When Borussia Dortmund conceded a 13th minute goal against VfL Bochum a few weekends ago, a pit in my stomach began to form. Yes, it was early in the match, and the score was only 1-0, but I had a very deep feeling that Dortmund had been in that exact situation many times before, and that in many of those other instances, things had not ended well.
Fast forward to a few days later, Paul published a very comprehensive article on Borussia Dortmund’s performances in various match contexts, analyzing BVB’s performances when winning, drawing, or losing; the points they have dropped from winning positions and gained from losing positions; and their performances over the course of a game, split into 15-minute segments (1-15 mins, 16-30, 31-45, etc.). What Paul found surprised me. Before I read the article, I had always assumed that Dortmund frequently underperform in the first 15-30 minutes of a match. However, Paul found that this is not the case. Dortmund out-xG’d their opponents in the first 15 minutes by a more than 2-1 margin, and last season, Borussia Dortmund outscored their opponents 11-8 in these timeframes.
I thought those numbers would have been way worse. I’ve always had this gut feeling, without any data to back it up, that BVB lose a very specific type of game, that generally follows a plot akin to something like this:
1) Dortmund play well in the opening minutes of a game but concede a set-piece goal/defensive howler/worldie; 2) Dortmund control possession but struggle to create chances and don’t seem to play with much urgency 3) the 80 minutes remaining in the game vanish and suddenly it’s stoppage time and Dortmund are still trailing or are tied.
So when Kevin Stöger’s shot hit the back of the net on Saturday, I thought to myself, “here we go again!” But was my fear valid? Was there something beyond a gut instinct to suggest that I had reason to fear?
Does Conceding Early Spell Doom for Dortmund?
The answer, at least if you go by last season, is a resounding yes. BVB conceded 8 total league goals before the 15th minute last season, never conceding more than one, and each one was the first goal of the game for either team. Here’s the full breakdown, with the eventual results of each game.
RB Leipzig - Loss
Union Berlin - Loss
Wolfsburg - Loss
Gladbach - Loss
Mainz (1st leg) - Win
Bayern - Loss
Bochum - Draw
Mainz (2nd leg) - Draw
Barring the last-minute collapse against Werder Bremen, this is like a “greatest hits” list of our worst, most horrible letdowns of the season. The club’s total record in these games was an abysmal one win, two draws, and five losses, meaning they accounted for five of the club’s seven losses and 19 out of 31 total points dropped.
Dortmund are generally a good team in the opening 15 minutes of games, and this is quite a small sample size and far from statistically rigorous, but it’s still striking that in almost every single negative result from the Bundesliga last season, Dortmund conceded very early in the match. This suggests that when things do go wrong, they go horribly wrong.
Explaining BVB’s Early Collapses
There are a few different mechanisms that could be causing BVB’s complete inability to overcome early deficits. Here are several possibilities:
#1: Dortmund are tactically inflexible
Borussia Dortmund are at their best when they are playing free-flowing attacking football with plenty of space to exploit. On the other hand, something that has plagued the club for years is a glaring inability to defeat opponents that play deep and compact, in a low-block or otherwise. By conceding an early goal, Dortmund give their opponents the opportunity to set up to frustrated BVB practically from the start. This prevents BVB’s players from settling into a rhythm or building any confidence, and forces them to play a style that doesn’t suit their talents.
This can be overcome. Specific plans can be made to defeat a low block, and many teams like Bayern Munich seem remarkably proficient at it. Unfortunately, it is a skill that eludes Borussia Dortmund. I think this is due to a combination of factors. We don’t have many players who are proficient at long shots. Our full backs, even more so now that Guerreiro is gone, are not very good crossers. Outside of Julian Brandt and Marco Reus, we don’t have many players with the technical ability to operate in the box while surrounded by opponents, although Moukoko is getting there.
As for Edin Terzic, I’m a little hesitant to blame him because I feel like this has been a problem since well before his tenure began, but I’m just not sure what his game plan actually is when it comes to breaking down other teams. Judging from our match against Bochum, it appears to be focused on attempting crosses into the box for Sebastien Haller, and now, I suppose, Niclas Füllkrug. This seems to have been the plan for a while, but it doesn’t appear to be working.
#2: Dortmund get easily dejected
For those of you who are frothing at the mouth to call BVB “mentally weak” or use some German word I don’t know like Scheißmentalität, this one is for you. Footballers prepare all week for a match, and usually go in with a decisive gameplan, so when that gameplan gets immediately torn to pieces, it can be quite frustrating. You’re suddenly under immense pressure to respond. Your rhythm has been interrupted, while the other team is growing in confidence and feeling increasingly energized. As the minutes tick away and the score doesn’t change, you only get more desperate. You start taking more risks and you become sloppy, and with each failed cross or longshot over the bar, the other team only gets more determined.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to actually tell if this is the case with Borussia Dortmund. Aside from the armchair psychology, judging body language or decoding players’ comments in post-match interviews, you can’t really make any inferences about players’ thoughts on the pitch.
#3: Dortmund are unlucky
Maybe it’s all bad luck? Maybe Dortmund just have a tendency to concede bizarre, unfortunate goals in the early minutes, and despite their most valiant efforts, they are unable to wrestle the lead away. I was originally going to compare matches in which BVB conceded first in the 15 minutes to matches in which BVB conceded first later in the match, but I didn’t even bother because the latter just didn’t happen that much. Last season, in the overwhelming majority of matches, if BVB made it through the first 15 minutes without conceding, they generally settled into a rhythm and pounded their opponents.
How Can Dortmund Respond?
Keep in mind that these explanations are not mutually exclusive. Part of playing with confidence is the knowledge that if things go badly, your squad has the resilience and the tactical flexibility to quickly and effectively adapt to the situation. Even the most confident, well-disciplined squad can become dejected if something happens that is so bizarre that it could not possibly be predicted, like your star goalkeeper botching a routine clearance, occurs.
But what can be done for Dortmund to be better able to overcome early deficits? As is often the case where there are multiple causes, there are also multiple solutions. I would suggest the following:
- Have some kind of contingency. This feels so obvious that I shouldn’t even have to say it, but I only do it because it’s not really clear to me that Edin Terzic and Borussia Dortmund actually have one other than “cross and inshallah.” The importance of having a contingency is two-fold: you’re able to adjust tactics on the fly, and you also instill the confidence in your players so that they don’t get dejected.
- Play with urgency but not panic. If you concede a goal in the 10th minute, your response needs to be measured but forceful. You can’t panic and throw caution to the wind, but you also can’t assume that sometime in the remaining 80 minutes you’re going to equalize eventually. This means that when you concede an early goal you need to respond immediately according to your previously established contingency with intensity, but not pure recklessness and panic, because that will only cause mistakes.
- Recognize that it’s going to happen eventually. This speaks to any possible mentality issues. It’s football. You’re going to concede early sometimes. It’s a natural consequence of the game’s inherent chaos. You need to recognize that it’s going to happen sometimes. If you accept this, when it actually does happen, you won’t be thrown for a loop. You’ll just be able to accept it and start executing your contingency so that you can recover.
None of these are all that satisfying, nor are they particularly complicated or ground-breaking, but they’re about the best I can offer. Unfortunately it’s a lot easier to identify the solutions than to actually execute them in practice, and it takes a coaching staff, and even senior leadership within the squad, with a can-do attitude, tactical proficiency, and general confidence to overcome any kind of adversity.
What do you make of BVB’s tendency to collapse when they concede early? And what do you think the solutions are?