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Five Observations from BVB’s Start to the Season

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SSC Napoli v OGC Nice - UEFA Champions League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: First Leg Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

We’re now halfway through the international break! Borussia Dortmund’s next match day against Favre is less than a week away. With three competitive matches in the bag, we now know a little bit more about what BVB will look like under Lucien Favre. Here are five observations that I had from BVB’s opening matches of the season:

#1: Paco Alcacer will help, but he won’t solve Dortmund’s offensive issues

For teams that want to score goals, having a center forward is generally a good idea. This is why it was so imperative for Dortmund to find a replacement for Aubameyang and Michy Batshuayi. In this light, Paco Alcacer will undoubtedly help, primarily because of his finishing ability and his natural “poaching” sense. He will also free up Max Philipp and Marco Reus, so that those two don’t have to waste their abilities being marked by two massive center backs.

However, there’s a reason why many people (myself included) consider the center forward position to be the least important in football. Unless your striker is a generational talent like Suarez in his prime, he probably won’t be creating goals by himself. Offense comes from the way an entire squad plays: usually either by building play from the back line through midfield all the way to the forwards, or by the forwards and the midfielders pressuring defenders off the ball and creating chances off such turnovers. Lucien Favre very much prefers the former, and so far, BVB have not quite found the recipe to create chances out of possession on a regular basis.

The Hannover 96 performance perfectly encapsulated these issues. Throughout the entire match, BVB struggled to create chances in the opposition half, with practically no service to Philipp and Reus outside of two clear chances for the latter. This is not something that the addition of Paco will address. I’d recommend reading Gregory’s tactical review for more on this, and I’ll also touch on it in point #4.

As for the Leipzig match, I think the 4-1 score was, while immensely entertaining, a bit misrepresentative of the match as a whole. In terms of expected goals, the match was much closer than the score indicated, and there were large swathes of the match in which Leipzig dominated. I’d like to see much at least several more strong performances before I start to buy into Lucien Favre’s tactics, and the squad’s overall abilities.

#2: Akanji-Diallo is an elite center back pairing

In order to avoid sounding like a pessimist, I’d like to point out something that I’m sure many of you already know: Manuel Akanji and Abdou Diallo are a fantastic pairing.

Even though Hannover controlled a majority of possession against BVB, frequently torched Piszczek and Schmelzer (see point #3), they managed to get exactly zero shots on target, and only 0.46 xG. They blocked 5 of Hannover’s 7 shots, and drove the other two to the outside. Moreover, from a purely subjective standpoint, they just look so in-command. Outside of RB Leipzig’s one goal, which came directly from an Axel Witsel turnover more than anything else, have been almost perfect.

Here’s the absolute best part... barring any catastrophic injuries (knock on wood), they’re only going to get better. Akanji is 23, and Diallo is only 22. This article by football analyst Michael Caley indicates that the average center back hits their peak at age 27. The fact that these two are so young and already so good bodes excellently for BVB’s future.

#3: BVB’s fullbacks are defensive liabilities

Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek are club legends, but it’s no secret that their defensive play has left a lot to be desired over the past season and a half. While I still think they’re above-average in terms of making runs and providing service to the forward corps (Schmelzer assisted Dahoud’s goal against Leipzig), they’re very shaky defensively.

Put it this way: Linton Maina is a 19 year-old winger who plays for Hannover, and he ran riot over Schmelzer for the better part of 90 minutes. The idea of Arjen Robben or Antoine Griezmann doing the same makes me very nervous indeed. Piszczek faired a bit better, and perhaps that was because he had Marius Wolf covering for him. This meant, however, that Wolf was constantly back providing defensive support when he should have been running at Hannover’s defenders and trying to create offense. Wolf was lambasted by many for his play during and after the match, but I think that at least some of this criticism can also be directed towards Piszczek.

The RB Leipzig match offers further evidence of this. If you were to look at the high-quality chances that Leipzig were able to create, many of them resulted from poor positioning from Dortmund’s two full backs, or one of the two being beaten 1-on-1.

This isn’t to say that neither of the two have purposes in the squad. They are both good on offense, and provide lots of experience to the locker room and on the pitch. However, Favre has other options like Guerreiro, Toljan, and Hakimi at his disposal. It would be nice to see them see some time on the pitch, especially against some of the more dangerous wingers that BVB will be facing.

#4: BVB need more consistency from Dahoud and Delaney

This observation is one specific to last weekend’s match against Hannover 96. With the style that Lucien Favre likes to use, BVB’s midfield surrenders the use of a traditional #10 (think of how Götze was used under Klopp) in exchange for two #8s. Thomas Delaney and Mahmoud Dahoud, the two midfielders currently playing in that role, have had an inconsistent time over the past two matches.

While Axel Witsel has been terrific so far, Dahoud and Delaney have presented some challenges for Favre. While Dahoud’s play against Leipzig was impressive, and Delaney’s defensive performance was sublime, both failed to create any meaningful play while in possession. Not only did BVB let Hannover carry most of the possession during the match, but BVB’s midfield created remarkably little when in possession. Mahmoud Dahoud, for instance, generated 0.02 xGBuildup. This means that, if you were to summarize the outcome of every possession Dahoud involved himself in (excluding his shots and key passes), the expected goals added up to 0.02. Delaney faired better with 0.34, but when your two central midfielders have a combined xGBuildup of 0.36, things are not going well. The forwards were also partially responsible, failing to provide any creative linkage between themselves and the midfielders.

As you’ve probably noticed, this observation is dedicated to Delaney and Dahoud specifically. If they are to be Dortmund’s consistent starting midfielders, I will maintain this opinion. I also would not mind swapping out Delaney for Gotze or Kagawa, especially against opponents like Hannover that don’t press. The latter two are much more creative and much more likely to find that killer pass to create a chance.

To be fair, the Hannover match was just that, one match. It very well could have been a single off performance. However, if BVB are going to challenge for the title, they are going to need to dominate the midfield week in and week out. Which... brings me to my next point.

#5: This probably won’t be the year BVB catches Bayern

I’d hate to end this piece with more pessimism, but I’ve got to call it the way I see it. I’ve watched every minute of both clubs’ seasons so far, and I think it’s fair to say that Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich are on two different levels right now. Bayern have thoroughly dominated every match they’ve played, and BVB look like they have too much to iron out over the course of the season. Add in Bayern’s superior depth, and the fact that both sides are trying to implement new tactics under new managers, and the picture only gets more troubling.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can root for this season. My main point in bringing this up is that if we are to expect a serious title challenge from Dortmund this season, we will likely be disappointed. If we accept a title to be unlikely, then we can start to appreciate more tenable goals, like a decent run in the Champions League or the DFB Cup, or just playing some entertaining football. If BVB do pull something magical out of their pockets, even then, it will be that more special.

Conclusion

I could go on, but I think this is enough for today. At the end of the day, we’re only a couple weeks into the season, and much can change over the coming months. That being said, these are my thoughts on the season so far. What are your thoughts?