December 17, 2017

Borussia Dortmund’s Ruckrunde Defensive Improvement

When it comes to scoring goals, Borussia Dortmund have been toe-to-toe with FC Bayern Munich all season long, as both clubs have netted 69 goals. With just five rounds still to play, the difference in the table between the two teams is seven points. The Bavarians are on the verge of winning a fourth consecutive Bundesliga title, a twenty-sixth overall, and there’s little Dortmund can do at this point to stop them.

Even though Bayern have superior attacking quality and depth to Dortmund, BVB have scored just as many or more throughout the entire campaign to date. Bayern may win the league this year again, but it won’t be because they were better offensively than BVB. It’s because they were better defensively.  (BvB are now ranked 3rd in the league according to Squawka with 2175 defensive points, trailing Bayern (2359) and FC Ingolstadt (2199).

Bayern have conceded just fourteen so far this season with eighteen clean sheets in the process while Dortmund have let in thirty and have kept eleven shut-outs. Bayern have been twice as good as their closest rivals on the defensive side, but those numbers alone fail to tell the whole story about Dortmund’s season.

In the Hinrunde, BVB were a mess at the back. It was quite rare to see them manage to keep even two clean sheets in a row in any competition, let alone the Bundesliga.  In fact, twenty-three of the thirty goals they’ve let in up until now in the league came during the Hinrunde, where they only managed to keep four shut-outs: two of which were in the opening two matches.

Thomas Tuchel’s team didn’t even fare much better in other competitions, conceding ten in ten Europa League matches against teams from countries like Norway, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Greece. This even led to them not managing to win their Europa League group, where they only managed one shut-out, ahead of FC Krasnodar from Russia, which was an inexcusable failure that meant a harder first knockout tie was in store for them.

However, in the Ruckrunde, it’s been a completely different story. Over the winter break, it was clear to everyone what exactly was BVB’s Achilles heel in the fall half of the season. Defensively they were letting in goals left and right and even though they had the best attacking numbers in Europe by the end of 2015 with a staggering eighty-five goals in thirty games, they had plenty of work to do to solve their issues on the other side of things.

The improvement has been huge, with BVB having only let in seven in twelve league games and kept just as many clean sheets in the process. That’s just as many as Bayern have kept but Dortmund have conceded less and won more points. If we just look at the results of the Ruckrunde up until now, BVB would be top of the league.

This has also translated into Europe for the Yellow-and-Blacks with just two goals allowed in five games against the likes of FC Porto, Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool FC. BvB are one of the favorites to win the competition for the first time in their history having lost two finals here before under the old UEFA Cup format: in 1993 to Juventus and 2002 to Feyenoord.

What’s led to this improvement has not been an overhaul of the defense, but more so about tactical training and becoming more positionally aware with and without the ball. As fluid and fun as Dortmund were to watch in the first part of this season, they were also very disorganized and naive most of the time at the back, which is what led to them leaking all those goals in the first place.

Since the winter pause, Tuchel and the team have managed to find a balance between ultra offensive football and tactical balance. The results, in comparison to the ones from July to December, show that strides have been made and, perhaps most importantly, Tuchel’s team have achieved an effective defensive posture without sacrificing their style of play, the type of football desired. They’re still a fun, attacking side to watch who can score goals in a number of different ways but now there’s more balance and defensive awareness in the way they go about things.  For example, BvB are now second only to Bayern Munich in the least amount of shots allowed per game average in league play (6.7 -8.3) — only two other Bundesliga clubs this season, Bayer Leverkusen and FC Ingolstadt, are also in the single digits in shots allowed per match.

Lukasz Piszczek
Lukasz Piszczek

In regards to the lineup, there has only been one real change to the defense from the first half of the season and that’s been Lukasz Piszczek establishing himself as the first choice right-back once again ahead of Matthias Ginter. The Polish international has played a key role in the way the team’s defensive game has shifted in the right direction as his balanced play, experience, and positional discipline has supported those at the back better than Ginter’s overly offensive style and defensive naivety did. Not to say that Ginter was or is bad as a right-back, but his defensive work in the Hinrunde was questionable and it was probably the one change that needed to be made to the back four after such a bad few months at the back for BVB.

Piszczek has looked more like his old self in the last few months where he’s played almost every game after only starting five league matches in the Hinrunde and, along with Marcel Schmelzer, looks to be revitalized after a disappointing campaign last term. Ginter, on the other hand, is still getting plenty of minutes, but he’s being utilized in other positions as well as Tuchel continues to look for the place where the 22-year old can lock down a spot long-term.

Other than that, we’ve seen Sven Bender fill in well whenever Sokratis Papastathopoulos or Mats Hummels have been absent, as has Gonzalo Castro for İlkay Gündoğan, who’s missed much of this Ruckrunde campaign. Erik Durm has been getting playing time of his own having been out for the entire fall. Dortmund’s defensive depth has served them well this year, something we didn’t get to say too often during the last few seasons of the Jurgen Klopp era.

The league is all but lost for Thomas Tuchel’s men at this point, but there is still a very presentable chance to win a cup double of the DFB-Pokal and UEFA Europa League. Dortmund will rightfully be considered as one of the frontrunners to win both competitions and even more so now that they have second place and automatic Champions League group stage football locked down for next season with several games left to play.

Winning the Bundesliga is unlikely to happen this year and Dortmund will leave themselves to reflect on a poor Hinrunde of defensive displays as probably the main reason why they won’t really challenge Bayern to win the league. However, if they can manage to shop well according to their needs in the summer, carry their current momentum, and keep up the defensive level they’ve been at over the last three months, then 2016/17 may well be the season when Dortmund finally manage to end Bayern’s Bundesliga monopoly.

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Edin Halilovic

Edin is a Bosnian currently residing in the United States whose interest in the Bundesliga and German football in general has been increasing heavily in recent years. Follow him @edinh_96