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How Has Dortmund Progressed and Regressed Since Their 2019 Title Failure? Part 2

Following the analysis from part 1, we look at the 2019/20 season, identifying what went right and wrong

Borussia Moenchengladbach v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Part two of this series will explore the 2019/20 season, with a focus on the players who survived the title push of the previous season, and those who were brought in to fortify another charge for the Meisterschale. In part one, it was clear that defensive deficiencies were detrimental to Dortmund’s title push. BVB dropped points early in the season, and the team’s form faltered again in February. This was attributable to a thin and inexperienced defense. I coined the term expected quality to describe the level of output a certain player could be expected to produce on the field, given their experience, age, and technical ability. Lucien Favre found in 2018/19 that when Marco Reus or Paco Alcacer were injured, the players he could call upon to replace them were not of the same expected quality, and therefore stunted what was a free-flowing and free-scoring attack.

A team that had been described as transitional by the board had nearly dethroned Bayern Munich with one season of Lucien Favre at the helm. How would the board respond?

Well, by saying that Dortmund would challenge for the title again, of course.


Notable Players Out

Abdou Diallo, Maximilian Philipp, Christian Pulisic, Alexander Isak, Sebastian Rode, Marius Wolf (loan), Omer Toprak, Felix Passlack (loan), Paco Alcacer (January), Julian Weigl (January), Jacob Bruun Larsen (January)

Notable Recruits

Mats Hummels, Julian Brandt, Thorgan Hazard, Nico Schulz, Mateu Morey, Tobi Raschl (promoted), Erling Haaland (January), Emre Can (January), Giovanni Reyna (promoted, January)

The 2019/20 season began almost as soon as the previous had ended, with Dortmund conducting their transfer business at breakneck speed. Dortmund announced that Nico Schulz would join the club on May 21st, then Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt on May 22nd. Mats Hummels would join the parade on June 19th (not without controversy among the Dortmund faithful).

Borussia Dortmund Unveils New Signing Julian Brandt Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

Just like that, Dortmund had essentially completed their transfer business before the official transfer window had even opened. To many BVB supporters, it seemed that the board had done an exceptional job, bringing in players with a high expected quality. Whereas Dortmund are known for refining young talent, it was a lack of leadership and maturity that saw the 18/19 title slip away. The board answered the call with players who had already performed well in the league, and could be counted on to add stability and the expected quality of a starter.

With the immediate departures of Maximilian Philipp, Omer Toprak, and Marius Wolf, the board put on display that these players were not of the proper caliber to get Dortmund to a title. Should we as fans expect that every player who joins the team will immediately win a title for the Black and Yellows? Of course not. I would have backed Luka Jovic to walk into any team in Europe and smash in goals for fun, but sometimes fate goes in another direction. Nonetheless, two young players with league experience and high potential walked out the door, while two young players with league experience and high potential walked in. Each of these players had an expected quality on par with some of the highest performing players in the squad, with Hummels immediately becoming first choice center-back, Brandt earmarked as a potential long-term replacement for Marco Reus, and Thorgan Hazard an excellent utility player who could fill the hole left by Christian Pulisic, that of a starting caliber winger.

Replacement Comparison

Departures Suggested Replacement
Departures Suggested Replacement
Abdou Diallo Mats Hummels
Maxilian Philipp Julian Brandt
Christian Pulisic Thorgan Hazard
Alexander Isak ?
Sebastian Rode ?
Marius Wolf ?
Omer Toprak ?
Felix Passlack Mateu Morey

Between this table and the last, seven players have departed Dortmund without replacement.

After returning from a successful loan, Alexander Isak was allowed to depart for Real Sociedad, and with the departure of Maximilian Philipp, Dortmund were left with one center forward in Paco Alcacer. The BVB board has come under intense scrutiny in the last three years for their willingness to go into a season with only one recognized striker in the squad, yet in 2019/20, they placed the sole responsibility on Paco Alcacer to stay fit and firing.

He did not.

As Alcacer missed games with a knee injury and an Achilles problem (Transfermarkt), Dortmund ran exceptionally short on goals. Marco Reus, Mario Götze, and Julian Brandt tried and failed to fill the number 9 role. None had the clinicality or awareness of the Spaniard. During Alcacer’s time out, Dortmund recorded a number of ties, which would come back to haunt them as the Bavarians dropped points at an equally shocking rate. It was not just the attack drawing blanks, but also the defense which seemed surprisingly disheveled, despite Manuel Akanji’s strong previous season and the arrival of a cool and commanding head in Mats Hummels. The alarm bells began to ring loudly on Matchday 12, when the black and yellows fell three behind to freshly promoted SC Paderborn. Dortmund managed to claw back to tie but still finished the weekend in sixth place and five points adrift of Borussia Monchengladbach at the summit.

Borussia Dortmund v SC Paderborn 07 - Bundesliga Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

However, Lucien Favre was able to stem the flow of goals conceded with what seemed a masterstroke change to a 3-4-3. Achraf Hakimi and Raphael Guerreiro moved into the wide midfield/wing back positions, which benefited the two full backs who were consistently more attacking minded than defensive. It also provided a third body in front of goal, initially Dan-Axel Zagadou. When Akanji’s performances did not improve, veteran full back Lukasz Piszczek stepped into the role.

This is an important point to note. In the 2018/19 season, Julian Weigl deputized at center back with varying degrees of success and in 2019/20 Piszczek took up a similar role. As we know, this season, this trend has continued. Dortmund were once again exposed for depth at center back, but were not expressly punished. Three of the (now) four center backs managed to stay healthy enough to continue the use of this formation, but Dortmund were operating with one backup for three positions, two if you count the established outsider that was Leonardo Balerdi.

Andrej Kramaric had his way with this back line at the end of the season, scoring four.

So Dortmund were not scoring goals, and they weren’t exactly keeping them out either. How did the board manage to paper over the cracks of what was beginning to look like a failed season?

Erling. Braut. Haaland.

We all know that Erling Haaland scored a lot of goals, so this discussion is not going to be about that. But the signing of Haaland, and the invitation of Mino Raiola back into a Dortmund office, despite his previous encounters with the BVB boardroom, was a quiet admission that the season was spiraling. Dortmund’s new signings over the summer had come with great intrigue, but by January, they had failed to carry Dortmund to a higher level than they had achieved in previous seasons.

Though Erling Haaland saved Dortmund’s blushes throughout the second half the season, Dortmund finished second, 14 points behind the Bavarians. From the perspective of the board this may have been viewed as a success, a show of false hope based on the true character of the season. This team should have defeated Bayern Munich the season before, and in 2019/20 they never really threatened to do so. Still, Champions League was confirmed and Erling Haaland was quickly becoming the next best thing. There were questions as to whether or not Lucien Favre had the capability to bring the team to the next level and coordinate the talent into a title winning machine. Though the rumor mill was churning about the departure of Jadon Sancho, Favre still had yet to tease the best out of Julian Brandt and Thorgan Hazard, and the promise of those two experienced players hitting their stride alongside Erling Haaland was enough to keep Dortmund fans engaged and to convince the board that... they still did not need center backs?

The goal of this series is to explore how Dortmund have progressed and regressed since the 2018/19 title failure. Here is a summary of what was right and wrong about the 2019/20 season:

The Right

  • Signed a world-class center forward
  • Added veteran players to strengthen the bench and provide stability
  • Replaced players who were under-performing their expected quality with more talented and more proven names

The Wrong

  • Three players were never replaced, including two center backs leaving with only one coming in the other direction
  • Over-reliance on Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho’s brilliance to change and win games
  • Expected one, injury prone striker to survive the entire season
  • Summer “veteran” recruits failed to perform at the highest level
  • Lacked the high-flying mentality of the previous season, failing to get games over the line

In part 3, we will look at what Dortmund did (not) do to fix the issues of the tumultuous 2019/2020 season.