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2017-18 Season Review: The Defense

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Juventus v Borussia Dortmund - Preseason Friendly Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images

As has repeatedly been the case over the last couple years, Borussia Dortmund’s defense struggled again during the 2017-18 season. The club surrendered 47 goals in the Bundesliga, leaving them 9th in the league in terms of goals against, and 40.6 xGA, improving slightly to 6th in the Bundesliga.

Dortmund fielded a wide variety of defenders, and saw numerous transfers in and out. Over the summer, BVB added Omer Toprak from Bayer Leverkusen and Jeremy Toljan from Hoffenheim to a squad that already featured Marc Bartra, Sokratis, Piszczek, and Marcel Schmelzer.

Here is our match recap for this season’s defense:

Season Recap

Under Peter Bosz the defense started out, quite literally, perfect. It took six matches in the Bundesliga for BVB to finally surrender a goal, in a 6-1 rout of Borussia Mönchengladbach. Still, the defense looked solid, up until the Champions League group stage began. Dortmund suffered defeats to Tottenham and Real Madrid in which the defenses were torn apart. Just to re-live the torture, here’s Sokratis failing to make any challenge on Heung-Min Son:

After a month of defensive perfection in the Bundesliga, it took less than 10 minutes for BVB to capitulate at Wembley. As the defense in the Champions League began to unravel, so too did Dortmund’s defense in the Bundesliga. The goals against began to pile up, as BVB fell to RB Leipzig 3-2, Hannover 4-2, and Bayern Munich 3-1.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the disaster against Schalke at the WFS. After jumping ahead to a 4-0 lead, Dortmund completely collapsed, and allowed Schalke back in. It was a demoralizing collapse that sealed Bosz’s fate. The dutchman parted ways with the club within weeks, and Peter Stoger, a manager with a reputation for quality defense was brought in to fix the club’s defensive woes.

Did he? Sort of. For the first three months of Peter Stoger’s tenure at the club, BVB surrendered no more than two goals in any match. While the anemic offense failed to score enough goals to convert this defense into wins, at least BVB was no longer leaking goals. Dortmund played a much less risky, much more structured style that suited the defense more. While the January transfer window saw the depatures of Marc Bartra and Neven Subotic, new signing Manuel Akanji provided much needed life to Dortmund’s back line.

The lowlight of Stöger’s tenure was BVB’s trip to the Allianz Arena. In a truly embarrassing performance, Dortmund were thrashed 6-0. It could have been worse, too. Having been eviscerated by the Bavarians, Peter Stoger lost any chance to return to the WFS for another year. While the defense had overall improved under Stöger, it was not enough to earn him an extension. Now that the season has ended, Lucien Favre has to clean up the mess left behind.

Negatives

What went wrong for the defense? How did the defense collapse under both Peters, two completely different managers?

The HIGH LINE (gasp)

During the first half of the season, Dortmund’s defensive struggles can largely be attributed to tactics. Peter Bosz was an ideological gegenpresser: he believed in an active defense that played high up the pitch and tried to catch forwards in offside traps. He also believed strongly in active, attacking full backs. As a result, there was little focus on any sort of defensive stability, and the back line at few outlets to relieve pressure.

The first notable instance of this was the first match against Real Madrid, when Zidane’s squad tore apart the back line to great effectiveness. The full backs, instructed to push up the pitch, were torn between their offensive responsibilities and defensive ones.

Lack of Midfield Support

Throughout the season, Dortmund’s midfield has been one of the club’s greatest weaknesses. Both managers struggled to find the right combinations between Mahmoud Dahoud, Julian Weigl, Nuri Sahin, and Mario Götze. In a high pressing system, the midfielders need to be able to break up opposition attacks before they reach the back line, which can be left exposed if unprotected. Under Bosz and Stoger, the back line was frequently left isolated by opposing midfields.

Peter Stoger also suffered from the same effect. The most glaring example of this was the thrashing by Bayern Munich at the Allianz. Bayern’s midfield cut through Dortmund’s like a hot knife through butter, so Ribery, Lewandowski, and the like could make runs at Dortmund’s back line at will. Sokratis and Akanji were completely hung out to dry during the match, and actually defended admirably, if not ultimately fruitlessly. During the summer transfer window, BVB need to remember that defense is not just up to the defenders, and takes steps to improve their midfield so that their defenders aren’t hung out to dry like they were in Munich.

Disappointing Full Backs

Throughout the entire season, BVB’s full backs have repeatedly struggled to meet expectations. Jeremy Toljan, upon his arrival, was expected to compete with and eventually take over the right back spot from Lukasz Piszczek. Unfortunately, he struggled from the start, and failed to make any meaningful impact on the pitch.

Marcel Schmelzer was another player who disappointed during the season. The captain has been a mainstay for years, but he frequently struggled defensively and failed to generate any meaningful offense. Raphael Guerreiro struggled to play at all, after suffering an injury and botched treatment from Portuguese national team doctors. While he still has potential, he will continue to battle injuries in order to get healthy.

Positives

This has been a mostly gloomy summary so far, so here are some positives to be taken from this past season:

Manuel Akanji

The young Swiss CB arrived during the middle of the Aubameyang transfer saga, so his arrival was a bit under-the-radar. Acquired from FC Basel, Akanji transitioned flawlessly into the Bundesliga, and quickly became a rock on defense. Although only 22 years old, Akanji looks like a budding star, and could potentially be an anchor for years to come. He’s also shown the ability to play at LB, which could provide valuable depth down the line.

Omer Toprak

When Toprak arrived from Leverkusen, many were skeptical about his prospects with Dortmund. He didn’t have the best season with Bayer in 2016-17, and many Dortmund fans likely would have wanted Jonathan Tah or Niklas Süle instead. However, Toprak ended up having a decent season, especially during the second half, and helped lead the way during January, February, and March when BVB stabilized their position in the league. With Sokratis jetting off to Arsenal any day now, Toprak will likely play an important role next season unless BVB buy another center back, so he will be tasked with helping youngsters like Akanji improve.

Your Thoughts

What did you think of Dortmund’s defense this season? How do you want BVB to improve over the summer? Leave your thoughts below.