What a difference a few weeks make. Borussia Dortmund have seemingly crashed down to earth after a wonderful start to the first campaign under newly appointed head coach Peter Bosz. The Dutchman faces a surprising amount of criticism despite his team’s topping the Bundesliga table. First of all, his critics claim Bosz has been “found out” and he’s “too stubborn” in his tactical approach. How fair is that criticism? Let’s find out.
If a Dortmund fan woke up from a coma on Wednesday morning, having missed the entire season to this point, he’d probably have thought his favourite club are back in a situation similar to the wretched 2014/15 season. The final year of Jürgen Klopp’s glorious tenure at the Westfalenstadion, after all, and especially the first half of that campaign, was a time when bad results met bad football.
Make no mistake, the same happened on Tuesday night in Nicosia. Dortmund were positively bad against an opponent they should have dominated from the first whistle to the last. They were sluggish going forward, misplacing an inordinate amount of simple passes and running into opponents at every other opportunity. Defensively, they were not tested yet still managed to make mistakes, none bigger, of course, than Roman Bürki’s double whammy that allowed the hosts to go in front through former Dynamo Dresden striker Mickael Pote.
Seeing as Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ equaliser could easily have been whistled away for the Greek defender’s riding on an opponent’s back, even getting a draw out of the game was lucky, despite Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Marc Bartra wasting a fine double chance to win it in stoppage time.
However, Tuesday night was a much different game to Dortmund’s previous bad results, namely the UEFA Champions League defeats to Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid and the Bundesliga loss against RB Leipzig that snapped an incredible 41-game unbeaten streak at the Westfalenstadion.
In the analyses of most media folk, those losses were attributed largely to Bosz and his apparent tactical stubbornness.
In truth, however, only one of those three defeats had anything to do with the Dutchman’s preferred style of football. Only at Wembley were Dortmund caught out time and time again by a counter-attacking team feasting in the spaces vacated by BVB’s incredibly high line.
Against both Real and Leipzig, Bosz made significant in-game adjustments, moving to a back three in both cases, that went against his usual preference. Against the Bulls, particularly, Dortmund deployed their last line of defence much deeper, evidently for fear of Leipzig’s quickness in the transition game. In turn, that hurt their own play going forward, as BVB didn’t have as many wins of possession high up the field, thus putting more of an onus on their buildup play from deep — a task that proved too difficult for the likes of Bürki, Sokratis, Ömer Toprak or Nuri Sahin.
What doomed Dortmund against Leipzig were individual mistakes, a lack of attention and their inability to move the ball into the final third on a consistent basis. It’s not Bosz’ fault Jeremy Toljan had a torrid time on the right wing, the position Dortmund’s summer signing considers himself to be his best at.
Against Real, on the other hand, Dortmund played reasonably well but faced the best team in the world, arguably, and one that took their trip to the Westfalenstadion much more seriously than in years past. Presumably, because BVB managed to win their group ahead of Los Blancos last season. When a team that fields Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and Isco and Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal and — you get the idea — plays close to their best, any side in the world will struggle to contain them, and that’s what happened to Dortmund.
What remains is the game against Spurs, where Bosz indeed has to take a lot of the blame, even though Bürki’s performance didn’t help. Neither did having to chase the game against a tactically clever side with Harry Kane fed by Christian Eriksen and a back three consisting of world-class defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Verthongen as well as a monster in the making in Davinson Sanchez.
Accepting the APOEL match as a weird outlier in their season — seeing as Dortmund created a fair few chances in the aforementioned losses and even the goalless draw against SC Freiburg in the Bundesliga — the Tottenham match is the only one that fits the bill as we look at the criticism toward Bosz.
BVB are Victims of Their Own Success
In truth, the only reason for the marked criticism on a first-year head coach in a once-again reshuffled team is the fact that everyone has already seen Dortmund can be so much better. In some ways, the Black and Yellows are victims of their own, surprising, early-season success.
Think back to the end of the summer. Going by pre-season, BVB were going to start slowly in the Bundesliga and most accepted as much. They had a new coach who needed a few months to implement his system at previous stops but had a reasonable amount of success, reaching the UEFA Europa League final with Ajax, for it to make sense to allow him that time at Dortmund, too.
Then they went and won six of their first seven league matches, topping the table with a five-point advantage over Bayern Munich, and even the first two Champions League games were more a footnote to worry about at a later stage than a problem that needed to be dealt with immediately.
However, it’s fair to say Dortmund were boosted by their schedule and that their true quality lies somewhere between a wonderful beatdown of Borussia Mönchengladbach in September and a wretched night at Nicosia in the middle of October.
Consider their start in the Bundesliga for a moment:
They beat Wolfsburg, who have already fired their head coach and are currently 14th in the table, having won one of their eight games so far. Then, they beat Hertha BSC, a side that just managed to finish a home game against Schalke with 0.03 expected goals, per Michael Caley. Then came Freiburg, a match they should have won against 10 men but didn’t, which can happen every now and then.
Following the Spurs defeat Dortmund shredded Cologne (winless, three goals all season), Hamburg (the hex was broken by Aubameyang last season) and Gladbach (still coached by Dieter Hecking) with a combined scoreline of 14-1, before falling to Real despite, as pointed out above, playing reasonably well.
A scrappy 2-1 win over Augsburg on Matchday 7, before the October international break, wasn’t a particularly convincing performance but, given it was the last of seven matches within 21 days — and Augsburg’s own strong start to the season — a perfectly fine result.
What the author is trying to tell you, in blunt words, is that Dortmund had a cakewalk schedule that allowed them to perform better than they are, as evidenced by poor results against better teams.
The point of all of this, ultimately, is to tell you to calm down. This was always going to be a difficult season, with a coaching change and another turbulent summer of transfers coinciding with Dortmund’s yearly injury crisis at an inopportune time. As pointed out above, this was clear and accepted by most in August, only for Dortmund’s strong start to the season to raise expectations.
In the immortal words (word, really) of Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, r-e-l-a-x. Dortmund are plenty good enough — and the Bundesliga on the whole plenty weak enough — for BVB to reach their most important goal, which is to qualify for the Champions League every year.
Making it out of the group this season is hard to imagine but not impossible, Dortmund only have to win at the Santiago Bernabeu, among other things. And if they don’t make it and drop down to the Europa League, I hear it’s lovely in Southeast Europe in the springtime.
If nothing else, Dortmund and Bosz deserve time to get better, which they will once key players such as Julian Weigl and Mahmoud Dahoud understand their roles completely and injured players such as Marcel Schmelzer or Raphael Guerreiro are back in regular action.
If they still look like this towards the meaty end of the season, in March and April and May, by all means, light the beacons. But for now, a little less agitation would do all of us good.