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BVB Midseason Review: The Attack

How did BVB’s forwards fare in the first half of the season?

Borussia Dortmund v 1. FSV Mainz 05 - Bundesliga
This is such an awesome picture, holy shit.
Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Let’s be honest: the offense is what everybody loves. Borussia Dortmund have made high-scoring, rock-and-roll football their brand over the last decade, and with a vast collection of talented players including the World Class Erling Haaland, the club legend Marco Reus, and up-and-coming youngsters like Donyell Malen and Gio Reyna, many folks expected the club to score goals in buckets.

While BVB’s goalscoring record has been decent, the second best in the Bundesliga, it isn’t quite as high as we would have liked. The club only scored 41 league goals, compared to Bayern Munich’s 56, and only one above Bayer Leverkusen with 40. In the Champions League the club’s offensive record is much worse, with only 10 goals across six games. Crucially, Dortmund only scored three goals in four games against Ajax and Sporting Lisbon, a major reason why they now find themselves in the Europa League.

Like the rest of the squad, BVB’s forward core has been hammered by injuries. Erling Haaland and Thorgan Hazard suffered bouts of injuries and COVID infections at key points of the season, while Gio Reyna barely played at all after suffering a hamstring tear.

Marco Rose likes to play two strikers up top, either at the front of a 4-4-2 diamond or a 5-3-2. Before the season began, many of us first thought that Malen and Haaland would make a great striker pair, but unfortunately the two have demonstrated a profound lack of chemistry. The combination I think worked the best involved Reus and Haaland leading the attack, with Julian Brandt in attacking midfield behind them. This formation worked very well against Bayern Munich and created many scoring chances against BVB’s toughest opponent, even though defensive errors eventually lost the game for Dortmund in the end.

Assuming Erling Haaland stays with BVB for the rest of the season, Dortmund will unquestionably have the strongest offense in the Europa League. If the attackers can play anywhere near their level, then the club should be able to compete for the trophy.

But before that, let’s take a look at how each player performed during the Hinrunde.

Note: BVB fielded many forwards this season, so I’m not going to be able to go in-depth into all of them. Gio Reyna, Reinier, Steffen Tigges, Ansgar Knauff, and Youssoufa Moukoko each played fewer than 270 minutes, or three full games, in the Bundesliga, so I’m not going to grade them. I’d rather spend time talking about the players who did see the pitch often.

Erling Haaland

Grade: A+

I mean, duh. Do I even have to write anything? The dude has 13 goals and 4 assists in 11 Bundesliga games.

Let me say that again: 13 goals and 4 assists in 11 Bundesliga games. 17 goals scored or assisted in 904 minutes. That comes out to 1.80 goals + assists/90. To put that in perspective, the next most prolific player in the Bundesliga (nope, not Lewandowski: it’s Patrik Schick) scores and assists goals at a paltry rate of 1.41/90. His rate in the Champions League was lower but still incredible, at 1.33/90.

The only thing that managed to slow Haaland down was a hip flexor injury. Unfortunately, Haaland’s absence coincided with a series of devastating defeats against Ajax, RB Leipzig, and Sporting Lisbon. If Haaland had been healthy during this time period, there’s no doubt in my mind that BVB would have made it through to the knockout round of the Champions League.

Almost every moment he’s been on the pitch, he’s been sensational. I hope he chooses to stay with BVB another season because I absolutely love getting to watch him every weekend.

Donyell Malen

Grade: C-

For a while, Donyell Malen was looking like a total bust. During the early months of August and September, he seemed completely lost on the pitch. He had no chemistry with the rest of his teammates, often making confused and disjointed runs and playing obscure passes to nobody. Worst of all, his goal production was nonexistence. It wasn’t even due to poor finishing: he wasn’t developing any scoring chances at all! It took Malen ten games in all competitions to get either an assist or a goal. During that stretch of nine games without a scoring contribution, he only took 11 total shots.

Thankfully, Malen did eventually manage to find his form. He ended the Hinrunde with four goals in five matches, with his shot count spiking to go along with his uptick in goalscoring. This was enough to prevent his debut half from being a complete failure. In the aggregate, Malen’s first half was disappointing, but he showed real signs of life in December. Hopefully he can carry on that form in the second half.

Marco Reus

Grade: B+

It’s pretty remarkable that given all the injuries that afflicted Borussia Dortmund during the first half of the season, Marco Reus barely missed a moment. The Captain’s career has been an endless cycle of various injuries, but this year he has been healthy, logging over 2,000 minutes across the Bundesliga, Champions League, DFB-Pokal, and Supercup.

Reus has bounced around the pitch as Marco Rose’s formations have changed. He has played as part of a striker pair with Erling Haaland, as an attacking midfielder at the tip of a midfield diamond, and on the wing in a traditional 4-2-3-1. As he’s taken on more of a midfield position, his playing style has changed. He’s become much more involved in the buildup, with his highest rates in progressive passes/90, passes into the final third/90, key passes/90, and assists/90, since FBRef began collecting such data. He’s also heavily involved in BVB’s press. Even at his increased age, his work rate every game is awe-astounding. Hopefully he can act as inspiration to his younger teammates.

Marco’s goalscoring stats are solid, if a bit below the standards he’s set during his career. His goalscoring has suffered from a very uncharacteristic stretch of poor finishing, especially in the Bundesliga, where he has converted only four goals from chances totaling 6.7 expected goals. Overall, though, he has seven goals and six assists across 22 games, a total that is by no means anything to scoff at.

In other words, don’t be mad at the Captain. He’s putting in his shift.

Thorgan Hazard

Grade: C+

Like many other BVB players, Hazard has had to rotate positions frequently at striker or on the wing, even playing as a wingback on rare occasions. He’s also suffered particularly from injuries and infection to COVID-19. This has limited him to only 830 minutes across all competitions.

When on the pitch, Hazard has been a solid player, but unfortunately the final product hasn’t been there. He only has two goals in the Bundesliga cross 12 appearances (6 starts), and no assists to make up for it. If you look at his advance metrics, it’s clear that he’s suffered from poor finishing. His Bundesliga NPxG + xA/90, which measures the quality of all the chances he’s created in open play, is 0.49, or just under a half a goal created for every 90 minutes he plays. If he was actually converting at that rate, and if his teammates were converting the chance he creates at that rate, his numbers would look better.

Hazard definitely contributes in ways that don’t appear on the scoresheet, though. His rates of successful dribbles, carries into the final third, and key passes are among the highest on the team. Unfortunately, especially during the periods when Haaland was out, this wasn’t enough. Dortmund is going to need goals to come from someone other than Haaland to win the Europa League, and Hazard is a prime candidate to pick up the scoring pace.

Julian Brandt

Grade: C+

There might not be a BVB player more polarizing than Brandt. Some fans seem to adore him, and other seem to hate his guts. I wouldn’t say I ever “hated” Brandt, but for a while this season, I was very fed up with his constant turnovers and poor passes. I can’t find the exact quote, but I seem to remember saying something akin to:

There’s no indication that Brandt is going to improve. He’s been bad for almost two full years, so BVB should just sell him. It’s what’s best for both parties.

At the time, I was correct. Brandt only notched two goals and three assists through the first 16 games of the season in all competitions. He never notched a goal contribution in the Champions League, despite playing almost 400 minutes. He also had a tendency to turn the ball over unnecessarily. In a full 90 minute performance against Sporting Lisbon, Brandt had a staggeringly appalling 68% pass completion rate.

Brandt did have a poor start to the Hinrunde, but it’s hard to deny that since late November, he’s been a much better player. He was arguably BVB’s player of the month in December. Over the final five matches of the half, Brandt notched three goals and three assists, including this absolute banger against Bayern Munich:

Unfortunately, Brandt also has a tendency to do the following:

I feel I should mention that Brandt consistently over-performed his expected goals in December, so this stretch of goalscoring could just be a mirage. Hopefully Brandt’s success is enough to build confidence and allow him to play more consistently during the Rückrunde.

Your Thoughts

How do you think BVB’s forwards performed this season? Let’s hear your thoughts.