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I Attempt to Diagnose the Reason(s) for Dortmund’s Latest Struggles

Borussia Dortmund v RB Leipzig - Bundesliga Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Bongarts/Getty Images

About a month ago, I visited the Westfalenstadion and watched Borussia Dortmund hammer six goals past Borussia Mönchengladbach. It was a glorious performance that capped a glorious start to the season. As I left the stadium, the fans remaining on the Yellow Wall chanted “Spitzenreiter, Spitzenreiter…”

Dortmund were flying as high as possible. Hopes were higher than ever that this would finally be the year that we would break Bayern’s iron grip on the Meisterschale. The club would be hosting Real Madrid later in the week, and the hope was that Dortmund could take some points from them and kickstart a Champions League campaign.

Of course, we all know what happened. A combination of high lines, Bale, and Ronaldo helped Los Blancos to a convincing victory. Even worse, after a heartbreaking international break, BVB lost to RB Leipzig at home, marking our first Bundesliga defeat at the Westfalenstadion in years. Finally, the squad displayed one of the most pitiful performances in recent memory, effectively ending their Champions League campaign with a draw against Apoel Nicosia.

Now, even though Dortmund are still top of the table, there is a feeling of imminent doom. It feels a question of when, not if, Bayern will surpass us in first place.

What has changed? What happened that led a club that was one of the hottest in Europe to turn sour so quickly? This article is an attempt to diagnose what is going wrong.

Bad Luck?

Before we look deeper into the specifics of what’s been happening with the squad, let’s consider the fact that Dortmund have just gotten plain unlucky. The best statistic that we have with which we can measure luck is expected goals. While there are tons of caveats in expected goals, like finishing skill, goalkeeper skills, individual mistakes, it’s generally a good indicator of how a club performed through an entire match.

On this table, I compiled all of BVB’s results, in real goals and expected goals. The numbers you want to look at are in the (GD-xGD) column. If the number is positive, it means that BVB were lucky relative to their expected goals, while if the number is negative, it means the results were comparatively unlucky for BVB. The larger the absolute value, the more substantial the luck.

Expected Goals

Opponent/Matchday Actual Score xG Score Real Goal Difference (G'BVB-G'OPP) xG Goal Difference (xG'BVB - xG'OPP) GD - xGD Result
Opponent/Matchday Actual Score xG Score Real Goal Difference (G'BVB-G'OPP) xG Goal Difference (xG'BVB - xG'OPP) GD - xGD Result
Apoel/ Oct 17 BVB 1-1 Opp BVB 1.6 - 1.0 Opp 0 0.6 -0.6 Unlucky Draw
RBL/ Oct 14 BVB 2-3 Opp BVB 1.5 (+1 Pen) - 1.6 (+1 Pen) Opp -1 -0.1 -0.9 Exaggerated Defeat
AUG/ Sep 30 BVB 2-1 Opp BVB 1.2 (+1 Pen) - 1.2 Opp 1 0 1 Exaggerated Victory/ Penalty
RMA/ Sep 26 BVB 1-3 Opp BVB 1.0 - 2.9 Opp -2 -1.9 -0.1 Basically Spot-On
BMG/ Sep 23 BVB 6-1 Opp BVB 4.5 - 0.7 Opp 5 3.8 1.2 Exaggerated Beatdown
HMB/ Sep 20 BVB 3-0 Opp BVB 2.9 - 0.2 Opp 3 2.7 0.3 Basically Spot-On
KLN/ Sep 17 BVB 5-0 Opp BVB 2.4 - 0.3 Opp 5 2.1 2.9 Exaggerated Beatdown
TOT/ Sep 13 BVB 1-3 Opp BVB 0.9 - 1.6 Opp -2 -0.7 -1.3 Exaggerated Defeat
FRE/ Sep 09 BVB 0-0 Opp BVB 1.4 - 0.3 Opp 0 1.1 -1.1 Unlucky Draw
HSC/ Aug 26 BVB 2-0 Opp BVB 1.8 - 0.4 Opp 2 1.4 0.6 Slightly Exaggerated Victory
WFL/ Aug 19 BVB 3-0 Opp BVB 1.2 - 0.5 Opp 3 0.7 2.3 Exaggerated Victory

My biggest takeaway from this is that luck is not a major factor. While the loss to RB Leipzig was slightly unlucky, and the draw to Apoel a bit more so, none of the other matches reflect a real lack of luck. It’s clear from this chart that BVB’s poor results as of late have been deserved.

Answer: No.

Poor Squad Selection?

Especially after the RB Leipzig match, Peter Bosz was criticized for starting Gonzalo Castro and Nuri Sahin instead of Mahmoud Dahoud and Julian Weigl. I agree that the latter pair would have done a much better job containing RB Leipzig’s midfield than the pair who started, and might have tipped the scales in Dortmund’s favor. I understand Bosz’s desire to rest his best players for the CL match against Apoel, which was a must-win, but Weigl and Dahoud really would have been a better choice.

Let’s not forget, though, that Castro and Sahin performed well at several points during the beginning of the season. In fact, I’d contend that Sahin was one of Dortmund’s best players during the opening weeks of the season, so I could completely understand why Bosz would start him against Leipzig. The performance was unexpectedly poor by his standards, not something that we’ve regularly seen.

Defensively, injuries have also had a big impact Bosz’s ability to select the squad that he wants. There’s no denying that Guerreiro would provide an instant upgrade at left back, but he’s been out for the entire season. Marc Bartra has struggled to stay fit. Schmelzer and Piszczek have both been injured too. The only consistently healthy defenders have been Sokratis, Toprak, and Subotic, who hasn’t featured yet. As you can see, there isn’t much to fault Bosz for when it comes to defensive selection.

Overall, I think that Bosz’s choices have largely been the right ones, outside of the RB Leipzig match, in which he definitely made the wrong decision. He’s also been restricted by injuries and a lack of depth. There are other problems with the club that go beyond Bosz’s choosing to play Gonzalo Castro.

Answer: “Yes” with regards to the RB Leipzig match, “not really” with regards to the rest.

Key Players Underperforming?

Usually, a club’s success depends on the play of its best players. I looked at the individual performances of certain players, and there are a couple standouts.

The most significant of these, to me, is Mario Götze. Despite pundits lauding his ‘resurrection’, his play has been suspect. On certain nights, he is dominant. On most nights, however, he disappears completely. This is reflected in his Bundesliga Scoreline. Despite starting most matches and logging 385 minutes, he’s only managed one assist and no goals. His production has completely dried up as of late, and some of his other numbers like passing and dribbling are poor as well. As an attacking midfielder, he should be producing much more.

While Aubameyang has been consistent throughout the year, BVB’s wingers have really struggled as of late. Pulisic, Yarmolenko, and Philipp all started the year exceptionally well, but all three have hit bumps in the road. These players started off hot, which may have created some over-optimism about their abilities. Now, however, their production has dried up, and the team is struggling because of it.

Max Philipp started the year with four goals and an assist in six matches. In the four matches since then, he hasn’t contributed a single goal. It’s not just that he’s playing well and isn’t getting on the scoresheet either. His dribbles, tackles, and passing numbers are all low as well.

Yarmolenko, who had a blistering start to the year, has since cooled off. While he has produced a couple goals here and there, he mostly disappeared against Real Madrid, Leipzig, and Apoel. His production in the Bundesliga has actually been pretty consistent; it’s the Champions League where he’s struggled to put up points (other than his stunner against Tottenham).

* Blasphemy Alert *: Christian Pulisic has also been rather unproductive to start the year. While his scoreline looks decent (two goals, one assist in 8 matches), you should recognize that he scored one goal and one assist in the opening matchup against Wolfsburg, and he’s only had one goal since.

Finally, Roman Bürki has probably struggled the most of anybody on the club. While on some nights, his performances have singlehandedly kept Dortmund in matches, on others (notably against Apoel and Tottenham), his mistakes have directly led to goals. He just signed a contract extension until 2021, but there is still a posibility that Dortmund bring in another keeper during the winter transfer window.

Answer: Definitely.

Bosz’s Stubborn Tactics?

Another criticism that I’ve heard frequently on this site is Bosz’s unwillingness to change tactics, that he’s been “figured out” by other managers. While I think there is some truth to this argument, I don’t think it’s the main reason for Dortmund’s struggles.

The two matches that I think could be chalked up to tactical problems were the Real Madrid match and the Tottenham match. The suicidal high line against Real Madrid has been beaten into the dirt, so I won’t even bother going into that. As for the Tottenham match, I really don’t think anybody expected Tottenham to play the way they did. They usually try to play a possession game, which would have been highly vulnerable to Bosz’s gegenpressing. Instead, they sat back and countered. This might have taken BVB a bit off guard. Roman Bürki’s individual mistakes also cost the club dearly during that match. While I think Bosz was outsmarted by Mauricio Pochettino, I don’t think he was entirely to blame for that defeat.

Other than these two matches, though, I don’t necessarily think that it’s Bosz’s tactics that are causing the problems that we’re currently experiencing. If you go match-by-match and identify what went wrong each night, you can see that there were other issues plaguing the side. Against RB Leipzig, a better midfield could have withstood the pressure from Keita and Sabitzer. Instead, Castro and Sahin were overrun, which led to Leipzig grabbing going ahead. Against Nicosia, Dortmund did a good job controlling midfield. It was just one ghastly error from Bürki that caused Apoel’s goal, and Dortmund were held to a single tally largely by their utter lack of creativity in the final third and strong defending from Apoel. I don’t think that is necessarily Bosz’s fault.

Answer: Yes, but specifically against Real Madrid, and to a lesser extent the Tottenham match.

Improving Opposition Quality?

Finally, I’ll come to what is probably the most obvious point: Dortmund’s opponents have increased in quality. If you look at the clubs that Dortmund faced at the beginning of the year, many of them are now towards the bottom of the Bundesliga. Hertha, Wolfsburg, Hamburg, Freiburg, and Köln are 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 18th respectably. Of Dortmund’s first seven opponents, only Mönchengladbach (5th) and Tottenham Hotspur (3rd in the Premier League) are not bottom dwellers of the Bundesliga. Beating down the worst the league had to offer might have given Borussia a false sense of security. Now that they’re facing teams of higher quality, they’re having a much tougher time getting results.

Answer: Definitely.

Conclusion

As is often the case in life, the answer is a combination of all factors. You can point to Bosz’s tactics, or you can blame Gonzalo Castro, but I think it’s a perfect storm of poor form, strong opponents, questionable game plans from Bosz, and yes, the occasional #badcastro.

I’m not on board with #Boszout, because I think if we start firing managers the moment they hit a rut, we’re never going to be able to hire anyone ever again. That being said, he needs to take a good look at what he can do to change the factors that I’ve mentioned above, because he needs to right the ship now before it sinks.