For a short moment near Thanksgiving, I was about to write that Dortmund turned a corner. An inconsistent Fall full of disappointing performances against Augsburg, Bayern and Lazio could now be forgotten, as BVB turned Haaland loose on Hertha and Club Brugge. The young American, Gio Reyna, was stepping up in attack as well, and Dortmund’s defense was starting to look healthy.
Before I even set down to write such an overly optimistic view, the team was embarrassed with a loss to Cologne and back-to-back, lifeless draws to Frankfort and Lazio. Along the way, they lost Haaland to a serious injury that would sideline him until January, and quickly demonstrated that they were devoid of the ability to consistently score goals without him. The 5-1 shellacking they took to Pellegrino Matarazzo’s Stuttgart was the final straw though. That loss illustrated not just the failure of the team to consistently convert possession into scoring opportunities, but the wholesale collapse of the club in nearly every facet of the game. They struggle to create opportunities regardless of the quality of the opposition, struggle to slow down opponent’s counter-attacks, are lackadaisical if not indifferent on set pieces, their make-shift defenders commit unforgiveable errors, and their defensive midfield is ineffective at breaking up counters to say the least. On top of that, the team has consistently, for Favre’s entire tenure, struggled to advance the ball out of their own end against teams that press high.
Veteran Matts Hummels was finally the first to break rank and publicly scold manager Lucien Favre. The schemes are just not well-suited for a team that is one of the youngest in all of Europe. The manager expects these young players to execute precise passes through narrow windows, and with a team loaded with young stars, the results have just been repeated turnovers in their own end and in midfield all season. Rather than exploiting the speed and multiple attacking options available with his squad, Favre’s goal is to dominate possession, limit opponent’s opportunities, and beat teams in the second half with counters using his squad’s superior speed and depth. Admittedly, there are times it worked to perfection. Dortmund simply choked all of the life out of the game for long stretches, and, then, broke it open with magnificent counters.
But, this Dortmund team is just not well suited for that type of game. Brandt and Meunier are the most careless with the ball, but youngsters Haaland, Bellingham, Reyna, and Morey are far more suited for a more open and attacking game, and Sancho struggled this season to fit the scheme at all. Favre defenders will respond that the real issues were simply in the number of injuries in the defense and reassignment of Can and sometimes Delaney to play centerback rather than defensive midfield. Others will point to the fact that Favre’s statistics are some of the best in Europe if you look at expected goals for and against. Others will respond, though, that the expected goals is only so high because Dortmund score off a very limited number of opportunities being created in games, when they should be creating many multiples of that number of opportunities.
Critics also point out that far too often the club’s ill fated tactics were concealed by a frustrated Reus or other attacking player simply pressing high on their own. While Dortmund was set up to play a mid or low bloc in their own end, Reus, for example, has created opportunities in a moment of improv, where he exploits an opponents’ inexperience and sloppiness in the opponent’s end by closing quickly, stealing the ball, and immediately feeding Haaland for the easy goal. Reus and the other team Captains have kept their mouths shut for the past couple of years, but moments of improvisation by he and Haaland demonstrate their frustration with the scheme and recognition that Dortmund could be spanking some of these lesser opponents by playing the same high press, aggressive tactics many use against them. Reus won two games for Dortmund this season with his improv, and Haaland blew open a third with similar actions.
The Stuttgart loss was the last straw though. A former Naglesmann assistant in his first season in the Bundesliga, humiliating Dortmund with a team put together on a fraction of the budget and some playing in only their fist season in the Bundesliga after winning promotion out of the second division for this year. The decision was obvious, but moving so quickly the next morning was a bit of a surprise with a very crowded 10 days on the horizon. A game at Bremen on Tuesday, a game at Union Berlin on Friday, and then a cup game against Brauschwig the following Tuesday. And, on top of that, the late starting season means a shortened winter break with teams starting up quickly the first weekend of January after only two weeks off. No mini-camps in Spain, Dubai, or Florida this year, the players would barely have time for a holiday nap.
Despite the timing appearing less than ideal, the plug got pulled. Assistant Edin Terzic would be thrown into the fire. The results weren’t as bad as skeptics feared. A 2-1 win at Bremen despite only a couple of days to prepare was about the best that could be expected. A lifeless loss at Union Berlin was disappointing, and a casual win over a far less talented, lower division cup opponent wasn’t what many fans had hoped but coming at the end of a crowded run of games at the end of the year it was far from a flop either. Terzic certainly did not fall on his face. Even former mentor Jurgen Klopp came to his defense after public criticism from bored Bundesliga beat writers looking to merely stir controversy.
The first real test will come on Sunday, January 3, 2021 as Dortmund host Wolfsburg. Wolfsburg is a fairly solid club sitting 2 points above Dortmund in the standings. While too early to be a must win, this is a statement game. If Terzic’s Dortmund is to challenge for the Bundesliga title, beat Sevilla in the Champion’s League and continue to advance in the German Cup- the Yellow and Black need a statement game. Terzic needs to announce to the World that modern football has been brought back to Dortmund, the club will contend for titles this year, and he isn’t just keeping the seat warm as an interim for the next manager but may have a legitimate claim to retain the whistle himself.