Crisis is a big word. However, if we look it up in the dictionary, it comes up as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger”. Now, would that not apply to Borussia Dortmund? After yesterday’s 1-0 home defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, not only are they three points behind die Werkself but a whopping ten points behind title rivals Bayern München, who cruised to a crushing 7-0 away victory at Werder Bremen, making it four defeats in the last seven matches in all competitions for Jürgen Klopp’s men. Can even they still be called title rivals? Coming into the Winterpause, Dortmund are not also suffering an injury crisis but also a playing one. Whether one is caused by the other, there’ll be plenty opinions for and against that notion but what is undeniable is that Dortmund’s season could be over before it’s even begun.
It has been covered extensively but Dortmund’s defensive crisis has undoubtedly affected their results in the last few games. A defence which brought them so much success last season, that of Łukasz Piszczek, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotić and Marcel Schmelzer has been decimated to the point that only one of them is currently in the team, Piszczek, although he is still not back to full form after his injury, as his appearances from the bench after his first start of the season at Mainz suggest. This leaves Dortmund with a defence that is a mixture of young players, utility players and reserves, clearly a decrease in quality. Unfortunately for Klopp, this came at a crucial time of the season, a period which included matches against their two biggest rivals and qualification for the knockout stage of the Champions League. Added to their defensive woes, the Leverkusen match saw injuries to Sven Bender and Nuri Şahin, the duration of which is still unknown. This leaves Klopp with only Sebastian Kehl, also returning from injury himself, and Oliver Kirch as fit central midfielders. However, their offensive and distribution input is limited, which will make the wingers and Mkhitaryan come deeper for the ball, which will undoubtedly affect their play and, subsequently, their goalscoring and support to Lewandowski.
Have the injuries affected Dortmund’s play? Undoubtedly, but to what extent? If we look at the stats from the Bayer Leverkusen match, we will see that the most common pass between two players was from Şahin to Sokratis (13), equalled by Blaszczykowski to Großkreutz and viceversa. Two out of those three scenarios are passes backwards, which undoubtedly had an effect on the game itself and how it unfolded. On the other hand, the Borussia Dortmund we saw yesterday and have seen in the last few matches is unrecognisable from the one that made many football fans fall in love with last season. If we compare the player positions from this exact same fixture from last year, the difference is obvious:
As we can see in the comparison, last year, Dortmund’s players were much more spread out, which allows for a much more fluid match and easier to impose their attacking style of play. The difference we can appreciate the most is that, in yesterday’s match, the players are much more bunched together, finding it harder to make a pass that breaks some lines, with also the number of passes decreasing from 587 last season to 475 this season. Also, the forward players played a lot deeper yesterday, which evidently leaves a lot more ground to cover to the goal. With Lewandowski so far from the goalmouth, scoring was always going to be hard. The difference in players between both cases (although Marco Reus was absent in both) has evidently had an impact on Dortmund’s style of play. Whether it’s intended by Klopp who adapts to the quality he has or whether the replacement players cannot fulfill those duties, the case is that today’s Dortmund is a totally different team, and so their expectations should not be the same.
The victories against Mainz and Saarbrücken were unspectacular if effective, although that’s not what Klopp and Dortmund have got us used to in recent seasons. The Mainz match was resolved with two late penalties by Lewandowski and the two goals scored against Saarbrücken were insufficient if we take into account the number of chances they had (27), hardly victories to boast about, regardless of the circumstances.
Make or break
The next few matches for Dortmund will make or break Dortmund’s season. The three ‘finals’ that remain before the much-awaited Winterpause are Olympique Marseille (A), Hoffenheim (A) and Hertha Berlin (H). Against Marseille, Dortmund have to equal Napoli’s result against Arsenal to go through to the next stage. However, they should expect a completely different match to the one they played in the leg at the Signal Iduna Park. The Stade Vélodrôme is not the easiest place in the world to go to and while Marseille have lost all of their five matches so far, they’ve given a tough time to Arsenal and Napoli when they traveled there earlier in the group stage (1-2 both matches). With their depleted squad, Dortmund’s cannot match up to the one Arsenal and Napoli fielded when playing there so getting a result will be incredibly difficult.
In the Bundesliga, Dortmund cannot afford to drop any more points. Leverkusen are now six points ahead and Bayern a further four and no further mistakes can be afforded. The match against Hoffenheim will be without Sokratis, who picked up a silly double yellow card in the dying minutes against Leverkusen, which will further leave Klopp clutching at straws for team selection. With Hoffenheim being the free-scoring team that they are, Dortmund’s makeshift defence would struggle against Firmino et al. A further setback could be the coup de grâce for their title aspirations. A brief respite could be handed by out-of-form Hertha at home, but it might be too late by then.
All in all, the next seven days will shape the rest of the season for Dortmund. They could be out of the title race and a Europa League side by the end of those… or not. If they win against Marseille (and Napoli draw or beat Arsenal) and beat Hoffenheim, this editorial might seem pointless, rash and ultimately quick to judge. What is certain, though, is that this crisis, injury and playing, has come at the worst time for Jürgen Klopp and he will have to show huge resolve if he is to overcome it and there is no doubt that the next seven days will make or break Dortmund’s season.
Another point to think about is, should the worst case scenario come true, would Dortmund choose to cash in and sell Lewandowski in the January transfer window?
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