros for him: an excellent finish after some great work by Sead Kolasinac for his debut goal was just the beginning. Embolo did most of the heavy lifting for the third, putting Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting through, only for Leon Goretzka to tap in the rebound. But it was his final goal that really topped it off for Schalke: Embolo chased down a long ball, and despite Andreas Christensen having four yards on him, he made one of his four tackles on the night to win the ball, then muscle off the Dane for a strong finish.
His attitude has been nothing short of spectacular, and his understanding with Choupo-Moting is already evident. With Leon Goretzka and two Cameroonians (Embolo was born in Yaounde and Choupo has 43 caps), I feel like the “Three Indomitable Lions” nickname should be coming out any day now.
Honorable mentions go out to Julian “just cannnot buy a goal, but does everything else at an elite level” Draxler, Jerome “Darmstadt’s Pascal Groß” Gondorf, Ji-Dong Won for his wondergoal, Marvin Plattenhardt for his four key passes and solid defense. Very sorry about not including the excellent Joshua Kimmich, Sead Kolasinac, who looks like the choice at left-back for Schalke, Yusuf Poulsen for his holdup play and Anthony Modeste for his kung-fu goal.