What on earth has happened to previously high-flying Dortmund, this season? Ahead of their massive clash with Bayern Munich this weekend, Adrian Sertl breaks it down for us: Follow Adrian on Twitter at @AdrianSertl for excellent Bundesliga coverage and more.
To say that Borussia Dortmund’s current Bundesliga campaign has been a nightmare is stating the obvious. Through nine matches so far this season Die Schwarzgelben have recorded a 2-1-6 record, good for a mere seven points, and sit in 15th (yes, 15th!) place in the table. To give some perspective on this, at the same point last season the team was 2nd in the league with a 7-1-1 record. Doing a quick bit of math, that is a difference of 15 points – and 13 league table positions!
Given Dortmund’s recent successes – two successive league titles, a German Cup and an appearance in the Champions League Final – their current form is incredibly head-scratching. The last time they were this low in the table this far into a season was in the 2009-10 season when they were 15th on the 7th matchday. That time, Dortmund managed to pull themselves out of the relegation mire and finish in a respectable 5th place.
So the question that begs an answer: what has gone wrong for Borussia Dortmund?
Injuries: Dortmund’s Walking Wounded
Injuries are a part of football and no team can stay completely healthy throughout an entire season, especially those teams that play in multiple competitions and who have some of their players shipped off for international duty. Injuries are just going to occur. However, if you looked up “injury crisis” in a dictionary you’d very likely see a photo of 2014-15 Borussia Dortmund.
They are only now close to returning to full fitness, but the list of players that have missed time this season is staggering; Mats Hummels (knee), Neven Subotic (knee ligaments), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (foot), Ilkay Gündogan (back), Sven Bender (wrist), and Marco Reus (ankle) have all been sidelined at some point this season. Although all of the above are now available for Jürgen Klopp’s team selection, Dortmund are still without Nuri Sahin (knee), Marcel Schmelzer (hand), Jakub Blaszczykowski (muscle tear), Oliver Kirch (muscle tear), and Ji Dong-won (hamstring) for the foreseeable future.
While the players weren’t all missing action at the same time, an injury list that long is sure to test even the deepest of squads.
Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund is known for their intense ball pressure and lighting quick counter attacks, which is, as one could imagine, quite physically demanding on his players; significant injuries to a multitude of players would obviously hamper this style of play. In an ideal world, Klopp lines up his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation which allows the 4 attacking players to harass and harry the opposition in their own end all the while relying on a double pivot to fill in the gaps in midfield. When Dortmund do have the ball they use quick transitions and incisive passing to catch their opponents flat footed. The fullbacks are also not shy about jumping in to add extra support on the flanks.
This season however, Klopp has been forced to adjust his starting formations due to the unavailability of so many of his key players. Additionally, because many of the injuries have been to the more skilled attacking talents, the manager has often had to field a more defensive or less offensively gifted lineup, even when employing his preferred 4-2-3-1. Examples of this include playing the partnerships of Sebastian Kehl/Matthias Ginter, or Kehl/Sven Bender in the double pivot, players who are all more defensively minded and less creative, instead of being able to play one of Nuri Sahin or Ilkay Gündogan who are both more apt to join the attack.
Another byproduct of missing their more creative players is that the attacks begin to become more patterned and predictable. Dortmund have been rather guilty this season of trying to funnel their attacks through the middle of the pitch. The breakdowns occur when the opposing team overloads the middle of the pitch and the Dortmund players aren’t able to penetrate the defence, which is reflected by sub-par pass accuracy in the final third. When the team’s attacking players are fully fit, one would expect to see this trend reverse itself.
One thing that Klopp has had going for him tactically this season is that he’s had the ability to rely on Shinji Kagawa at the #10 position, even if in a limited capacity. Kagawa’s playmaking will be vital to any success Dortmund will have this season.
Something that is rather interesting to note, and could likely influence Klopp’s in-game tactical shifts, is that this season Borussia Dortmund tend to be playing catch-up in their league matches. Through the nine matchdays thus far, BVB have held the lead against their opponents for 135 minutes while the opponents have led for 339 minutes (by at least a goal),– not an insignificant difference. When a team is defending a lead, especially against Dortmund, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the side in front would cede possession and reduce their attacking forays in favour of maintaining a solid defensive shape. This type of tactic nullifies to some degree Dortmund’s most effective method of attacking: the quick counter. The onus then shifts to Dortmund to break down a stubborn defence, which is not always the easiest thing to do when your team is missing most of its creative midfield players.
Errors and Misses: Their own Worst Enemy
Football is generally a game where you look to capitalize on your opponents’ mistakes but at times this season Borussia Dortmund have been their own worst enemy. In terms of being caught offside, Dortmund are among the league leaders, which suggests a lack of concentration in the attacking third. Some of this can be explained by the constant shuffling of attacking players in and out of the lineup due to injury, but also keep in mind that the club had to replace their star striker (one who knew their system rather well), Robert Lewandowski. It will definitely take time for the replacements, Adrian Ramos and Ciro Immobile, to adjust to the Dortmund way.
True, getting caught offside is a sure fire way of snuffing out an attack but that’s not where the mental gaffes end for this team. Dortmund are incredibly guilty of not taking their chances when they are presented clear goal-scoring opportunities; a criticism that goes further back than this season, truth be told. Defensively, there are loads of examples in which Dortmund are caught out on a counter due to a botched offside trap, or have left men unmarked in the penalty area resulting in free headers and goals against. Dortmund’s mental troubles are probably best summed up by a game they played in September, against Mainz.
In the first half Ramos missed at least two clear chances to put the visitors ahead. Later in the game, Immobile missed a penalty moments after Shinji Okazaki had given Mainz the lead. To make matters worse, just moments after the penalty miss a Mainz counter attack ended with Matthias Ginter directing a hopeful low cross into the area past Roman Weidenfeller for an own goal. The match ended 2-0 to the home side, and was in and of itself a microcosm of BVB’s season.
Conclusion: Where do they go from here?
Dortmund are likely not as bad as their record reflects, and they should eventually right the ship and revert back to the Bundesliga juggernaut they’ve established themselves to be in recent times (rather than the sad sack of a club that has lost four straight Bundesliga matches). However it might be that the damage suffered so far is irrevocable, at least in terms of winning the league or even for fighting for a Champions League berth next season. With the vast majority of their major players now healthy their personnel problems appear to be past them. Now it is just a matter of rounding off into form. Still, it is perhaps a tall order.
The next couple of matches are incredibly vital, only they are up against the two in-form sides in the league. Tomorrow BVB travel to the Allianz Arena to take on league leaders and perennial powerhouse FC Bayern München, only to turn around and play 2nd placed Borussia Mönchengladbach eight days later. Oh, and there’s a little matter of a mid-week Champions League match against Galatasaray to contend with. A win tomorrow against Bayern could very well be a defining moment for this club…one way or another.
Follow Adrian on Twitter – @AdrianSertl