And just like that, the first half of the Bundesliga is over. What was a remarkably tight title race only a few weeks ago has turned into a foregone conclusion.
BVB’s December stuttered to a halt today, with one final defeat to Hertha Berlin closing out a supremely disappointing month. It started out well, with BVB snatching the lead around the 30th minute, when an errant Hertha pass bounded to Julian Brandt, who beautifully chipped the goalkeeper. Unfortunately, Dortmund failed to grab an insurance goal, and Hertha would score three goals in the second half, and while BVB would claw back with a goal from Steffen Tigges, they ultimately couldn’t overcome the deficit.
So yeah, the Bundesliga season is basically over. Here are my thoughts.
Everything went so... predictably
One time, I was flying into White Plains Regional Airport during a pretty nasty winter storm. My plane was just entering its final approach when it was buffeted by such a strong crosswind that our pilot initiated a go-around. When, upon our second approach, a similar crosswind began rocking the aircraft from side to side, the plane continued its descent while the lead flight attendant began shouting “heads down, lean forward.” I had no idea what was going on, whether we were going to crash or not, but I certainly had a feeling that no matter what happened, it was going to be a rough ride.
When I saw the starting lineup that Marco Rose was planning on fielding today, so too did I know it was going to be a rough ride. Unfortunately, unlike the plane that was carrying me, Borussia Dortmund’s title chances did crash and burn into a smouldering pile of charred remains.
The back line consisted of, from left to right, Nico Schulz, Marin Pongracic, Axel Witsel, and Thomas Meunier, playing behind a double pivot featuring Emre Can and Mahmoud Dahoud. Breaking that down one-by-one, you have: Schulz, who has struggled all season, Pongracic, who has barely played at all, Witsel, who has struggled even when playing his natural position, and Meunier, who has been... fine. All the conditions for a series of defensive calamities were there, and the result was exactly that.
On Hertha Berlin’s first goal, striker Ishak Belfodil, who is not particularly fast, absolutely dusted and bodied Axel Witsel, holding off the Belgian before slotting a shot underneath Marwin Hitz. On Hertha’s second goal, consecutive failures by Axel Witsel and Julian Brandt to clear the ball away from the top of the 18 yard box allowed Hertha to move the ball to Marco Richter, who managed to place a well-struck shot into the top corner. The third goal was just a calamity, with Julian Brandt lazily turning the ball over while the rest of the back line stood by idly.
I know it's a bad pass by Brandt, but where's the off-the-ball movement from... anyone else? BVB might be on the ball but it's still in a dangerous area, do something to make yourself open! pic.twitter.com/CbiHVoyKtm— Fear the Wall (@FearTheWall) December 18, 2021
My subheader for this observation described the back line, but the struggles really encompassed the entire back half of the pitch, because Emre Can and Mahmoud Dahoud played very poorly. I was particularly frustrated with Can, who would often dwell on the ball like a lost child who had strayed his way onto the pitch. He would, more often then not, either play a dangerous pass to a teammate that would put them under pressure, or simply turn it over himself. I can’t even argue that he should’ve started over Witsel in the back line because even if he might have had the pace to catch Belfodil, his passing was so off, he could have caused two or three other goals by constantly turning the ball over.
What was so frustrating was that BVB’s attack, when it actually got moving forward, was pretty effective. Julian Brandt’s goal was pure class, and Marco Reus had a pair of really good chances in the first half that he couldn’t bury. Unfortunately, all of this was for naught because 75% of the game was spent in the Dortmund half with Witsel, Pongracic, Schulz, and Can playing a haphazard game of keepaway. When Dan-Axel Zagadou and Raphael Guerreiro came onto the pitch, you could see the improvement right away. It helped that Hertha Berlin were sitting back more, but the increase in quality of distribution was undeniable.
Other than trying to stay healthy, BVB really needs to overhaul their back line and defensive midfield. Schulz, Witsel, and Pongracic really aren’t good enough to help Dortmund compete for the title. It’s rumored that Dortmund are interested in Denis Zakaria, who would definitely help, but further reinforcements at the back are necessary.
The injuries finally proved too much
Even though today’s result was predictable, there was ultimately not much that Marco Rose could have done. When you’re missing both starting center backs, and your third center back has just recovered from a highly destructive surgery, your options are limited. Jude Bellingham had to serve a suspension, and his presence in midfield was sorely missed. If you want an example of a day when BVB’s injury crisis finally caught up with the club, it’s today.
The truth is that Dortmund have been flirting with fire for a while. The injury crisis has been going on for months, with almost every player in the squad seeing a sustained absence at one point or another. Until a few weeks ago, it looked like Dortmund were going to be able to escape the crisis largely intact. The squad that faced Bayern in Der Klassiker was mostly healthy. Unfortunately, injuries almost immediately struck again, with Manuel Akanji, Mats Hummels, Gregor Kobel, Julian Brandt, Raphael Guerreiro, and Thorgan Hazard dropping over the ensuing matches. BVB would drop points in two of their final three games. Normally, such a disappearance wouldn’t be too catastrophic, but when you’re chasing Bayern, the margins are so ridiculously tight that dropping five points could be enough to lose the title.
Time to win the Europa League and DFB Pokal, I guess
A nine point gap between Dortmund and Bayern seems pretty insurmountable at this point, especially because Bayern only dropped eight points in the entire first half of the season. Furthermore, with every other club in the Bundesliga in a state of chaos, the top four should be relatively secure, assuming the wheels don’t completely fall off. Therefore, I think it would be wise for BVB to focus on the two remaining competitions where a trophy is very much a possibility.
With Bayern out of the DFB Pokal, BVB should be one of if not the favorites to win the whole trophy. The same could be said for the Europa League. While neither trophy is as impressive as winning the Bundesliga, either one of them would make this season at least a reasonable success. Hopefully the squad can get healthier so we don’t have to see Pongracic and Witsel trying to defend against Napoli or Olympique Lyon.
What did you think of today’s match? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.