Sadly, Borussia Dortmund finished 2 points behind Bayern Munich last season for the Bundesliga title. At the time it seemed unbelievably disappointing for the fans and club, where the team held a 9 point lead over Bayern late in the first half of the season. Their lack of depth in the defense, inability to consistently kill off games when they had a lead, and struggles breaking down teams that parked the bus eventually caught up with them.
In retrospect, though, last season was a giant step forward from where they were in surviving the collapse under Bosz and mediocrity of the Stoger eras. The additions of Witsel and Delaney were a giant improvement in stabilizing the midfield, Alcacer arrived to add some punch up top for the first time since Aubameyang left, and the emergence of Jadon Sancho as the top under 20 player in the World all helped to push Dortmund on the doorstep of the title.
Most impressive for me was Favre, Zorc and Watzke moving quickly before the transfer season even started to make massive additions to the club. They added a solid league player on the wing, who consistently scores double digits, in Thorgan Hazard. Nico Schulz is a player who had really come on at Hoffenheim to the extent that he is now Jorgi Loew’s first choice starter at leftback for the German National team. Julian Brandt is one of the break-out young players over the past few years in the entire league, and can play anywhere in midfield. And, of course, Matts Hummels returns to anchor the defense, after having been chosen by the German sportswriters as the best centerback in the league during the second half of last season.
I see all of these players as truly great additions. Julian Brandt is one of my favorite players in the league. Many soccer fans that don’t watch the Bundesliga routinely were shocked when he was coming into games late in the ’14 World Cup and blasting shots at goal. I still can’t imagine WTF Loew was thinking in hiding Brandt on the bench until the last few minutes of the World Cup games, while rolling out so many veterans in midfield that were well past their expiration date. Brandt has exactly the qualities in midfield with his elite skills to push the tempo and break open tight defenses with accurate passes. He may not be the speedster that Sancho is, but his vision, accurate passing and through balls are rated extremely high and he may ultimately be the successor to Reus at the attacking midfield spot. What I love most about the Brandt acquisition is that he is’t really a player at a position that Dortmund needed, but a player that Dortmund bought because he was an upgrade over so many of their existing players in midfield.
Thorgan Hazard had a fantastic start to the season last year, though his production fell off in the second half of the season. In fairness, Borussia Moenchengladbach just seemed to fall off a cliff in the second half of last season with Hazard’s production as well as everyone else suffering. Hecking just became too predictable with his gameplans, and somehow managed to completely lose the team, leading to the April announcement he would not be returning as manager for the 19-20 season. No one is arguing that Hazard has the same potential as a top young player like Brandt, but he is a double digit scorer in the league, who is well above average on the ball and crossing. His ability to finish is also a welcome addition. He can contribute on the wing and up top.
Nico Schulz is just as important of an addition as anyone this summer. Schmelzer was a regular starter going back to the beginning of the Klopp era, but hasn’t been completely healthy in several years with his career winding down. Hakimi brought some excitement last season, but also showed his inexperience at times and struggled with many defensive assignments. Hakimi still has huge potential, but Schulz provides a solid option at a position that has been filled in with by rookies and centerbacks playing out of position the past two seasons. Having an actual leftback, who is at least average, if not solid on defensive assignments, while extremely aggressive and productive in the attack fills a major hole in the roster that has existed for the past few years.
And Hummels is the anchor that was missing at the end of so many games last season. Dortmund believe they would have won 3, and possibly 4, more games last season but for inexperience at centerback. When Dortmund dropped defensively and tried to protect a lead, Favre could only watch as the defense repeatedly let them down. Some of this was exaggerated when December’s run of defensive injuries devastated the club with Akjani, Diallo, Piszczek, Toprak, Schmelzer and Zagadou all missing a substantial period of time due to injury. And it certainly didn’t help that they went out and acquired Balerdi at the winter break from Argentina, and he gets hurt in an under 20 tournament before he even sets foot in Germany. Thank god Favre’s experiment of playing Weigl at centerback actually worked, where he was well above average for the club, or it could have gotten even so much worse.
Hummels is seen at the remedy for the inexperience that plagued the club at the back. While he may only have a few years left competing for a top club, he spent years as the boss at the back for Dortmund and for the German national team on their way to the World Cup Championship and he is seen as exactly the one player that can hold Dortmund’s defense together late in games. Unfortunately, his addition scared away Diallo, but at this stage of his career Diallo is seen as a replaceable player, while the experience and intelligence of Hummels at the back is seen as the missing piece to win now. Additionally, Diallo has potential, but Akjani, Zagadou and Balerdi also have serious potential and badly need a veteran like Hummels to organize things until they are ready.
One last piece the club might still be looking at is another true forward to alternate with Alcacer. Patrick Schick is a player Dortmund has coveted the past two years, after his big season as a super sub for Sampdoria a few years ago. Despite his struggles at Roma last season, Dortmund are still huge fans. He turned down a move to the Premiership publicly stating he wants Dortmund, so hopefully this happens soon.
As for the SuperCup or whatever, it was great to see the team win a trophy. Granted, it is a glorified friendly and both teams held out some of their top stars (with neither Hummels, Brandt nor Hazard playing for Dortmund), but there was plenty of positive takeaways as well: 1). Schulz was solid at a position of need; 2) Weigl continued his excellent play throughout the preaseason-could the youngster get back his great form under Tuchel and supplant Delaney in midfield?; 3) Sancho flashed his superhuman speed and had a goal and an assist; 4) Paco Alcacer looked even more comfortable than last season with a superb opening goal; 5) Akjani stepping up (as did Toprak, though he is likely being loaned out or sold by the end of the week); 6) Guerriero looked healthy and in top form to start a season for once; and 7) Bayern looked like they are missing a few pieces. Granted Lukas and Gnabry didn’t play, and Bayern dominated possession for long periods, while Hitz came up with amazing stops on Coman, Lewandowski, and others that could have made it a much different game, but Bayern still looked like they were seriously missing some serious punch in the attack and were incredibly vulnerable to Dortmund’s counters.
And while it was only a glorified friendly, the teams did take it very serious on the field. The tempo was fast, and the game was extremely intense at times, as highlighted by Kimmich’s unbelievably cheap stomping on Sancho’s ankle out of pure frustration at being run off the field by the Dortmund counterattacks.
Certainly, we won’t get to see what the Hummels, Hazard, Schulz era looks like until the German Cup kicks off this weekend. Can’t wait to see how Favre sorts out the lineup and tactics. Brandt isn’t expected back as quickly as Hazard and Hummels, but he will be in the lineup yet in August. With the Leroy Sane injury possibly being serious, I have no idea what Bayern plans to do between now and September 2 to bolster their attack and depth, but Lewandowski is already spouting off about the failure to add 2 to 3 new pieces in the attack, especially given Coman’s track record with injury and the depth they will need for the league, Cup and Champion’s League throughout September, October and November. Hopefully Dortmund can once again open up a double digit lead over Bayern in the league, and this time hold on throughout the second half of the season.