How BVB Got To This Point
Borussia Dortmund are unbeaten in their last eight league games, all of which have come under the leadership of Peter Stöger. This is a stark contrast to the disastrous run of form the side endured under previous manager Peter Bosz, who of course had the previous best ever start with seven.
Despite their recent improvement as it pertains to results and league table positioning, there is something missing at BVB with Stöger that was clearly present under Bosz: a clear offensive concept.
During much of Bosz’s tenure at Dortmund the defense had regressed to one of the worst in major European football. Bosz’s 4-3-3 contributed to moments of beautiful offensive football that was attractive to the eye, there is no denying that. However, his strategy of using a high-defending defensive line did more harm than good as the season progressed. For those who like a visual representation, my colleague Abel Meszaros’s infographic may do the trick.
BVB currently lacks the personnel to succeed over the long-term with this philosophy. Stubborn and unwilling to adjust his tactics, Bosz lived, and ultimately died by the sword. There is no better example of this than the Revierderby fixture this past November. This was Dortmund at their offensive best and defensive worst, all within a span of 90 minutes.
First Things First, Fix The Damned Defense!
Peter Stöger’s first task as manager of die Schwarz-Gelben was to stabilize the defense. He has done so, to an extent, by setting his players up in situations in which they will succeed. In other words, he allows them to play to their strengths.
Stöger is also re-tooling the back line. Gone are early season starters Marc Bartra and Dan-Axel Zagadou. The new unit consists of Ömer Toprak, Jeremy Toljan, Sokratis and of course Lukasz Piszczek. I would expect to see much more activity out of the newly-acquired Manuel Akanji in the coming weeks at center-back. Also, Marcel Schmelzer is on the mend and will return to the defensive rotation.
The high defensive line is gone, but so too is the aggressive pressing we saw in the Hinrunde. The odd thing is, sometimes Dortmund presses, and sometimes they don’t. There is no clear pattern present. What is certain is that Stöger has instructed his players to sit deeper, only showing aggression when the situation calls for it. The numbers back this up: under Bosz, Dortmund’s PPDA (passes per defensive action, a metric that measures pressing) was the lowest (most intense) in the league at a Roger Schmidt level 5.36. Under Stöger, BVB’s PPDA is 8.69, the ninth most intense in the league over the 8 game span.
This strategy has been somewhat successful though it has certainly not cured Dortmund’s defensive woes. Stöger is relying more on the individual instincts and skills of his players, rather than a clear tactical philosophy. This is especially dangerous as each Dortmund defender both excels and struggles in multiple areas.
What Is The Offense Doing?
The Dortmund back line was one of the worst in Europe during the months of October and November with Bosz at the helm. The offense was a different story altogether. In Peter Bosz’s 15 matches on the touch-line for BVB the side averaged 2.33 goals per match (35 in 25).
Bosz’s Dortmund had a clearly identifiable concept in attack. He instructed his players to play the ball down the flanks for much of the time. Christian Pulisic, Maximilian Philipp, and Andriy Yarmolenko all excelled at this, especially early in the season. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would sometimes, not often, come back into a holding position. This would free up space behind the center-forward allowing the wingers and midfielders to roam and create chances.
Some refer to this as “circulation football.” Something Bosz did not change from the Klopp/Tuchel era was the counter-pressing. After possession was lost, a host of black and yellow shirts would swarm the opponents and attempt to regain possession within a few seconds.
Bosz’s philosophy relied heavily on possession and patience. The idea is to wait for a teammate to find space by using a quick cut or for the defense to wear down either mentally or physically. Even the smallest lapse in concentration or positioning from the opposition could lead to a potential goal.
Dortmund would attempt to control the game exclusively in the opposition’s half of the pitch. This was a blessing in attack, but also a huge handicap for the Dutchman’s defense. It was these tactics as a whole, despite the goals which they produced, that ultimately led to Bosz’s demise at the Westfalenstadion.
What Will Stöger Change?
Since the arrival of Peter Stöger the attack has been obviously toned down. This is because the attractiveness of Bosz’s style of play was simultaneously making the defense a liabilty. Dortmund was conceding goals at an alarming rate. Stöger made the claim that it would be nearly impossible not to play attractive football with this Dortmund team.
To an extent that is true. Unlike his predecessor though, he was not given the whole summer to prepare or fully implement an offensive philosophy. Much of Dortmund’s “success” in attack since Stöger assumed the reigns can be attributed to the individual skill of the players as opposed to a well-executed offensive system.
It has been commonplace in recent times to see BVB possess the ball for 60% to 65% of the match, only to score a single goal. The ball will be passed around endlessly until an error is made, a shot is attempted, or a mindless cross is sent into the box only to be repelled by the opposition.
This situation has improved quite a bit since the arrival of Chelsea loanee Michy Batshuayi in January. Batshuayi has been much more involved in the attack than the man he replaced, the self-serving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The “Batsman” will often times drop back to receive the ball in a holding pattern, giving his teammates more opportunities to find space. He does this more frequently and more effectively than Aubameyang.
In Aubameyang’s final match for BVB he had less than 20 touches. Batshuayi’s debut saw the young Belgian forward touch the ball just shy of 50 times. In short, Michy’s desire to be more than just a poacher and his willingness to drop back had made BVB’s attack more dangerous and unpredictable as a whole.
What The Remainder Of 2017-18 Holds For Dortmund
With the return of Marco Reus, Stöger is getting yet another player who can create for himself, create for others, or score the goal himself. The re-emergence of André Schürrle as a capable Bundesliga player has also been most welcomed.
Add these factors to the fact that Mario Götze is looking more like his old self with every match he plays, and it might be enough for Stöger to simply “let the lads play” during these final months of the campaign. A comprehensive offensive philosophy can and will be implemented over the summer, regardless of who the manager is.
For now however, the defense has been mostly stabilized, which was the primary objective for Peter Stöger upon being hired. And the offense, while certainly not impressing anyone with Pep Guardiola-style tactics or Liverpool’s offensive fluidity under Jürgen Klopp, certainly possesses enough players with the individual talent to make Dortmund a serious threat.
The goal for the remainder of the 2017-18 season: Keep calm, and Dortmund on. In all seriousness, Stöger does not need to re-invent the wheel at this time, so long as the positive results continue to occur. BVB are undefeated in the league over the past two months. The team won their Europe League first leg match against Atalanta and have a great opportunity to advance in that competition.
The Black and Yellows are currently in second place and control their own destiny. Their goal of qualifying for the Champions League is still very much in play as the Bundesliga remains ultra-competitive (exception of course, Bayern München) with the 2017-18 season nearing its conclusion. Considering how turbulent things have been in the Ruhr over the past year, this is all anyone could ask for.
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