Psychology Defines Borussia Dortmund’s 2018-19 Season

Miraculously, Borussia Dortmund still has a chance to win the Bundesliga title. After the 2-4 stripping of dignity that was the latest Revierderby, it took a miracle in Nürnberg to keep the title race alive. I say this to acknowledge that BVB can still win the title. For this, as a BVB supporter, I rejoice. However, the club deserves to be nowhere close to a Bundesliga title right now.

More than anything else for me, psychology will define this 2018-19 season for Borussia. The big takeaway this season is that BVB is psychologically not ready to conquer the clichéd “big moments.” The season’s narrative almost resembles some sort of elemental fairy tale in which standardized dragons, trolls, and witches bar our heroes’ path. And there’s no way around. Yet.

What I’ll remember most about Borussia this season are three events: dropping out of the Champion’s League to Spurs, getting decimated by Bayern 5-0, and practically capitulating the entire season in a Revierderby home match. In other words, three high-profile failures. (Given these three events, I don’t even have the energy to lump the Pokal home loss to Werder Bremen in here.)

Losing Sticks Out

Of course, a negative form of cognitive bias colors how I see this season. Losing is always more emotional to me than winning, at least losing the big games. My guess is that many of you are similar. So I think it’s fair to draw meaning from three key losses about the state of Borussia.

Because these weren’t just three losses; they were the most important matches of the entire season. Look, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that a club wins every important match (hell, Bayern lost some biggies this season); however, losing all of them on a whimper is telling.

Normally, I don’t draw conclusions about entire seasons from a handful of matches, but I’m making an exception with Borussia this season. Mainly, I’m doing this because of how these three losses happened; in each loss, psychological breakdown is written all over the place.

But I’ll state my conclusion here: I’m not surprised by the psychological breakdowns at all. This young and newly assembled Borussia side was never supposed to legitimately competing for the title as we roll into May. My hypothesis here largely matches sports pop psychology clichés: that”winning psychology” is gained through experience, if it is to be gained at all. And BVB simply doesn’t have this experience. At most, some of the players have won a DFB Pokal. Nothing else really. (Götze’s 2014 World Cup winner is several reincarnations ago in the many lives of super Mario.)

Thus, this 2018-19 season precisely is the kind of experience that be formed in future success. It’s a season of experience, basically.

The Revierderby

Take the Revierderby. Tactics can’t even partially explain this match, but psychology does. Start with the Expected Goals tally:

The score was 2-4, but ExG conclude differently.

In terms of ExG, BVB and S04 were virtually equivalent. Of course in BVB’s case, this equivalence is the product of two red cards, which severely hampered the home side’s ability to create danger in the second half. Yes, Schalke benefited from some luck on two of its goals in securing its biggest win this season, but this probably doesn’t even matter; BVB battled against itself—or battled against a sort of ghost—in this match.

First, BVB’s reaction to the 17′ penalty. Yes, the Borussia partisan in me says, and not without good reason, this penalty was a harsh call, a harsh verdict of “intentionality” leveled on Julian Weigl. However, BVB let this decision dictate the rest of the match. Or perhaps the squad played as if living under the deterministic logic of penalty decision. I say this, because as Schalke scored when Salif Sané headed in the ball 10 minutes later, I thought okay, a fluke, weird stuff, but Borussia surely has another couple goals in them, especially after how they scored the opener against Schalke’s brittle defending.

However, at this moment, the match entered weird psychological territory. Up to halftime, through halftime, and deep into the second half, Borussia played chaos ball. Every pitch action had a manic edge, a desperation to it. In a game states sense, yes, BVB was chasing the match (with the Bundesliga title hanging in the balance, yes, yes, yes), but how the match was chased is what matters.

Let’s imagine: how might an “experienced” side chase this match? Well, I’m sure you know the bromide—just stick to your game. Stick to your game. For Borussia, this is intricate build-up play, and waiting to win back possession, while sitting back (just a bit!) defensively, which helps create the space necessarily to break with some speed.

Instead, we all saw Marco Reus and Marius Wolf imitate each other’s reckless from-behind slide tackle. (I’ll admit that one single tear escape my left eye when Reus was sent off. Judge me not!) This is not how an “experienced” side chases a game. Thus, Collapse happened.

On Collapsing

The act of collapsing is a bizarre sporting phenomena. There are some philosophical and psychological knots to untangle here. Of course, we run the risk of falsely labeling a bad loss as a collapse, as our narrative logic blurs the lines between bad luck, randomness, and egregious mistakes. In team sports, like football, collapses (when they legitimately occur) are actually quite remarkable. It’s like some telepathic commands ripples through the eleven players ordering their collective surrender. I mean, the whole thing seems coordinated to an extraordinary degree.

Are the players synced into a collective brain?

Are the many really one in the universe?

Who gives the order?

Despite the ugly Revierderby, Borussia’s gloriously horrific 5-0 collapse at Bayern takes the cake this season. This match is deeply imprinted by the phenomenon of collapse. I still marvel at the ExG timeline from the match:

Bayern’s goals against BVB mostly arrived in two clusters.

Bayern’s goal scoring is followed by long fallow periods where nothing happened for either side. And this pattern is not a good thing—for Borussia. See that yellow flatline? That is the line of death on an EKG screen, and in a football match. (By the way, the ExG tally for this match was Bayern 4.28 and BVB 0.48.) Clearly, and even with its bevy of injuries at the time, Borussia is better than this 0.48 yellow line of death against Bayern. What I mean is that a more “experienced” side would hopefully create a line sloping upwards when chasing a deficit, you know, all the while “playing its game.”

I imagine football collapse as a fall-out-of-one’s self. It’s an ecstatic experience, just not the kind of ekstasis one should have during a high stakes football match! My guess is that the phenomena begins individually with the players, then compounds its influence through player-to-player interactions, like passes, runs, body language, on-pitch commands. Soon, everyone’s got it. Collapse spreads like a virus.

However, the implication here could be that collapse’s inverse, say resilience, also spreads in curiously social or collective ways. Resilience earned through experience—especially experience earned through the phenomena of collapsing. In my mind then, this BVB squad has a unique capacity to learn, transform, and act together collectively. This tendency toward cohesion bodes very well as Lucien Favre takes his BVB project into year two. Of course, I hope that it’s cohesion toward success.

“There’s a Natural Mystic …”

Derbies are always weird. The Revierderby frequently confounds our predictive models and the book-makers, because this rivalry’s long history, traditions, and rituals infect everybody—spectators, players, staff, etc.—alike. Psychology is afoot. Moods hold sway. “There’s a natural …” For example, during the match there was chatter about Schalke avenging its painful 2007 derby loss in Dortmund, which cost S04 its first-ever Bundesliga title. Yes, an event from twelve years animated everybody, winners and losers alike, on Saturday’s Revierderby.

Perhaps more than anyone else, BVB’s squad (down there on that grass) caught the mood. I can’t help but think of the German word die Stimmung for “mood.” Curiously, this word also means the tuning of musical instruments. In this sense, Stimmung implies that moods have a tuning power over us (Martin Heidegger literally calls this effect “attunement” in Being and Time). By analogy with instruments being tuned, a team is tuned toward certain emotional states. Repeatedly, I swear tuning is happening to Borussia this season, particularly during the “collapse” losses.

I say this, because in recent times I’ve become more and more interested in elements of football matches that still lay outside our statistical/analytical tools, but also seem to possess reality—i.e. a reality that also impacts football matches. I deeply value our analytical tools for helping me understand football, but just as deeply value these other (“softer”) elements, which are typically discussed in the worst clichéd terms possible, or simply outright dismissed by reductionistic analytics people.

For me, this 2018-19 season for Borussia Dortmund is a compelling case study of factors—of the non-analytics type—at work in heavily shaping the season’s narrative. However, even in an analytics sense, Favre’s coaching gives us mysteries to ponder. Regardless, I can’t remember another Bundesliga side giving me so much to figure out in this non-analytic sense in a given season.

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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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