The Revival of Borussia Dortmund

DORTMUND, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 10: Jadon Sancho, Manuel Akanji and Julian Weigl of Borussia Dortmund prior to the Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern Muenchen at the Signal Iduna Park on November 10, 2018 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund/Getty Images)

Borussia Dortmund are one of the pillars of European Football, from the style to their fans, to the club themselves. They have been Germany’s ‘2nd’ team behind Bayern Munich for some time now, with the occasional high of being better than Bayern. However, they have had some rough time in recent years; a 7-1 loss to Bayern felt like rock bottom.

This season, however, they have started a new. They are currently top of the Bundesliga and are coming off an outstanding 3-2 win against Bayern Munich. With the win Borussia Dortmund have established themselves as title threat. With the Bundesliga season many expected to be Bayern’s to lose is now wide open. At the top sit Dortmund who are flying high with a new coach and new players making all the difference.

Borussia Dortmund are Back

The Coaching

It all starts with what they did over the summer. First they went and hired a top rated coach in Lucien Favre from Nice. The small French club was coming off back to back trips to Europe under the Swiss manager so Dortmund brought him to the Bundesliga. Favre’s resume also includes reviving Borussia Monchengladbach who were relegation bound before his appointment and were UCL yearly contenders by his resignation four and a half years later.

His dynamic but organized style has brought results across the continent, but Borussia Dortmund needed more than just a manager to return to the Bundesliga’s summit. Thomas Tuechel’s last season in 2016-17 and last season 17-18 were defined by a chaotic end to end Dortmund team. A team fluent in dramatic highs and crushing lows. Yet they managed 2nd & 4th in the league those years, though nowhere near the level Bayern Munich.

Transfers

2nd and 4th place finishes were not good enough for 80,000 average attendance at Signal Iduna Park; the fans want titles. Dortmund needed to revamp and retool a squad lacking the necessary quality. But any retool starts with selling current players. Over the last two years, they’ve sold 12 players who played at least 20 games in the season prior.

Those are names like Ousmane Dembele, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Matthias Ginter, Nuri Sahin, Sokratis, Marc Bartra and Gonzalo Castro. Any club that makes that many sales and runs through 3 different managers in the same time period is hoping that it will all be worth it in the end. And after about a third of the season the results have been good.

They started bringing new talent in summer of 2017. With players like, Jadon Sancho, Dan Axel Zagadou, Manuel Akanji coming in before the start of last season. But this summer has really made the difference. The signings of Thomas Delaney, Axel Witsel, Paco Alcacer, Achraf Hakimi and Abdou Diallo have all been excellent signings and been crucial parts of Dortmund’s early success.

The Tactics

What Dortmund brought Lucien Favre in to do was stabilize this chaotic side and get them playing as a team. It started with getting some stability in their defense, leading to them already having seven clean sheets this season. Even in a 3-2 win against Bayern, their defense was incredible stout in the second half. Akanji and Zagadou handled Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller with ease down the stretch.

Over the whole season though, the biggest difference has been the play of their new midfield double pivot; Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney. Witsel is a Belgian international and one of the best players on their World Cup semi finalist side this past summer. His decision to come back to Europe after a few years in China has been massive for Dortmund.

He is so good at slowing the play down, controling possession, and controlling defense. He passes the ball with excellent accuracy, over 92% pass accuracy this season. And he snuffs out a counter attack like the best midfield pivots in world football. Those attributes had been really missing from the past few Dortmund sides. And when you combine that with Delaney’s muscle in midfield it really toughen ups your defense.

With that extra help in midfield, the Dortmund centre backs have really upped their game. Dan Axel Zagadou and Manuel Akanji are much better this season then they were last. The two were really up to the task against Bayern as they made multiple critical interventions despite giving up two goals. Even new signing Abdou Diallo has played really well when hes back there, giving them three on form center backs to pick from.

What a Stout Center Means

The biggest ripple effect of that strong center is it allows the wide players more space and time to get on the ball. Players like Jadon Sancho, Christian Pulisic, Jacob Bruun Larsen and fullbacks like Achraf Hakimi, Raphael Guerreiro and Łukasz Piszczek. When they have time and space on the ball the Dortmund team becomes such a threat. Sancho and Hakimi have formed a lethal partnership on that right hand side that is only just budding; with their ages 18 & 20 respectively btw.

Of that group Jadon Sancho has absolutely been the star of the show. The 18 year old former Man City academy kid has 5 goals and 7 assists in all comps already this season. He has shown a Dembele esq dynamic style of play so far, with the work ethic tracking back Dembele never had.

However the work of these wide players would be all for naught without great finishing centrally. Dortmund have had exactly that thanks to club captain Marco Reus and the on form Paco Alcacer. But it really starts with Reus, one of the best players in world football when healthy, is finally that.

The last two years were a bit of an odyssey for Marco Reus. He only managed 27 Bundesliga appearances over the last two seasons due to various leg injuries. He said he was finally healthy at the end of last season and he has absolutely carried that health into this season. So far he’s got 9 goals and 4 assists across all comps this season, but he’s certainly not doing it alone.

Paco Alcacer

When Borussia Dortmund grabbed Paco Alcacer on loan from Barcelona on the last day of the transfer window, it looked a little desperate. But in fact it was an outstanding bit of scouting. Paco Alcacer does one thing extremely well; the first time finish. Rarely does he miss the target when he instinctively hits the ball first time, usually after a near post run.

While that is an exceptional quality of his game, his passing and his decision making when given time are not so great. A player like that will always have a harder time at Barcelona because of what they ask their center forwards to do. Think of all the things Luis Suarez can do and imagine Alcacer trying to do those same things, and now you understand why it didn’t really work.

But at Dortmund, they require a different set of skills. Someone with skills similar to Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, a quick runner into space and an outstanding instinctive finisher. In comes Paco Alcacer who has performed that role better than even he could’ve imagined to the tune of 9 goals in 8 appearances, four of which came off the bench.

They Are Here to Stay

Even with Alcacer scoring in bundles Favre has made a point of rotating his squad from the start. Most would expect that to lead to some inconsistency; but it has in fact been the opposite. Dortmund have only lost one game all season; away to Atletico Madrid in the UCL. But have wins against Bayern, Atletico, Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen, and RB Leipzig.

They sit atop the Bundesliga with 27 points, 4 clear of 2nd place Borussia Monchengladbach. And even better, Bayern Munich sit third on 20 points, seven back of Dortmund, who would’ve thought that before the season. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of slowing down either, with their come from behind win against Bayern only adding more wind to their sails.

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