Dissecting Dortmund’s Early Struggles

Anticipation Mounting

Through 7 league matches, Dortmund have looked anything but title contenders. With only one loss in those seven matches, the Black and Yellow haven’t necessarily been awful, either. However, 12 points through 7 league matches is underwhelming at best.

Coming off a season where Dortmund finished as runners-up with a chance to finish at the top of the table, the anticipation for this campaign was peaking. Right before the season began, Dortmund defeated Bayern 2-0 in the DFL Supercup Finals.

The team’s engine was firing on all cylinders, creating high hopes and high expectations for the 2019-20 Bundesliga season. There was an energy surrounding the club by mid-August generated by the belief that Dortmund very well could finish as league champions in May.

Cooling Off

We’re halfway through October, and much like the summer heat, the energy around Dortmund seems all but a distant memory. Sitting in 8th place, Dortmund currently would not qualify for any European competitions.

There’s no doubt Dortmund are capable of competing with Europe’s best. If the Champions League Group Stage ended now, Dortmund would survive the Group of Death and advance to next round, thanks to promising draw with Barcelona and a convincing victory over Slavia Prague.

Dortmund’s performance in the Group Stage starkly contrasts their performance in the Bundesliga. The energy and anticipation from August have been replaced by disinterest and perplexity. Equally as concerning as Dortmund’s lack of early success are the ways in which they’ve managed to fail.

Dortmund have settled for a draw in each of their last 3 league matches, scoring and conceding 2 goals in each. The first draw came on the road at Eintracht Frankfurt, the second at home against Werder Bremen, and the third on the road at SC Freiburg.

In each of the draws, Dortmund failed to see out a 2-1 lead in the second half. To make matters worse, both Frankfurt and Freiburg leveled the score in the final five minutes courtesy of own goals from Delaney and Akanji, respectively. While errors at the back stand out as primary causes for concern, Dortmund’s shortcomings are far more complex.

Controlling the Ball, not the Game

Dortmund controlled at least 63% of the possession is each of their last three draws. Dortmund’s emphasis on possession epitomizes Lucien Favre’s managerial style. Much of Favre’s success as a manager stems from his teams’ abilities to control possession and, in turn, control the flow of the game.

Lucien Favre

With the exception of Frankfurt, Dortmund took more shots than the teams with which they’ve drawn. Despite surrendering two more shots than they took against Frankfurt, they were still able to put more on target than the hosts.

Dortmund’s possession has created more and better scoring chances than they’ve afforded their opponents, yet they haven’t been able to reap the benefits. Dortmund have nearly doubled their recent oppponents’ possession. Despite their control of the ball, they’ve also surrendered as many goals as they’ve scored in essentially half the time.

Possession football can be fantastic when it’s effective. But, as Dortmund have found, possession football can be equally as frustrating as it can be fantastic when it isn’t working. If opponents are just as effective in front of goal as Dortmund with half as much time of possession, is spending that much time in possession really worth it? If Dortmund sacrificed even a fraction of their possession for the sake of defensive organization, would match results look different?

Changing Pace

While sacrificing possession for defensive organization seems like an attractive transition, meaningfully making that transition presents a few challenges. If Dortmund’s opponents are willing to let them control possession and tempo, Dortmund would be foolish to pass on the invitation. However, what they choose to do with those opportunities needs to change.

Dortmund are a talented and versatile team. Players like Paco Alcacer and Marco Reus are clinical in front of goal, while others, like Axel Witsel, rarely surrender possession. Perhaps the most consistent advantage across the line-up is pace.

Sancho, Reus and Alcacer lead the way at the front with blistering speed and tremendous technical skill. Hakimi and Schulz, even as wing backs, are two of the fastest players in the Bundesliga. Brandt and Hazard are speedsters, as well.

Few players and Europe have the pace to keep up with most of Dortmund’s starting eleven. However, Dortmund’s possession-based football limits the advantages that their pace could create. Rather than pushing forward quickly, Dortmund prefer to settle for short, secure passes. Instead of blistering counterattacks, Dortmund prefer orchestrated marches.

dortmund have several players who can score

On one hand, the depth and diversity of Dortmund’s goal-scorers suggests that they don’t have to rely exclusively on their pace to find the back of the net. Blistering counter-attacks run the risk of stalling with just one poor pass or missed shot. Possession-based football allows the team to progress up the pitch with unity and organization rather than pace and power.

On the other hand, even though Dortmund have been incredibly successful in using possession to push up the pitch, their multitude of goal scorers haven’t made the most of their opportunities. As Dortmund have used possession to advance the ball forward, teams have, to their credit, successfully organized themselves defensively. As a result, countless Dortmund attacks have stalled or vanished in the final third.

Completely abandoning their possession approach probably won’t solve Dortmund’s inconsistencies at the back, and it would take away much of the valuable time Dortmund spends trying to convert in the final third. However, altering the possession-approach opens the door to a more dynamic attack that better utilizes Dortmund’s pace.

Glimpses of Greatness

On occasion, Dortmund have launched blistering counter-attacks, using the pace of Sancho or Reus to get in behind the opposing back line. However, the bulk of these attacks have come in the closing moments of a half. When time has been on their side, Dortmund have been conservative on the attack and comfortably taken their time.

Additionally, those few occasions where Dortmund have relied on pace have been promising. A considerable number of Dortmund’s goals this season started with Jadon Sancho bolting down the wing as Reus and/or Alcacer ran parallel up the middle. Hakimi’s pace has been equally as impressive and largely responsible for his recent flurry of goals.

The Bottom Line

Dortmund have a multitude of potential changes they can make to bridge the gap between good football and championship football. Perhaps they continue their possession-based approach and fine-tune their defensive shape and tactics.

Whether Dortmund start from square one or build on what they’ve developed up to this point, they need to hit their stride, and they need to do it quickly. There’s no doubt Lucien Favre has ideas of his own, and given his managerial skill, he’s likely to find a solution. Ideally, that solution better exploits Dortmund’s advantage in pace.

Either way, Dortmund host league-leaders Borussia Monchengladbach this Saturday. Just 4 points separate the league leaders and 8th place Dortmund. Dortmund are desperate for a confidence boost, and a win on Saturday could give them exactly what they need to get back on track. This time, however, they can’t afford to the lead slip in the closing minutes.

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