When watching Borussia Dortmund, you can never know what to expect. On a team chock full of unproven youngsters and wily veterans, every game can feel like an adventure. This season featured many surprises, both positive and negative. Today, we’ve come to nominate the players or events that surprised us the most.
Sean Keyser: Marco Reus Staying Healthy
I almost didn’t want to say anything while the season was going on, because I knew that something could go wrong at any moment, but now that the season has ended I feel safe saying this: we were treated to almost an entire season of a healthy and in-form Marco Reus. Nearly every year over the past decade, the Captain has come roaring out of the gates only to have his seasons shortened by injuries. This wasn’t the case this year. He was second only to Mats Hummels in appearances, hitting the pitch in 32 of 34 Bundesliga matches, and across all competitions, played the fourth-most minutes.
As a result, we were treated to week-in and week-out vintage performances from Marco Reus. While he didn’t light up the scoresheet like Erling Haaland did, it wasn’t because he wasn’t clinical, but because of his ridiculous work rate pressing, participating in the buildup, and creating goals via secondary assists. That’s nothing to speak of his leadership as captain. Judging by his relationship with Haaland and Sancho, they appreciate his leadership as well.
Haaland’s celebrations with Reus pic.twitter.com/vkHmlRi56o— B/R Football (@brfootball) April 7, 2021
Zac Weilminster: The Return of Mo
In January, I wrote about Mahmoud Dahoud and his dwinding role in the team at BVB. At the time, he had been dropped from the first team due to a small bust up in training, and given the transfer window was open, it seemed likely that he would be seeking pastures anew. How quickly things change in football.
After essentially four years on the bench, Dahoud sprang to life when a lack of midfield depth found him starting against Sevilla in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16. The rest, as they say, is history.
This stunning finish from Mahmoud Dahoud put Dortmund on their way to a Champions League victory over Sevilla pic.twitter.com/3pSIw1nWgf— Goal (@goal) February 23, 2021
With this goal and a beautiful game performance, Dahoud laid the groudwork for his path into the first time and man, has he walked it in style. This season, Mo has gone from unplayed to unplayable, bringing vision and creativity to a midfield that has struggled with ball progression and incisive passing. Dahoud has been drumming up interest from clubs around Europe, including praise from Pep Guardiola himself. Despite this, reports this week have suggested that the mercurial midfielder is relaxed about his contract situation, and is working with the Black and Yellow brass on a renewal.
The board should be ready to pay up, because Dahoud’s form in the Hindrunde has shown just why he was so highly rated all those years ago.
Steve Zimmerman: Favre’s xG Magic Abandoned Him
Like a deal with the devil that has run out of time, Lucien Favre’s magic touch left him unceremoniously this year. For the past decade Favre has trained his teams to shoot less, and score more. At Borussia Monchengladbach and at Nice, analysts struggled to explain how his teams scored so many goals more than their xG models predicted. In his first year at Dortmund his team scored 23 goals more than expected and nearly won a title. Perhaps you remember Paco Alcacer scoring every shot he took? In Favre’s second year Sancho, Reus and a half-season with Haaland led a team that scored 25 goals more than expected and set a new club scoring record. In his third season, with the best collection of attacking talent that he has ever had, everything went upside down. Favre’s Dortmund could not finish. Jadon Sancho missed his first 25 shots of the season. Marco Reus scored three goals for Favre. Only Haaland kept scoring. But oddly, the team was producing more and better chances than ever before. Instead of goals we now had the xG the analysts were looking for. Despite increasingly poor results, 538’s xG based model rated our team higher than they ever had before on the day Favre was fired! Stuttgart was the FIRST game of the season in which Dortmund had less xG (non-penalty) than our opponent, including two maddening losses to the Bavarians who seem to have stolen Favre’s magic.
Mike Solak: Julian Brandt’s dip in form
I recall feeling perplexed that 17 year old English starlet Jude Bellingham was chosen to start on matchday 1 for Lucien Favre against Ruhr neighbors Borussia Mönchengladbach. Dortmund successfully switched to a back three formation and Brandt excelled playing a “free 8” role next to Axel Witsel in many matches during the latter part of his maiden campaign with the club. The German playmaker seemed to delight in the middle of the park where he could pull the strings, dictate the tempo, and balance attacking with some of the defensive duties of a traditional box-to-box player. Nevertheless, BVB supporters quickly realized exactly why Brandt was not starting shortly into this seasons campaign.
According to fbref.com, Brandt logged nearly 900 less minutes of action in all competitions this past season versus his first season with Borussia Dortmund. That is because Brandt’s production in goal creating actions declined significantly in the 2020-21 season. In his first season with Die Schwarzgelben, Brandt recorded a goal or assist in 151 minutes of action. However, this past season that number jumped up to 332 minutes of action for a goal contribution. The confident young man who commanded the middle of the park with brilliant vision seemed gone, and was replaced with an error prone midfielder of the same name. Brandt now struggled to make the correct decisions on the pitch, and was spraying loose passes in dangerous areas constantly putting his backline in danger. Even when Brandt began playing further forward in the attack, he seemed unable to pick the right pass at the right time and the attack seemingly stalled when the ball was at his feet.
Surprisingly, however, there is hope for Brandt moving forward, even though his goal contribution plummeted. The former Bayer Leverkusen academy graduate actually increased his shot creating actions per 90 minutes by 25%, meaning Brandt’s passing and dribbling created more shots than ever in a Dortmund shirt. Without looking at all the actions again, it is possible that the finishing on the end of Brandt’s build-up was poor, or unlucky. Although, it could be that the quality of the shot created was not nearly as good which resulted in far less finished chances. Nevertheless, with Brandt seemingly having finished the season strong, with several very good substitute appearances, a new coach and new system means that we could see Brandt back to his best again next season. However, it was shocking to see how poor the German playmaker was this season, especially when the squad needed him to step up more than ever.
Sarah Sekac: Marwin Hitz in Goal
The player in the keeper position tends to be a constant. Manuel Neuer, Yann Sommer and even Timo Horn come to mind as names synonymous with goal keeper. Can you even think of who the number two is for those guys without taking to the Google? Well, BVB fans sure know who the number two keeper is for Dortmund and dollars to doughnuts, lots of others do too.
Hitz made a handful of appearances in the first half of the season, but it wasn’t until the second half when he really had a chance to shine. Roman Bürki was out in January/February with a shoulder injury and it spoke volumes (initially more so to Bürki’s performance) when Hitz remained in goal even after Bürki was healthy. It is absolutely worth noting that Bürki was healthy for 16 of Hitz’s appearances.
Here’s a look at the two by the numbers:
- 28 total appearances (18 wins, 3 ties, 7 losses)
- 33 goals conceded (16 league)
- 12 clean sheets (8 league)
- 24 total appearances (14 wins, 3 draws, 8 losses)
- 32 goals conceded (30 league)
- 7 clean sheets
What was the most surprising development of the season in your eyes? Leave your thoughts below.