A Closer Look at Borussia Dortmund’s Early Troubles

Ahead of tomorrow’s big match between Werder Bremen and Borussia Dortmund, Jonathan Lines examines Dortmund’s rather precarious start to the season and the various personnel and tactical components constituting that start.   Follow Jonathan on twitter @JonathanLines1 or read his columns on German football at backpagefootball.

What would constitute a successful season for Borussia Dortmund? Top two? A fair defence of their title? If they cannot compete with this currently rampant Bayern München side, hailed as potentially one of its all-time greats, would that be a failure?

When ruling on the success or failure of this Dortmund side this year, observers would do worse than consider Uli Hesse’s excellent article in Issue Two of The Blizzard, reminding us just how far Jürgen Klopp’s team has come in a short space of time. Hesse tells the remarkable story of the fairytale recent development of the club, who just a few years ago were stagnating on the pitch, and close to insolvency off it. “Lately I often think back to that day six years ago”, Dortmund-ultra group member Daniel Lörcher tells Hesse. “Back then, we wouldn’t have dreamed of what is happening now”. So when worrying about a few defeats for a growing club at the start of the new season, it’s important to keep this in mind.

But that’s not to say their meticulous and demanding coach Klopp won’t be concerned about Dortmund’s current form. Here is a closer look into their sluggish start to the campaign, with their main issue an apparent lack of penetration from their creative players.

Replacing Nuri Sahin

Firstly, losing primary playmaker Nuri Sahin last summer, arguably the best player in the Bundesliga last season, has inevitably left a gap in Dortmund’s creativity. The man chosen to fill Sahin’s position was 1. FC Nürnberg’s 20-year-old Ilkay Gündogan. Although not strictly a like-for-like replacement, it’s fair to say that, with Gündogan playing higher up the pitch for Nürnberg last season, touted by a few as a Mesut Özil in the making,  he will be expected to pull his weight on the creative side of things.

It’s very early in his Dortmund career, and there’s no question he has a bright future. But Gündogan has, perhaps understandably, not been able to influence matches as much as Dortmund might have been hoping for just yet. Below are maps of his successful completed passes for the matches against Hertha BSC and 1899 Hoffenheim.

Ilkay Gündogan, competed passes vs. Hertha BSC, 10/09/2011











Gündogan, competed passes vs. 1899 Hoffenheim, 13/08/2011

In Dortmund’s matches this season, Gündogan has seen plenty of the ball. His pass-completion rate is very good, 85% for the match against Hertha and up to 92% (45 from 49) in the defeat to Hannover. He has also covered a lot of ground in midfield, averaging over 12km per 90 minutes, which is very high for his team.

Having said that, his passes have been steady, often square, and it’s visible from these maps that he hasn’t offered a threat or option for his side going forward in the way that Sahin did, and has not been able to dictate play for Dortmund like his Turkish international counterpart.

Taking the Hannover match, in the same fixture last season, played at a similar time of the year, which Dortmund won 4-0, Sahin’s pass completion rate was 72% compared to Gündogan’s 92%, an indication that Sahin was more willing (or perhaps, as we will see later, more able) to attempt more adventurous passes higher up the pitch, and Sahin grabbed an assist in this match too.

The point here isn’t to criticise Gündogan and apportion him responsibility for Dortmund’s lack of penetration, particularly just seven games into his Dortmund career, but his current game-play does mirror his club’s troubles in the final third. Like Dortmund, Gündogan is seeing a lot of the ball but with comparatively little end result.

An over-reliance on Mario Götze?

Another effect of this is that an increased creative workload is, in the absence of Sahin, now expected from elsewhere, namely from Mario Götze. There is a possibility that the Black-Yellows are becoming over-reliant on their 19-year-old star, and such consistent high levels of performance cannot be expected of a young player, however good he is.

With the gap in creativity left by Sahin, the onus has been passed on to players further up the pitch to provide the spark for Dortmund. But with opponents more willing to sit back and defend against Klopp’s side (Hoffenheim and Hertha were particularly effective at cramping the space between midfield and attack where Dortmund’s attackers are so effective), players like Grosskreutz, Kagawa and Blaszczykowski have found it difficult to influence games as easily as last season, which means there’s heavy pressure on Götze to produce the goods. And just by looking at Dortmund’s record in Götze’s period of suspension – two games, two defeats – they will not want to get to the stage at which they rely on one player to carry them through their matches.

Dortmund produced alarmingly little end-product from their 60% possession in the 2-1 home defeat to Hertha Berlin on matchday 5, and wingers Grosskreutz and Blaszczykowski were particularly guilty of doing little with the ball.

Kevin Grosskreutz (19) and Jakob Blaszczykowski (16), completed passes vs. Hertha BSC, 10/09/2011

Kevin Grosskreutz attempted 32 passes, successful with 28, and Jakob “Kuba” Blaszczykowski completed 16 from 21, although he was substituted in the 59th minute. Considering how much of the ball Dortmund had, this is a poor tally for players in crucial positions to the home side’s attack. So as well as a lack of a creative impact from deep, Dortmund’s front players are struggling as well. In particular, Grosskreutz’s form has markedly dipped at the start of this season. He has largely failed to influence his team’s play in their first few games, something which was particularly evident in the defeat against Hertha BSC. Of his 28 completed passes, 18 were sent backwards.

Furthermore, the positioning of Kuba and Grosskreutz seems to suggest a lack of fluidity to Dortmund’s recent play, with Grosskreutz (number 19) sticking to the left-hand side of the pitch, and Kuba (16) to the right, making Hertha’s defending a little easier. Indeed, the two wingers were dispossessed far too easily, losing 21 of 33 tackles between them in the match (although it must be noted that Hertha defended excellently in this match).

Shinji Kagawa, all passes vs. Hertha BSC, 10/09/2011

Shinji Kagawa’s movements across the final third, however, are far freer, as seen from his passes in the same match, and he was more involved as a result, attempting and competing many more passes than the wide players. Kagawa and Mario Götze provide a far more fluid attacking line, and when both fit and firing Dortmund are still more than capable of devastating attacking football.

Again, on the plus side, the Black-Yellows have attempted to strengthen their attacking line, allowing for them to replace the out-of-form Grosskreutz in the first team with the promising new signing Ivan Perisic, who went on to grab the equalising goal in the matches against Arsenal and Mainz.

Impact on defense

Alongside these attacking troubles, Dortmund have been conversely far more susceptible at the back so far this season compared with last, despite enjoying far greater possession of the ball this campaign. Their total average for the season so far is a dominant 61%. In their title-winning season, they held a surprisingly low 53% of the ball on average. The club were lauded last season for their fast-past attack and element of surprise. But by seeing so much of the ball, these assets are diminished. The tables have even been turned, and it is Dortmund’s opponents who are able to counter-attack against them, rather than the other way around. Seeing just 39% of the ball, opponents have scored almost a third of the total goals against Dortmund from last season after nearly a quarter of the campaign, and when they had 47% of possession.

There might be other factors, for instance form. We have seen more goals from individual defensive errors in the Dortmund back-line than usual, Neven Subotic’s slip to allow Arsenal’s opener in the Champions League and the shoddy set-piece marking for Hannover’s equaliser, to name a couple.

So the club’s shakier defence could be down to the increased regularity of opponents’ counter-attacks, as we saw in their home defeat to Hertha BSC, or form, with more individual mistakes and possibly lower concentration levels with having to defend less, or perhaps a bit of both.

One defender whose form has not dipped so far is Mats Hummels. With others around him struggling, Hummels seems to have taken on the mantle of team talisman, and not just defensively. Last season, the 22-year-old was arguably the standout performer of an excellent defensive unit. This campaign, his role has been slightly different. He has grown to become the dependable centre of an inconsistent team. And, on a less analytical level, the other players appear at times to have looked to Hummels to give them a lift. He has been comfortably the team’s most reliable defender and has seen much of the ball too. This quality of leadership extends higher up the pitch. Hummels has seen the midfield and attack struggle in the final third, and appears to be wanting to lead by example, becoming more involved in attacks.

Mats Hummels, completed vs. Hannover 96, 17/9/11

Hummels is characteristically more involved in build-up play than an average central defender, but this evidence suggests Hummels has been even more involved this season – another effect of his team-mates reduced impact in the opponents’ half. When compared with that of Gündogan, Hummels’ passing graphic might even suggest he has been more important to his side’s link-up play than the midfield has, attempting, and completing, many more forward passes and passes into dangerous positions.

On the plus side, Hummels has stepped seamlessly into this new role of centrality to the team. After his outstanding season of 2010/11, the 22-year-old’s start to this campaign indicates that an excellent defender and natural leader for both club and country is coming into his own.

Lewandowski vs Barrios

As much of the analysis presented here shows, it seems Dortmund’s main problems lie deeper in the pitch than up-front. Having said that, the absence  of their main striker Lucas Barrios certainly hasn’t helped. Not only was the Paraguayan Dortmund’s top scorer last season with 16 league goals, but they also won every match in which he found the net. And, unfortunately for his replacement Robert Lewandowski, his natural ability in front of goal hasn’t quite matched up to that of Barrios so far this season. He did score a marvellous hat-trick in the 4-0 win over FC Augsburg, with efforts even a predator like Ruud van Nistelrooy might be proud of, but hasn’t hit these high standards in his side’s other games.

Robert Lewandowski, attempts on goal vs. 1899 Hoffenheim, 13/08/2011

As this graphic from Dortmund’s defeat to Hoffenheim indicates, a game in which they didn’t score, showing Lewandowski’s efforts on goal, the Pole had three attempts, all from excellent positions, but missed the target on each occasion. With Barrios in the team, one of those chances might have been buried, so they have missed him at the start of this campaign too.

In defence of Lewandowski, he does bring assets to the team. He is a good link-up player, with three assists so far this term. He provided for Mario Götze on matchday one against Hamburg and for Shinji Kagawa against Hannover in two excellent defence-opening moves; one was his trademark back-heel, and his brilliant lofted through-ball set up Götze against Augsburg, meaning he participated directly in all four goals.


Many of the statistics presented here indicate a lack of penetration from Dortmund’s creative players, and a lack of form of their attackers. Meanwhile, poor form and reduced influence has led to a reliance, at times, on a few players (or, more accurately, two players – Götze and Hummels) to pull them through matches rather than on contributions from everyone. While Hummels, in particular, has responded admirably to this, Dortmund will want to see maximum contributions from everybody.

That said, the team’s form is also greatly influenced by the performance of their opponents. Both Hertha and Hoffenheim were prepared to commit many bodies to defence. Both midfields sat deep, in order to occupy the space between defence and attack that Dortmund’s players thrive on, reducing their influence. Dortmund’s 61% possession average so far this season is a vast increase on last year’s 53%, despite their sluggish start, for the precise reason that defences are more vigilant to their opponents’ ability and more willing to defend in numbers. The element of surprise from last season is now gone, and Klopp’s side will have to respond better to their opponents’ tactics if they are to have a successful season.

But, when measuring the success of this team, it’s important to go back to the point Hesse makes about just how far this team has come. Regardless of any troubles pointed out here, Dortmund’s current team has a lot to be proud of, but Jürgen Klopp will be keen to stress that improvements can be made.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari


  1. why they didn’t attempt to bring back Reus and sign Klose was a huge question mark from me.

    Replacing Sahin = adding a striker to help the creativity of the three attack-minded mids. Adding Reus provides a direct threat on goal from the right wing.

    could have had: Bender-Gundogan-Reus-Goetze-Kagawa-Klose as a midfield-forward unit.

  2. i think Schmelzer form is also a huge problem, he has been injured 2 or 3 times already this early and when he has played has not look as dangerous as he was last year.

    Over all i think barrios absence has put pressure on other players to do more then what they were ask and they haven’t step up to the challenge. bundesliga is one of the toughest league and i am not surprise other teams have step up and giving BVB a run at them.

  3. Despite the disappointment of Dortmund fans (and Bundesliga fans in general) who would love to see a repeat of the joyous play of last season’s club, it is a good point to remember where BvB was not that long ago. The next weeks for Dortmund should be quite interesting, and we must also remember that the innovative Klopp that was universally hailed last season didn’t suddenly become a dolt overnight.

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