Lucien Favre extended his contract last year but only just until the end of the 20/21 season. The powers that be indicated that Favre would be evaluated this season based upon results. The complacency of both management and Favre to start the season and roll into November without any discussion of an extension clearly illuminates the fact that at 62 Favre is indifferent as to his future at a high pressure environment, especially when one or more major pieces such as Sancho and possibly Haaland are likely to move on this summer.
Dortmund’s management is disappointed with Favre’s so easily being outclassed by coaches with equal or better talent and never actually competing for any titles. However, they are unsure of where to go next. They went the route of hiring the up and coming coach when they hired Peter Bosch from Ajax and that was a complete disaster. Conversely, Dortmund doesn’t seem to be a high profile enough team to interest the Pochettinos and Allegris of the sport. High profile coaches want to coach teams that poach the best players in the World and not teams that are constantly looking for the next youth star to break through so they can ride one or two seasons before selling them on to the wealthier clubs. Dortmund aspires to be a title contender, but a few too many pieces just seem to be missing and their stars are too often ready to move on just as they peak.
And who could blame Favre for moving on? Two summers ago, in the midst of a summer spending spree, they bought Schulz without his input. More significantly, he asked that they bring in another centerback this summer looking at all loan and purchase options. Watzke and Zorc felt that the finances weren’t there this past summer to add a player and, then, loaned out Balerdi because he was not developing or progressing on the bench. Needless to say, it did not take long for the lack of depth on defense to catch up with them and to set back the club’s aspirations for titles this season. A long term injury to Zagadou; Akjani contracting Covid; and Hummel’s ever decreasing speed conspired to leave Dortmund struggling at the back. Dortmund actually finished a game with two midfielders, Can and Delaney, flanking Hummels in the makeshift defense of all makeshift defenses. Sadder yet, Delaney had to start in the Champion’s League in defense because of a suspension to Can, as did the quasi-retired Piszczek. While Piszczek may be adequate this late in his career for a half against a bottom half Bundesliga squad, expecting him to start on the road against the most competitive team in the group months before his official retirement was expecting far too much.
Of course, it didn’t help that Meunier has been such a huge disappointment as the new right wing/right back. PSG fans were laughing at Dortmund for signing him, warning that he was free for a reason as he is useless in attack and mediocre at best in defense. Even against some of the worst Bundesliga sides, he has proven to be piss poor in the attack to say the least. Dozens of poor pass and cross attempts, creating far too many turnovers and making him one of the bigger liabilities on the team. He can play fullback to some degree, which allows Favre to play a 4-2-3-1, which has proven to be far more stable for this team this season. Last season, the opposite was true, but Hakimi was so dangerous in attack with his world class speed that having Guerriero and Hakimi forward in attack created an incredible attacking force and allowed Sancho and Hazard/Brandt to tuck into half-spaces. Meunier, though, provides not even a small fraction of the attacking prowess of Hakimi, and has slightly more defensive skill making the team more stable in a 4 man back line but with an ineffective attack on the right side and not enough service to Sancho.
The four man backline also works better than the three centerbacks, as Dortmund doesn’t have 3 healthy centerbacks (rarely 2 this season). Midfielders Can and Delaney are adequate at best playing as centerbacks, but certainly not up to the level that a club like Dortmund ought to have and not capable of playing there against teams that pose a real attacking threat. And, as indicated, Piszczek is adequate against modestly talented teams for a half. The failure to sign a fourth centerback was a major failing of Watzke and Zorc this past summer (or at least a loan with an option). They decided to chance it, and Zagadou getting seriously injured and Akjani contracting Covid was in inevitable result that everyone saw coming.
To his credit, Favre has tried to adapt to some degree this season. Unlike past seasons, he has introduced more rotation and discovered that giving playing time to forgotten players on the bench can surprise you. Dahoud has been the surprise player. He was always one of the better attacking central midfielders on the squad and often had nice runs each season when injuries necessitated his playing or where he was given a meaningful opportunity as a sub. This season he has been given a bigger role, especially with Can pretending to be a centerback, and has excelled. And a couple of the younger players stepped up in a big way with Bellingham flashing talent as that box-to-box central midfielder they haven’t had in years, and Reyna showing flashes in the half-spaces or as an attacking midfielder (he starts on the wing sometimes, but usually pushes in during play). Neither is consistent or ready to step up against real Champion’s League competition or top 4 contenders in the league, but both flash elite talent in run-of-the-mill Bundesliga or Cup games.
The last few weeks demonstrate exactly where this club is at. Coasting to a win against an over-matched Bielefeld, where it was only a matter of time before one of a dozen shots on goal (or two) snuck through. In fact, Menuier even stepped up with his first assist of the season with an actual quality cross to Hummels, though it was against clearly inferior competition and likely to be one of very few he provides this season. Similarly, they came up big with a tough win at home against Zenit in the Champion’s League. Four consecutive home wins in the Champion’s League is certainly respectable. But prior to that, they were humiliated and exposed by an aggressive Lazio team in Italy that outplayed them in every facet of the game and where they just mentally were unable to regroup after an early Immobile goal. With Zagadou, Akjani, and Can (suspension) all out against Lazio, it was likely always going to be a loss as there was only one actual centerback left (Hummels), and for everything that he is great at: bringing the ball out of the Dortmund end, distributing the ball, long diagonal and overhead passes, and heading out nearly anything in the air that comes near the Dortmund box; his lack of speed when caught forward makes him a liability at times, as demonstrated on Lazio’s third goal when the player just ran past him and he couldn’t catch up.
Getting Akjani back is, of course, a huge boost and the defense was far more stable, especially with Burki back in goal after Hitz struggled as his injury replacement for a half dozen games. Certainly, Dortmund fans were happy with the rivalry win over Schalke, though outplaying Schalke this season is closer to running over road kill that has simply been laying in the street since September than actually earning a victory. And Wednesday, they are on the road at Brugge, which is a Champion’s League road game, but should be winnable with the roster back reaching peak level upon the return of Hazard, Akjani and Burki with only Zagadou still out.
Saturday, though, Bayern travels to Dortmund. Though Dortmund is at home, Bayern is simply the dominant force in European soccer right now and are giving no indication that they have any intention of relinquishing their domestic or European title. And while Favre comfortably rides out his contract, Flick is well on his way as establishing himself as one of the elite coaches in the game on par with Klopp and Pep and more than prepared to defend his titles.
Come Spring, I imagine Dortmund will have gotten out of their Champion’s League group before being bounced from the tourney in the round of 16 by one of the group winners, will have lost in the German Cup in the quarters or semis (likely to Bayern), and will be sitting second or third in the Bundesliga at least qualifying for next season’s Champion’s League. And, who knows, maybe Favre will decide to cash their checks for one more season, and the club will decide that they really just don’t see their next Klopp out there. As the proverb provides: better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.