Today, Friday March 3, Dortmund won its 10th straight game. Today’s 2-1 victory over RB Leipzig saw Dortmund jump Bayern into first place in the Bundesliga, with Bayern playing Stuttgart tomorrow. Ten consecutive wins is a new all time record for Dortmund as well as the longest streak in Europe this season. This has simply become one of the greatest runs in Dortmund history.
What is responsible for such an incredible run? Well, the answer has to first start with players finally being healthy. The return of league play following the winter break has seen the debut of Haller, after surgery and chemo for cancer; the return of Wolf from heart surgery; and the returns of Reus, Reyna, Bynote-Gittens, and Adeyemi from injuries that plagued them the first half of the season. And, thank god, Union Berlin decided to let fullback Julian Ryerson go for a fair price. Ryerson’s contract was expiring this summer, Union had already brought in a replacement in the January window, and the opportunity was to sell to get his wages off their roster was just too enticing. At the very least, Ryerson gives Dortmund a player to compete for the two fullback spots, and allows Terzic to rotate players as well as sub out fullbacks in every game. Most significantly, Terzic is able to keep the veteran Guerriero rested.
The depth of the club can’t be underestimated as they don’t only have the ability to rotate players and keep them rested, but also there is far more quality when they begin subbing players in the second half. They also don’t have as many players filling in at positions where they aren’t necessarily the best fit and don’t bring all of the skills needed to accomplish what Terzic wants to do.
What is unique about the team is that they really don’t have a goal scoring star. Eleven different players have scored since the start of the second half of the season, and many of those goals have come in the second half by substitutes. In fact, 4 game winners since January have been second half goals scored by subs, which has included goals by teens Reyna and Bynote-Gittens.
The biggest improvements on the team, in my opinion, have come in the center of the field and in the wide play. Most obvious is the solid play of Emre Can. The much maligned midfielder/fullback/central defender has been a jack of all trades and a master of none for much of his time at Dortmund. But with Terzic leaning to somewhat of a 4-1-4-1 he has found himself playing primarily as a defensive midfielder protecting the central defenders (Sule, Schlotterbeck and/or Hummels). Often it appears that he drops deep enough that it is almost a back three.
Gone are the criticisms of Can for being wasteful or distracted, or the days of simply plugging him in wherever a player is needed. He has taken over the defensive midfield position and his focus is solely on disrupting play in midfield and dropping back to play cover for the central defenders. He has also proven to be an asset in assisting in bringing the ball up out of the back, though, admittedly it is still not one of Dortmund’s strengths when they play a team that likes to press high. Not only has Dortmund finally been getting solid defensive midfield play, but the cover has great reduced the errors by Sule and Schlotterbeck. Sule’s tackling and passing out of the back is back to top form, and Schlotterbeck is coming into his own as an incredibly athletic player who is everywhere on the field.
Having a designated defensive midfielder also frees up Jude Bellingham to orchestrate the attack in midfield. Bellingham is improving defensively, but his real strength is in attacking up the middle and he continues to emerge as a force. Can doesn’t just settle the defensive midfield issue, but with improved play at center back from having some protection, the entire center of the field from goal to goal is improved. Since the winter break, Bellingham is every bit the $150 million player that the Spanish and Premiership teams covet and an absolute force in the opponent’s third of the field. He can impose himself physically when necessary but his passing and vision are elite. He simply makes everyone in the attack better.
In addition to shoring up the center of the field, Dortmund has seen a vast improvement in the wide play. Much of this has come from having a healthy Adeyemi really back to top form that Dortmund fans simply didn’t see much of in in the first half of the season. Unfortunately, he is currently out with a hamstring injury, but his blazing fast counter against Chelsea in the first leg of their round of 16 Champion’s League matchup was the difference in the game. In fact, his 36.65 km/h (22.77 mph) timed speed during a run in a game this season is one of, if not the fastest speeds, ever recorded in a Bundesliga game. Adeyemi gives them that elite speed on the counter and on the wing that they just haven’t had since Sancho left. Malen flashes speed in getting behind defenses once in awhile, but struggles at times to do anything with the ball when he gets there. While Adeyemi is as accomplished of a passer as he is lethal with his shot.
The return of Reus, who can play wide or slide inside, is also a huge boost to the attack. Reus is older, doesn’t necessarily play 90 minutes any more, but he still has world class skill that separates him from 95% of the players to ever play the game. And, of course, no player has meant more to midfield play this season or the attack than Julian Brandt. Brandt has for the past few years been one of the most creative players for Dortmund, but his creativity was often forced and led to too may turnovers. He is a far more consistent player this year and his 9 goals so far this season already matches his total from last year (and he had one taken away early in the first half today as it barely deflected off his arm as it came down off his chest). Through the entirety of the season, he has been the player most consistently in top form for Dortmund this season and at 26, he has plenty of years left in his prime.
Also, contributing to the better wide play, has been greatly improved play from the fullbacks. Wolf has returned, and while he isn’t always the most consistent defender, he is a massive improvement from the often injured and modestly talented Meunier. Adding Reyerson also gives them that third fullback so they can rotate and not force Guerriero into playing far too often. Between getting rested for some games and being subbed out regularly, along with having dangerous wings to advance the ball and allow him to slip up in the box as he did with Sancho on the left wing, he has also really found his best form again. Far from a reliable defender, but certainly extremely skilled in the attack and dangerous anywhere near the box with his accurate passing and strong shot. This may be his farewell with Dortmund, as they line up Bensebani from Gladbach to take over at left back next season, but he is at his best right now.
The return of Haller has had some benefit. While he hasn’t produced the goals expected yet, which is not surprising as he gets back into form after all that went down all fall, he does play a different role for Dortmund than their forwards have played recently. He can be a target and knock some long balls down for the wings and other midfielders to run onto. He also appears to be an excellent passer and has been an integral part of some attacks, even if he hasn’t been the one to finish. In time, he will also hopefully become a target man for crosses, though that really isn’t necessarily Guerriero’s game and Wolf can be inconsistent (Wolf’s speed and energy levels, though, are a big step up from Meunier’s contributions, even if his technical skills don’t always come through). Moukoku was hitting top form prior to the World Cup and really starting to live up to the superstar expectations, but has been sidelined recently and will hopefully be back to form soon. Modeste simply doesn’t really fit with the attack on this team, and a second forward who can also play on the wing would be a huge plus,
Of course, even if he didn’t play today, Kobel is a huge part of the 10 consecutive wins. There is a reason for the rumor that Bayern and so many others are keeping track. The 25 year old goaltender is really just emerging as one of the best goalies in the game, but he will get there. A mistake here or there, but for the most part he is money.
Will Dortmund win at Stamford Bridge? Beat Bayern at Bayern? Actually push Bayern for the title into May and find their way into the Pokal final? Who knows? On the run they are on now, they certainly have the form and confidence to do all of those things, but for Dortmund fans it is just fun being part of the conversation this season.