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The Way Forward: What Needs to Happen for Borussia Dortmund to Win the Bundesliga

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I try to plot Borussia Dortmund’s “victory map” that leads to the Meisterschale.

FC Bayern Muenchen v Hannover 96 - Bundesliga
Bayern Munich have lifted the Meisterschale every year since 2012. If things go right for Borussia Dortmund, 2019 might be different.
Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images For MAN

When covering U.S. presidential races, media outlets frequently try to create “victory maps” for different candidates, that give breakdowns of potential Electoral College results. The process of creating these maps is basically an attempt to answer a fundamental question: if candidate X ends up being victorious, what states will they have needed to win? In other words, what needs to go right?

The Presidential race is still months away from starting, but there’s another, much more immediate (albeit less important) race at hand: the race for the Bundesliga. Borussia Dortmund, for the first time in years, are in first place at the start of the second half. Bayern Munich sit six points behind, a significant but not-insurmountable gap. The Bundesliga title is still up-for-grabs. Today, I thought I’d try to make Borussia Dortmund’s victory map, to try and set in stone what needs to go right for BVB to bring the Meisterschale back to the Westfalenstadion.

#1: Axel Witsel and Marco Reus Need to Stay Healthy

If I were to poll the Fear the Wall readership and ask who Borussia Dortmund’s first half MVP was, I have a feeling that Marco Reus and Axel Witsel would be the runaway favorites, for good reason. Both players have been essential to Borussia Dortmund’s first half success, even if in completely different ways.

If anybody has been the face of Borussia Dortmund’s success, it’s been Marco Reus. With 11 goals and 5 assists in 17 matches, Reus has been BVB’s most prolific contributor on offense. As the squad’s captain, he’s also been a leader on and off the pitch, and as his numbers demonstrate, has really taken up the idea of ‘leading by example’. His play on the pitch has helped elevate the likes of Jadon Sancho, Christian Pulisic, and Paco Alcacer, as BVB’s youngsters have almost effortlessly formed incredible chemistry with Marco.

If Marco Reus has been the face of Borussia Dortmund, Axel Witsel has been the heart. While he isn’t the flashiest player in town, the role he plays in Dortmund’s midfield has been irreplaceable. His ability to counter-press, shield Dortmund’s back line, and pick the occasional long ball has helped BVB play Lucien Favre’s counterattacking style of play. He might not be racking up goals and assists like Marco, but if anybody keeps the blood flowing throughout the ‘body’ of Borussia Dortmund, it’s Axel Witsel.

These two are the rocks on which BVB’s midfield and attack are built upon, and if they stay healthy, then BVB will be contenders to win the Bundesliga. However, if either gets injured for any lengthy period of time, then Borussia Dortmund’s title hopes would really be in jeopardy.

That being said...

#2: BVB Must Continue Over-performing Their Expected Goals

Brief Overview: In case you’re new to football statistics, ‘expected goals’ (xG) is a metric that tries to remove other ‘lucky’ variables from a club’s performance. It assigns a number between 0 and 1 to a club’s shot, based on how often a shot from that location, and of that type, would be likely to result in a goal. Borussia Dortmund’s season-total xG has been 32.41, so factoring in every shot that Borussia Dortmund have taken this season, an average team would be expected to score 32.41 goals.

While Borussia Dortmund lead the league with 44 goals, compared to Bayern Munich’s 36 goals, BVB have vastly over-performed their expected goals so far, with 44 goals compared to an xG of 32.41. This is an enormous difference, the widest in the Bundesliga by a significant margin, and it indicates that Borussia Dortmund have been finishing at a likely-unsustainable rate. Furthermore, BVB’s xG actually ranks fourth in the league, behind Bayern, Hoffenheim, and RB Leipzig. If Borussia Dortmund revert to their expected goals level, and don’t improve in that regard, then their results will likely fall back to earth, and will probably fall behind Bayern Munich.

There is reason to be hopeful in this regard, however. While the xG difference of 11.59 is enormous, over a third of that difference comes from BVB’s 7-0 Nurnberg difference, in which BVB over-performed their xG by 4.81. In addition, BVB’s results against their rivals have been mostly upheld by their xG performances. BVB successfully won the xG battle against Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig, and Borussia Mönchengladbach, even if the results were slightly exaggerated. This indicates that BVB have mostly deserved their wins so far, even if they’ve won by slightly larger margins than they’ve perhaps deserved. If BVB continue to match their xG results, regardless of the margin involved, then they may be able to carry on to a Bundesliga title.

That being said...

#3: Bayern Munich Must Suffer Another Slump

Borussia Dortmund will likely drop more than six points during the second half, which means Bayern Munich will need to drop points if Dortmund are to win the title. While Bayern returned to form a bit during towards the end of the first half, they struggled mightily at times, and it frequently seemed like Niko Kovac’s sacking was imminent.

It was mostly Bayern’s struggles, and Dortmund’s ability to pounce at the right moment, that has allowed BVB to take the lead in the title race. If Bayern undergo another slump, then it would be extremely helpful to BVB’s title chances. They will have to face Liverpool in the Champions League, and are still in the DFB-Cup, so they will have other competitions to consider. Hopefully the fatigue sets in, and Bayern drop more points.

#4: Lukasz Piszczek Must Continue Defying His Age

One player who I feel has flown under the radar this season is Lukasz Piszczek. He hasn’t necessarily been Borussia Dortmund’s best player, but I actually think that his play is one of the biggest reasons why BVB are in a position to challenge for the title.

Going into the season, if you polled BVB fans and asked what BVB’s weak spot was, I think many would have responded with, “Right back.” It seemed that there was a general consensus that Lukasz Piszczek was due to decline, and that he would be a major liability along Dortmund’s right side. Many, including myself, thought that Achraf Hakimi would replace Piszczek in due time.

Instead, Piszczek has stepped up big-time. He has been a veteran presence on BVB’s otherwise-young back line, and has actually provided defensive stability and incisive offensive contributions to Borussia Dortmund’s right side. For instance, while he struggled during the first half of Der Klassiker, during the second half he completely shut down Bayern Munich, and helped turn the game around.

He leads the club with 2.2 interceptions per game and 2.7 tackles per game, and has 3.3 clearances per game to compliment. In terms of offensive contributions, he’s third in the squad with 4 assists, and is the best defender in terms of key passes per game. His contributions to the build up have been excellent as well: his xGChain/90 is 0.50, meaning he directly contributes to the creation of an expected goal about every other game. His presence on the right has also allowed Achraf Hakimi to shift to left back, where has has found incredible success.

Father time catches up with everyone at some point, but he takes longer with some than others. Despite his age of 33, Lukasz Piszczek is still a valuable factor to BVB’s success, and if he can replicate his first half performance, then BVB will be that much closer to a title.

That being said...

#5: Dortmund’s Defense Must Step Up in Manuel Akanji’s Absence

As of this writing, it’s unclear whether Manuel Akanji will be able to play again this season. He suffered a groin injury during the winter break, and may need to undergo a very intrusive surgery that would put him out for the remainder of the season.

It may not be the end of the world, though, if Dortmund’s two other center backs, Dan-Axel Zagadou, Omer Toprak, and Abdou Diallo, can step in and replace Akanji’s presence on the back line. While Toprak has struggled this season, the two young Frenchmen have shown remarkable progress this season, but will need to rise to a whole new level if Akanji goes down. If BVB end up acquiring Leonardo Balerdi from Boca Juniors, the young Argentine will be able to add valuable depth, even if he doesn’t merge into the squad right away.

One of the great things about BVB’s defense is that it doesn’t rely on one player. They’re not like Liverpool, who would be nowhere without Virgil Van Dijk. Zagadou and Diallo have the talent to carry BVB to victory, but they have to make sure they can apply it consistently to the pitch over the course of the entire second half. If they don’t, then BVB’s defense will be much more porous, and a title will probably become out of reach.

Your Thoughts

What do you think needs to happen for BVB to win the title? Leave your thoughts below.