Season Preview – Borussia Dortmund: Keeping up with the Joneses

By many accounts, Borussia Dortmund’s (BVB) 2012/13 season was an unqualified success, despite a bare trophy cabinet. The club, led by the charismatic Jürgen Klopp, played the kind of attractive – “romantic” – fußball that creates affective bonds with fans everywhere. Tune in, and you can’t help but fall in love with the yellow-clad young men darting everywhere, pressing the ball, and lacing cutting runs and passes into the opponent’s box.

In our age of bottom-line trophy results, Dortmund reminded the fußball world that success comes in other guises. Yet the 2012/13 season still left something lacking, because, for a side like Die Schwarzgelben during 2012/13 not to win at least something seems sad. Blame Bayern’s history-making campaign. BVB were trumped by the red Bavarians in everything: 2nd place in the  Bundesliga, 2nd place in the UEFA Champions League, and eliminated by Bayern in the DFB Pokal quarterfinals. Thus, in most convincing fashion did Bayern end BVB’s run of back-to-back Bundesliga crowns.

Bayern leapt over BVB thanks to its new squad depth, which allowed Die Roten to compete fully in all three campaigns last season (the Bundesliga, the Champions League, and DFB Pokal). Meanwhile, Dortmund seemed able to only fully compete in the Champions League, which, thanks to EUFA’s massive cash payout to successful CL clubs, was shrewdly pursued by Jürgen Klopp’s boys. However, not only did Bayern increase its squad depth last season, it also upped ante this season by adding more firepower (Götze and Thiago).

As Bayern has emerged as the strongest club in the world, Dortmund must play an accelerated game of keep up, lest the Bavarian giants pull too far away. So BVB is playing keep up with the Joneses. Let’s define what I mean by “keeping up”: second place. Of course us BVB supporters want our club to topple Bayern, but the clear-eyed among us will invariably assert that second place to Bayern is likely outcomes. But of course we BVBers want to be wrong.

Dortmund finished second to Bayern because it lacked the latter’s depth. For example, BVB lost matches in the Bundesliga that Bayern won with ease – recall that Bayern only lost a single match in the Bundesliga (to Leverkusen). Meanwhile, BVB lost (or drew) a  number matches it should have – “on paper” – won or at least drawn during 2012/13:

  • (Away) HSV (2-3).
  • (Home) Schalke (1-2).
  • (Home) Wolfsburg (2-3).
  • (Home) HSV (1-4!). Ouch – worst loss of the season and a sweep to boot.
  • (Away) Schalke (1-2). Ouch – another sweep, and to the hated rivals.
  • (Home) Hoffenheim (1-2).

The 18 points dropped in these matches – plus points dropped in draws (e.g. to Nürnberg in September or Fortuna Düsseldorf in November) – made up the difference between Bayern’s historic tally and BVB”s 2nd place finish. Dortmund’s entire run of form last season looks like this:

BVB Form in 2012-13_capture
Borussia Dortmund’s 2012/13 season in color. Green = win, Orange = draw, Red = loss.

Tallying it up all looks like this for Dortmund last season: 19 wins, 9 draws, and 6 losses. 81 goals scored, 42 conceded for a goal difference of +39. All good for 66 total points (contrasted with Bayern’s 91 points and goal difference of +80!). Subtract the Bayern behemoth and BVB’s 2012/13 season was pretty damn dominant.

Offensively, Dortmund is a juggernaut, creating 65% of its goals from open play. Robert Lewandowski was the top goal scorer (24), followed by Marco Reus (14), Jacub “Kuba” Blaszczykowski (11), and Götze (10). The assists leaders were Kuba (10), then Reus and Götze (9). Contrary to your gegenpressing-altered perceptions, Dortmund had the Bundesliga’s 2nd best possession rate (56%), bolstered by the midfield wizardry of emerging superstar, Ilkay Gündogan. While Dortmund’s attack stretches across the whole pitch, it does favor the right side slightly in terms of chances created, led by Piszczek, Gündogan (commonly drifting this direction), and Kuba. Speaking of chances, BVB had the Bundesliga’s 2nd best tally of shots on target (6.5 per match).

However, if Dortmund struggled at all last season, it was defensively, especially through counter attacks, as Hummels – for example -struggled to recover sometimes. Oddly enough BVB gave up the league’s highest rate of goals scored inside the 6 yard box. Significant? *Shrug.* Problematically though, Dortmund only had 2 clean sheets last season.

Once Mario Götze’s move to Bayern became inevitable, the Dortmund story became that of replacing lost parts and keeping enough firepower to remain (at least somewhat) competitive with Bayern. And those of us who support BVB are pleased by the results as the 2013/14 season opens.

BVB supporters signal their anger at Goetze’s move to Bayern, and remind Mario that the love of mammon is the root of all evil. Plus some other choice words.

 

Who’s Out

The off-season certainly was not the fire sale that some of uninformed footy pundits predicted it would be for BVB. One huge loss, one pretty big loss, and lost prospects comprise to Dortmund’s lost parts:

  • Mario Götze (Bayern), attacking midfielder: obviously, the biggest loss – a loss only accentuated by Bayern’s gain. However, BVB found some sweetness in the bitter, thanks to the 37€m price tag it fetched for the 21 year -old money that was quickly reinvested in new firepower. Losing Götze means replacing the club’s leader in making dangerous passes and dribbles around the box, as well as his 10 goals and 9 assists. Götze played the key central midfield attacking role at Dortmund, oftentimes dumping off-key passes to players (like Lewandowski, Blaszczykowski, or Reus) cutting toward the goal mouth. Functionally and emotionally, a big loss for BVB.
  • Felipe Santana (Schalke), center back: once maligned his sloppy marking and ball-watching, Santana flipped his own narrative around a bit last season, thanks to his heart-stopping, injury time winning goal against Málaga in the CL quarter-finals, as well as improved defensive play (he started 15 matches last season, filling in for an injured Neven Subotic). The 27 year old Brazilian was picked up by Dortmund’s hated rivierderby rivals for only 1€m – a steal, given the asking price for most decent center backs on the transfer market.
  • Leonardo Bittencourt (Hannover 96), attacking midfielder: the 19 year- old from Leipzig (Energie Cottbus product) was carefully watched by the Borussia faithful last year. He even cracked the first team five times, scoring 1 goal. Yet Hannover 96 purchased any hope BVB had in Bittencourt to the tune of 2.8€m – a tidy piece of business. However, the four-year deal does contain a buy back option for Dortmund, in case Bittencourt catches fire. With Reus bossing from the left side, it would have been hard for Bittencourt to find playing time anyway, since he’s not a natural replacement for Schmelzer at left back.
  • Daniel Ginzcek (1. FC Nürnberg), forward: while on loan at St. Pauli last season, the 22 year- old center forward scored 18 goals in 31 appearances. Although he saw action on BVB’s first team, his nose for scoring was desperately needed by a parched 1.FCN. Anyhow, BVB netted 1.5€m for his transfer.
  • Moritz Leitner (loaned to VfB Stuttgart for two seasons), attacking midfielder: Although Leitner certainly has received more playing time than the other Dortmund prospects on this list, he’s probably frustrated BVB supporters the most, too. The 20 year- old is an immensely skilled dribbler and passer, yet lacked the seasoning and intelligence of a player, like Gündogan, which is tough for Leitner since his skill set and positioning (i.e deep-lying play-maker – one of the double pivots in Klopp’s 4-2-3-1) is very similar to Gündogan’s. So it seems BVB is following the “Philipp Lahm plan” for shipping off the blue chip prospect for his “walkabout” in starting for top flight side. Leitner appeared in 25 matches (with 2 assists) for BVB last season.
  • Julian Koch (loaned to 1.FSV Mainz 05), right back: and here a theme emerges of older BVB prospects with “high ceilings” leaving the club, lest their careers atrophy in lower division play. Koch joins  Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz 05 side, a fantastic place for the 22 year- old to finally earn more playing time, as he returns from a season-long knee injury in 2012.
  • Lasse Sobiech (Hamburger SV), center back: the 22 year- old found an opportune proving ground at HSV where he can hopefully learn from the likes of Heiko Westermann. Another older prospect recovering from injury issues.
  • Marvin Bakalorz (Eintracht Frankfurt), central midfielder: his time of developing at BVB has passed, as the club couldn’t find room for him to show his stuff. So the 23 year- old moves on, hoping to finally get his chance as a sub in the Eagles’ fertile midfield.

Who’s In

A club with Dortmund’s aspirations is supposed to look/be active in the off-season, bringing in shiny new parts upgrading the squad. BVB didn’t disappoint, as the Götze sale provided purchasing power on the transfer market. As you’ll see, Dortmund replaced its main lost parts (Götze  and Santana) and prepared for the looming loss of Robert Lewandowski to Bayern:

  • Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Shaktar Donetsk), attacking midfielder: right now, the most important new signing, given the 24 year-old Armenian’s role in filling Götze’s central attacking midfielder role. He’s not a one-to-one replacement, since Mkhitaryan plays this slot from a more withdrawn position, as well as more linear “north-south” movement. Rather than retread old ground, I’ll refer readers to this enlightening report by Igor Savchenko. One quick interjection: expect more goals from Mkhitaryan, than we saw from Götze in this slot, since the Armenian is a fine shot creator. At 27.5 €m, he’s BVB’s most expensive signing ever. And he already has our yellow-black hearts aflutter with his preseason appearances (catch his first 45′ here), scoring and assisting goals with aplomb. Already, the multilingual gentleman looks very comfortable, thanks to this roommate.
  • Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (AS St. Etienne), forward: the 24 year – old Gabon International (with AC Milan pedigree) is clearly the future Robert Lewandowski, albeit a far more pacy version of “Lewy.” At 13€m, his signing sends the proverbial signal of intent that BVB mean business for years to come. Again, others (here and here) have already covered the necessary ground on the blazing fast forward. In two seasons, Aubameyang scored 35 times and assisted 16 times for Ligue 1’s AS St. Etienne. Despite his speed and ball skills, there’s still some rawness to his game; he doesn’t look sure of  his movements within BVB’s system, as if he’s sometimes not sure when to pull up a run, when to cut, etc. Naturally, more time will help Aubameyang in this regard.
  • Sokratis (Werder Bremen), center back: the Greek defender (25) replaces Felipe Santana, adding depth to the backline (especially since both Subotic and Hummels always miss a few matches to injury each season). Although Sokratis probably won’t replicate Santana’s remarkable abilities on challenges, the Greek is a big upgrade in dribbling and passing skill. In a pinch, Sokratis can even play right back, as we see during preseason. Random Sokratis stat: he led the league in offsides earned from opponents (1.6 per match) last season.
  • Jonas Hofmann (BVB II), attacking midfielder: the 20 youth product impressed everyone this pre-season. Last weekend in the DFB Pokal opening round, he even nabbed 2 assists in 14 minutes after subbing in. He’s a very intelligent passer and seems to understand Klopp’s gegenpressing better than other prospects, like Leitner and Bittencourt, consequently moving past them in the depth chart (hat tip @bvbawesome). Hofmann adds midfield depth as BVB tussle in three competitions this year. He’ll get some very useful seasoning time.
  • Marvin Ducksch (BVB II), forward: Only 19, Ducksch earned valuable playing time this preseason and even scored and assisted in the DFB Pokal opening round match. He’s tall (1.88 meters) and strong.

Formation Ideas

Luckily, Dortmund is mostly starting the same XI from last season’s core, so a repeat of Klopp’s usual 4-2-3-1 might seem most logical with Mkhitaryan and Piszczek’s temporary replacement as the new blood:

If Dortmund resume their usual 4-2-3-1, it could like this through the Hinrunde.
If Dortmund resume their usual 4-2-3-1, it could like this through the Hinrunde.

If Dortmund trot this 4-2-3-1 out, expect Gündogan to drift right, and Mkhitaryan to drift toward the circle for receiving the ball, then making runs/passes toward goal. Again, I expect his movement to be more like a straight-line than Götze’s mazy runs. Meanwhile, everyone else will do their usual thing: Bender act as the defensive pivot, Schmelzer raid and recover along the left flank, Kuba in concert with Gündogan, Reus cutting toward the center, and Lewy floating opportunistically around. Großkreutz is serviceable at right back, but Sokratis or Kirch could play here as well, if “Kev” struggles, or is needed elsewhere when injuries strike. Perhaps even youngster Eric Durm will find some time here, as he’s being groomed to play right back (of the future?). Another option would be swapping Sahin for Bender (although the Gündogan/Sahin wasn’t the most functional option last season), or playing Sahin and Bender as the pivots and moving Gündogan up to attacking midfield (where he found plenty playing time this preseason) with Mkhitaryan injured, or being used as a “super sub.”

However, I’d very surprised if Klopp didn’t implement a second formation more actively this season, given the new parts, like Mkhitaryan. Perhaps a 4-3-3, “Dortmund style? Like this:

BVB's possible backup formation? (4-3-3)
BVB’s possible backup formation? (4-3-3)

This “backup” formation might be very useful (and flexible), depending on the context. For example, once Piszczek returns from injury, Großkreutz, Sahin, and even Hofmann (or Aubameyang, if Lewy needs a rest) become intriguing players to plug into various midfield slots. Kuba or Mkhitaryan could even become “super subs” in this situation. This 4-3-3 works well with Dortmund’s famed pressing system, as a skilled player, like Gündogan, is pushed higher up the pitch to join the pressing frying pan. Anyhow, I think BVB has more options, tactically, than it did a season ago.

As I’ve written before, the formation itself isn’t as important as the general areas players influence on the pitch or the center of gravity a player’s movement return to. Klopp’s challenge will be finding new effective combinations, since he has more depth than he did a year ago to use. Besides, with BVB’s pressing system, players move around so much anyway by closing down passing angles/lanes, challenging balls, or switching markings based on tracking the opponent’s ball movement. Lots of movement.

However, even with Klopp’s new-found depth, some weaknesses remain, particularly right back and left back. Although Großkreutz is serviceable at right back, he’s no Piszczek, who’s become one of the Bundesliga’s best along this flank. So there could be a production (and defense?) drop off on this normally fecund flank. Meanwhile, the 30 year – old Oliver Kirch is the only other seasoned option (Sokratis and Durm being green) to fill in here. Not inspiring. As for left back, Schmelzer is alone – discounting Großkreutz (seriously, a manager in the making with all his utility work!). So God forbid Schmelzer gets injured this season.

In a sense, these are luxury weaknesses to have – markers of Dortmund’s status as an elite club right now. The possible weaknesses pale when contrasted with the enormous credit Klopp has built with squad and supporters during his remarkable tenure at BVB. His philosophy emanates through BVB’s breathless play, as the bear-hugger boss seems to get every player to give his soul to the system without fail. And the results are so enjoyable. Indeed, Klopp recently proudly asserted that his Die Schwarzgelben play “cheeky” fußball, not the fearful or angsty stuff. Toss in a couple more elite athletes, like Mkhitaryan and (eventually) Aubameyang, plus more depth (Sokratis, Hofmann, and Durm) into the system and you could argue that Dortmund is a better club this season than a year ago.

Die Schwarzgelben should be joy on a pitch.

Finally, here are some Bundesliga schedule highlights to anticipate:

  • Home (9/14) vs. HSV: revenge from last season’s stinging sweep.
  • Away (10/26) vs. Schalke 04: life and death derby, round 1; oh, and revenge from last season’s humiliating sweep at the blued hands of the hatred revierderby rivals.
  • Home (11/23) vs. Bayern: enough said.
  • Home (12/7) vs. Leverkusen: wrapping up the big home matches early.
  • Away (3/25) vs. Schalke 04: life and death derby, round 2.
  • Away (4/12) vs. Bayern: you get it.
  • Away (4/26) vs. Leverkusen: notice the Rückrunde away theme yet? Perhaps Lewy and Kießling again will be booting it out for the kicker Torjägerkanone award?
  • Home (5/3) vs. Hoffenheim: vengeance is mine sayeth Schmelzer, Großkreutz, and the Yellow Wall …

Prediction

My heart wants to see BVB somehow topple Bayern for something this year. However, Bayern just happens to be a historically great side right now. Ah. Plus, the quality and quantity of Die Roten‘s depth surpasses any club in the world, meaning it’s deep enough (again) to win virtually every week in the Bundesliga. And although BVB has more depth, I don’t think it’s enough for BVB to compete equally in the Bundesliga, Champions League, and DFB Pokal. Only Bayern can do that. So expect BVB to drop more points than Bayern in the Bundesliga, but not as many as BVB dropped last season. Moreover, I can’t imagine this side not winning something. So …

Bundesliga: 2nd place (72 points).

Champions League: quarter-finals.

DFB Pokal: 1st place.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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