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FTW’s Hinrunde Review Roundtable

Relive your least favorite start to the season since... last season’s start to the season!

Borussia Dortmund v Paris Saint-Germain: Group F - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images

As German football’s Winterpause nears its end, we decided a review of our perplexing Hinrunde was in order. Not wanting to have to go through the misery of reliving the lows (of which there were rather a lot) alone, it was decided that the suffering would be collective, in roundtable form. Here is FTW’s Hinrunde Review Roundtable!

Best Performance of the Season

Borussia Dortmund v Borussia Mönchengladbach - Bundesliga Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

Yash: BVB 1-0 Wolfsburg

This was not the flashiest performance of the season, but Dortmund’s tactical setup against die Wölfe was perfection. Reus and Brandt dovetailed in the dual-10 role (which I continue to scream for) with Ryerson bombing forward on the right and Bens tucking in as a third center-back on the left, with the aggressive but disciplined double pivot of Nmecha and Öz supplying solidity and passing support in the pressing and buildup, respectively. We’d just come off a demoralizing loss to PSG at the Parc des Princes, while Niko Kovac’s side were flying high in the league, and it was extremely satisfying to see every one of our players’ individual capabilities maximized by a well-thought-out tactical shape; we finished the game having restricted them to a single shot on target (and no big chances), and probably would’ve won the game by much more had we made better use of our own opportunities. This was the first genuinely commanding performance of the season, and to do it against an in-form team after a really disappointing loss was all the more satisfying.

Anders: BVB 2-0 Newcastle

Matchday three of this year’s Champions League saw Die Schwarzgelben host Eddie Howe’s scary Newcastle side at the Westfalenstadion. Dortmund ended up dispatching Newcastle with relative ease and held The Magpies to an xG of just 0.44. Very impressive when taking into account that we got absolutely smashed against Stuttgart the same week.

Sean: BVB 4-2 Borussia Mönchengladbach

This match was one of the few times this season, and even over the last few seasons, that Borussia Dortmund actually demonstrated something resembling an ability to overcome adversity. Despite falling behind 2-0 within 30 minutes, Dortmund stormed back and dominated the rest of the match. A quick response by Marcel Sabitzer two minutes after Gladbach’s second goal was the spark that Dortmund desperately needed to maintain their composure and overcome the deficit, eventually taking the lead and winning 4-2.

Paul: BVB 4-2 Borussia Mönchengladbach

I have a smooth, buttery little brain that doesn’t retain any of what has happened in the past hour, let alone what happened over the last few months. Asking me to remember which of the meager BVB performances was the best so far this season is a foolish endeavor.

So, instead of just making up my answer like I do with all the ratings, I went back and looked at the data to refresh my memory. There were two performances that stood out from the 22 games BVB played in all competitions, in the first half of the season - Dortmund’s 1-0 win over Werder Bremen, and their 4-2 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach. In both games, BVB put up an xG Difference (xGD) of +2.2. Against Bremen, BVB conceded only 0.4 xG from just five shots, putting up 2.6 xG from 23 shots, while they managed an xG of 3.2 to Gladbach’s xG of 1 (and 23 shots to 10).

Of course, none of this really matters. What matters is that BVB scored four goals in one game and just one in the other. Obviously I’m going to pick the game in which BVB scored lots of goals! The fact it also came in the form of a comeback from a 2-0 deficit only adds to the performance.

Zac: Milan 1-3 BVB

BVB traveled to Milan in November for the fourth and potentially most important match of their UCL campaign. The win at Tyneside had given BVB the momentum to really take control of the group, but a visit to the San Siro is about as daunting as it gets in European football. If you ask Paul or look at the numbers, you’ll find out that BVB were fairly lucky to come away with a 3-1 in that match. Regardless, it’s the one game this season where I remember the team looking genuinely good.

Patrick: Newcastle 0-1 BVB

The reason Dortmund were able to win the group of death was because they picked up six points away from home while PSG picked up a measly one. Dortmund traveled to Newcastle on Matchday 3 of the Champions League and I was expecting to get hammered. Newcastle had bombarded AC Milan in the San Siro and completely tore apart PSG at home. Instead, Dortmund put up a very scrappy performance where they produced more shots, shots on target, a higher xG, and got the win despite Newcastle winning over possession. While this was not Dortmund’s most aesthetic game, it was a major turning point in the only competition Dortmund has done well in.

Worst performance of the season

VfB Stuttgart v Borussia Dortmund - DFB Cup: Round of 16 Photo by Markus Gilliar - GES Sportfoto/Getty Images

Yash: VfB Stuttgart 2-0 BVB

There have been some clangers this season, notably the home humiliation at the hands of Bayern and the two abysmal away showings against Stuttgart. While our team displayed all the solidity, structure, and threat of a dandelion in a high wind in the first, allowing Stuttgart to put up an enormous 4.2 xG (2.8 npxG) against us, I’ve actually opted for the second of the two debacles. This is because, despite all the warning signs in the first game, Terzic got this one entirely tactically wrong, choosing to play with a very defensive central midfield three which (obviously) did not address Stuttgart’s main threat, which came from wider areas. Shockingly enough, Stuttgart took nearly an hour to break the deadlock, but the game looked a foregone conclusion well before the half-hour mark as the Swabians created at will while our not particularly creative wingers struggled without any form of central support. We didn’t look like scoring at all in an anaemic display that left not a single player on the pitch (possibly aside from Hummels) smelling of roses. Sabi and Mouki going off injured were the cherry on top.

Anders: BVB 2-2 Heidenheim

Unfortunately, this match would end up being very telling for the rest of the Hindrunde for BVB. On matchday three, The Black and Yellows had managed to scrape past FC Köln 1-0 at home and tied with Bochum 1-1 away. As most of you remember, Terzic’s team were 2-0 up at the break against Heidenheim but collapsed at home. The two teams ended up with an almost identical xG, and while Frank Schmidt’s team has done well this season, there’s simply no excuse for drawing against a promoted side in this manner.

Sean: BVB 0-4 Bayern Munich

It was tough to narrow it down to one performance that was definitively the worst, but Dortmund’s annual drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich has to take the cake for me. I understand why it can be so tough to travel to the Allianz Arena, but there’s really no excuse to fall apart so horribly in front of the home fans at the Westfalenstadion.

Paul: BVB 0-4 Bayern Munich

There were a few different candidates for this one, but I went with the game that was statistically the biggest shellacking that BVB suffered in the Hinrunde. Technically that would be the 2-1 loss to Stuttgart, which saw Dortmund hit for an xG of 4.2 to 1, however, about 1.6 of Stuttgart’s xG was due to penalties, making it an xGD of -1.6, putting it behind the xGD of -2.2 that BVB suffered against Bayern Munich.

Not only was it a pummeling in the spreadsheets, Bayern put four on Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion, and Harry Kane scored a hattrick in his first outing against BVB in a Bayern kit. It was an incredibly humiliating loss, and the fact there are legitimately other candidates for this award is a good indication of just how bad the first half of the season has been.

Zac: Edin Terzic 0-1 Summer 2023

I am sure I will be told I can’t write this, but for me the worst performance this season was Edin Terzic’s in the summer transfer window. Imagine your friend is driving down the interstate doing about 85 mph, and you say, “hey let me try,” proceeding to grab the steering wheel and pull the car into a ditch. That’s about what it felt like when Edin Terzic snagged the reins from Sebastian Kehl this past summer. Sean has produced plenty of content about the effect Terzic’s transfer decisions have had on the team, so I will not rehash the same material. In isolation, I actually really appreciate both Niclas Füllkrug and Marcel Sabitzer, while the jury is still out on Felix Nmecha. Regardless, Terzic failed to address key areas of weakness in a BVB squad with a fragile mentality coming off of the title failure (time to call it was it was; fragile). Terzic failed to rebuild the squad and failed to galvanize it for the season to come.

Patrick: VFB Stuttgart 2-1 Dortmund

Unlike Zac, I have picked an actual soccer match; Dortmund’s 2-1 lost to Stuttgart in the league. Paul did a good job explaining the statistic mumbo jumbo of this game with Stuttgart’s xG of 4.22 and Dortmund’s xG of 0.96 highlighting how the score should’ve been something more akin to 4-0 by halftime. What I want to highlight is that Dortmund have collected just two points out of a possible fifteen, or just 13.3%, from the other five clubs in the Bundesliga’s top six. Yes, Dortmund have struggled against the smaller teams in the league but the inability to get any substantial points from Dortmund’s direct competitors is what Terzic will have to change in the second half of the season. If we cannot compete with these teams then we do not belong anywhere near the Champions League.

Best Signing

AC Milan v Borussia Dortmund: Group F - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

Yash: Niclas Füllkrug

Eyebrows were raised when we spent a not-insignificant chunk of money bringing last season’s Torjägerkanone winner to the squad, but there can be no questions about Fülle’s impact at Dortmund. While he was probably brought in as cover for Haller, he’s been nothing short of exceptional thus far. Second only to Jule Brandt for goal contributions in the league, he’s shown that he is a quality finisher with a nose for goal who is also comfortable dropping deep to link play in the absence of creative players to support him. His ability to get stuck into the unglamorous side of the game to great effect has also won him points in my heart.

Anders: Niclas Füllkrug

Looking at the pool of players to choose from is honestly quite depressing, but at least one of the signings worked out. Füllkrug has been very impressive in his stint so far at BVB, and dare I even say that he has exceeded expectations? He’s not good for 25 goals a season obviously, but he has done a perfectly good job of being a reliable no. 9 for Terzic.

Sean: Niclas Füllkrug

Simply by virtue of being a reasonably competent player, Füllkrug basically wins this one by default. I suppose Sabitzer has been okay as well, but essentially every other signing has been a flop. Füllkrug might not be Erling Haaland, but he can at least hold the ball up reasonably well and averages a bit less than a goal or assist every 90 minutes.

Paul: Niclas Füllkrug

Whenever everyone else has given the same answer in a roundtable, I will try to think through a different answer and see if I can make the case. I don’t think anyone other than Niclas Füllkrug deserves a mention here. Marcel Sabitzer has been solid enough, but I think Füllkrug has been genuinely good. He’s averaging 0.89 G+A/90 in the league this season, totaling five goals and five assists, tied for top spot with Julian Brandt.

I don’t think Füllkrug is ever going to be Dortmund’s best player, but he’s pretty good, and he makes those around him better too. That’s a lot better than some of BVB’s acquisitions this summer.

Zac: Niclas Füllkrug

Slim pickin’s. I do really like Sabitzer though, and I believe he will grow into this team.

Patrick: Niclas Füllkrug

The past offseason was severely depressing for a multitude of reasons with the biggest being the club’s transfers. Despite that, I will throw praise on Füllkrug for doing everything that's been asked of him. He has five goals and five assists in the league across 1195 minutes and cost Dortmund $15 million in a market where consistent strikers are quadruple that. Is he an exciting player? No, not really. Does he do the job? Absolutely.

Major Area of Concern in the Squad

Yash: Wide Players

We currently have four designated wingers in the senior squad (though the number expands to five if you include Reyna and Brandt): Donny, Karim, JBG, and Duranville. Duranville has spent the first half of the season injured and will need to be eased back into the first-team scene (fingers crossed!). The other three have been downright underwhelming for the majority of the Hinrunde. Donny and Karim, though possessed of pace and dribbling ability, are not genuine wingers; as several of us have pointed out over the last few months, they’re actually more comfortable operating as strikers or secondary forwards. JBG, who is an actual winger, is not at a stage in his development yet where a team that plays regular Champions League football can rely upon him heavily for consistent contributions. Malen has scored twice (and provided no assists) in the league since mid-September, JBG’s brief hot streak lasted just two games, and Karim’s abysmal league form has seen him put up a big fat duck for goals plus a single assist, though he has looked promising in spells in the Champions League. A quick look at all these players’ FBRef profiles will tell you that none are particularly creative, largely sitting in the bottom 50th percentile (and, in some cases, below the 10th percentile) of wingers for creative stats like key passes, xA, and shot-creating passes on a per-90 basis; interestingly, all three sit near the bottom of the winger pile for times dispossessed per 90, however. This has shifted a lot of the burden onto players like Brandt- who really has stepped up- and Fülle, who would probably like some more actual service into him from the wingers (something he has mentioned in his press conferences). Our wingers’ rather unidimensional styles have also meant that playing more than one of them at a time robs our team of fluidity; while playing one as a more aggressive/direct outlet makes sense, having two on the pitch shoehorns us into playing more stilted football with significantly more cheap losses in possession and not many chances made. I’d argue that this, combined with their general inconsistency has been a major factor in our attacking struggles this season.

It says a lot that Dortmund are willing to take a punt on a potentially extremely out-of-shape Sancho in search of more creativity in the wide areas; we desperately need it right now.

Anders: Our Center Forward Options

If we’re going to have any chance of competing with Bayern, Leverkusen, or even Leipzig, we’ll need a striker who can bag more than 20 goals a season. Not since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have Dortmund had a reliable man up front, and while I do think that Niclas Füllkrug is good, he isn’t exactly going to be a contender for the Torjägerkanone. With Haller basically out of the picture (what a sad story), Dortmund are in desperate need of a number nine who can lead the line for years to come (we should have gotten Boniface).

Sean: The Coach

I unfortunately can’t say “all of the above.” I’ve never been particularly impressed by Edin Terzic, although I can at least begrudgingly admit that he’s shown a strange propensity to get his teams to play hot for brief periods of time. This year, I think he’s been exposed as a mediocre coach who’s tactically limited, plays a dreary style, and sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong. I think the major reason BVB are where we are is because the club inexplicably pushed all its chips in on a manager who is really not all that special.

Paul: The Fullbacks

I was tempted to echo Sean here, but in the interest of a bit of variety, I think our biggest concern on the pitch is the fullbacks. Collectively, the fullback group is well below the level that should be expected for a team like BVB.

I think Julian Ryerson is a good squad member at this level, and I have no concerns when seeing him on the team sheet before a game, but it does strike me as a problem that he is easily our best fullback! Ramy Bensebaini has been underwhelming so far, and for as game as Marius Wolf might be, I don’t think he’s good enough. I don’t think he should ever have been seeing regular starter minutes for Dortmund. He’s a solid depth option at multiple positions, not a starter.

We desperately need to add more quality at fullback, and with reports that the club are in for Ian Maatsen, it seems like they are well aware of the issue too.

Zac: The Midfield

I’ll break from the pack here. Jude Bellingham’s departure has left a glaring hole in the center of BVB. Jude’s athleticism, attitude, and drive are unmatched in world football; no one could step right into those shoes. Many of Dortmund’s issues at winger, full-back, and center-back exist because the coaches forgot that Bellingham was playing all those roles in addition to his own. None of Dortmund’s midfielders have been able to get the center of the park under control, and the team is completely tactically devoid of ball progression. Maybe instead of looking all around the edges of the pitch for where Dortmund’s issues lie, it would be more prudent to look at where they lost their world-class #8.

Patrick: The Coach

Like Sean, I am pointing at Edin Terzic as the most glaring problem for this Dortmund side at the moment. Not because he’s inexperienced or because the club’s transfer business has been awful since his involvement but because Dortmund are one of the most wasteful, out-of-sync, and confused teams when in possession of the ball. Most notably when playing out of the back, it seems Terzic’s side has no idea what to do with the ball when the center-back has it. On Twitter (Or X, if you prefer), Reece Edwards recently put up a fantastic thread on Dortmund’s buildup.

Across the Hinrunde, Dortmund continuously attempted to play the ball out the back starting with a pass from Kobel to Mats Hummels or Nico Schlotterbeck. What followed was then slow lateral passes between the backline as Dortmund’s wingers and midfielders would stand idle or make runs in behind rather than make themselves available for a pass. When they did receive a pass, the majority of the time saw them make a one-touch backward, the opposition’s press forcing them to boot the ball forward, or some ill-advised pass down the byline.

A part of this comes down to Dortmund’s squad planning and the talent available to Dortmund. The squad lost the world’s best ball-progressing midfielder. Edin Terzic, however, has not been able to make up for him on the aggregate and we have now seen several months of dull, lazy, and unambitious soccer. That said, he’s turned it around once so he could do it again. Right?

Player of the Hinrunde

Borussia Dortmund v Paris Saint-Germain: Group F - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Edith Geuppert - GES Sportfoto/Getty Images

Yash: Mats Hummels

The unfortunate truth about Dortmund at the moment is that there are only around three genuinely world-class players at the club right now (Greg, Mats, Jule; when he actually gets to play, I’d stick Reus on that list as well). Jule leads the team for goal contributions, and is pretty much the league’s most creative player at the moment, while Greg is head and shoulders above every keeper in Germany right now. I decided to split the trio based on their importance to the team, however, and, while the attack looks toothless without Jule and Greg’s ability in goal needs no emphasizing, I’ve picked Hummels over the two. He may be the subject of ongoing criticism about a perceived loss of pace, but the guy is a genuine Rolls-Royce centre back. Especially alongside the talented but error-prone Schlotti, Hummels’ mature and commanding presence means Greg is usually not left to his own devices as has sometimes been the case over the past few seasons. He’s an incredible footballer, with superb technique and defensive awareness, and I’ve always noticed that our backline looks rather rudderless without him in it.

I am currently in denial that he’s ever going to retire.

Anders: Mats Hummels

I’m used to Kobel basically being a top 5 keeper in the world at this point, but what I didn’t expect was the sudden emergence of Mats Hummels. I think most of us expected Hummels to fill in as a very decent squad player this season, but at this point and time, he’s one of the players in the squad with the most minutes. Hummels has done brilliantly, putting in performances reminiscent of Dortmund’s title winning seasons. At this point, I’m gonna miss Hummels just as much as I will Reus when they both eventually hang up their boots.

Sean: Gregor Kobel

When I think of BVB players who are truly elite, who are either the best or one of the best at their position in the Bundesliga, only a handful of names come to mind, and of those only Gregor Kobel really sticks out to me. He has the third highest PSxG% in the Bundesliga, behind Lukas Hradecky and Marvin Schwäbe. He consistently stands on his head and is often the main reason that BVB comes away with any given match with all three points.

Paul: Mats Hummels

If I was to rank Dortmund’s best players this season, I think Hummels and Kobel would be 1A and 1B, followed by Julian Brandt. I would have zero issue with giving the award to Kobel, because I think he has been excellent this season as well, but I’m leaning towards Hummels right now.

Hummels has been brilliant this season, coming up big in some important games in the Champions League, and playing with a level of consistency that is wild for a 35-year-old that is basically playing walking football at this point.

Without Hummels and Kobel fighting for their lives at the back, things could have been even worse for BVB.

Zac: Gregor Kobel

I challenge anyone to find a flaw in his game. He is truly remarkable, one of the best to ever stand between the sticks for BVB.

Patrick: Gregor Kobel

Dortmund have played on the back foot throughout the first half of the campaign and while the results have been poor, they would be a lot worse if not for Gregor Kobel. He has been consistently superb and has often succeeded in keeping otherwise embarrassing scorelines to a level where the rest of the team has an opportunity to scrape out points. He and Hummels both deserve massive plaudits but I think Kobel is Dortmund’s only world-class player at the moment.

Your Thoughts?

Would you have picked a different best/worst game? Who has been your player of the Hinrunde? How peaceful has your Dortmund-less December been? Let us know!