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From Falling by the Wayside to Leading the Charge: Borussia Dortmund's Spectacular Rise in 2023
With 9 wins 9 games, Borussia Dortmund are the team to beat in the new year. After entering the World Cup in sixth place, they are now level with FC Bayern atop the Bundesliga. What has changed?
It is hard to remember the last time that the Bundesliga had a title race with this much excitement.
Just 5 points separate first from fifth, while the two perennial giants - FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund - sit neck and neck atop the table.
Bayern probably stole the headlines last weekend with a resounding 3:0 win over Union Berlin, but as for 2023 as a whole, there hasn’t been a single side causing more of a stir than BVB.
With 9 wins 9 games, Borussia Dortmund are the only side in Europe who have yet to drop a point in the new year.
Their fabulous run of form could even come to a climax this weekend as they stand just one victory away from breaking the single-season Bundesliga winning streak in the post-Klopp era.
So what has changed in 2023 to allow Borussia Dortmund to go from a club clambering to keep in touch with the race for Europe, to one which now looks to be in the ascendancy in the fight for the Meisterschale?
Efficient & Prolific
From the lack of balance in the final third to the side’s inability to cater to Anthony Modeste’s strengths, everything going wrong in West Germany was examined in the finest detail.
Nothing, however, loomed larger than Dortmund’s inefficient chance conversion.
Whereas last season BVB led all of Europe in their ability to turn shots - and shots on target - into goals, heading into the World Cup, Edin Terzić’s side was the definition of wasteful.
For every goal that Borussia Dortmund scored in the 15 matchdays that preceded the World Cup, Die Schwarz-Gelben needed to take 9 shots. Compared to the previous season, Dortmund needed almost 4 more shots every game to score a goal.
That is a colossal decline that let itself be shown in Die Schwarz-Gelben’s measly goal return.
Borussia Dortmund entered the World Cup break having scored only 25 goals - 11 fewer than at the 15-game mark in the previous season, and the fewest any BVB side had managed since the club was in the relegation zone in 2014.
Since the World Cup, Dortmund still hasn’t returned to their world-class efficiency from Marco Rose’s tenure, but there are nevertheless clear improvements in both chance conversion and chance creation.
Dortmund has dropped their shot-per-goal average to only 7 in 2023, while simultaneously catapulting their shot-creation to even greater heights.
In all of Europe, no side is taking more shots per game than Borussia Dortmund, with Terzić’s side taking more than 20 attempts at goal in 3 of their 7 Bundesliga fixtures in the new year.
This duel improvement in chance conversion and chance creation has allowed Dortmund’s attack to explode into life, scoring more goals per game than any other club in Europe’s top 5 leagues in 2023.
The Resurgence of Emre Can
Borussia Dortmund’s attack has been the star of 2023, but arguably the most influential figure sits in defensive midfield.
29-year-old Emre Can has developed from a rash and error-prone stop-gap to the most influential binding element keeping this team together.
The 37-time German international has started 8 of Dortmund’s 9 matches this year, providing mature performances that bring structure and solidity to a Dortmund midfield that frequently drifted into uncontrolled chaos earlier in the season.
In the past, fans frequently bemoaned Can’s impulsive tackling and technical deficiencies, but in 2023, we have seen the ex-Bayern, Liverpool, and Juventus midfielder perform with the most clarity since signing for Dortmund.
Though solid in possession, and with a talent for driving runs in midfield, it is Can’s leadership and mentality against the ball which have marked him out. A return to the basics has seen Can go from “another midfielder” in Dortmund’s ranks, to the irreplaceable x-factor who perfectly compliments the creative elements at Terzić’s disposal.
No member of the BVB squad who has featured in at least 25% of the available minutes this season completes more tackles and interceptions per game, while only Niklas Süle has bettered the 29-year-old’s pass completion percentage of 88.3%.
He may not have developed into the world-class all-action midfielder many had hoped for when he broke onto the scene as a talented teenager in Jupp Heynckes’ treble-winning Bayern side, but now that he is nearing 30, Emre Can is finally coming true on his promise to become the “mentality monster” who can lead a fragile outfit with the maturity of a seasoned veteran.
Terzić’s Masterful Simplification
Going hand in hand with the emergence of Emre Can is the general simplification that Edin Terzic has brought to Dortmund in the new year.
The 40-year-old has reverted back to a style that strongly mirrors what made Dortmund so successful during his first interim spell in early 2021. There is a greater focus on solidity in and out of possession, with Dortmund seeking to get the ball into the final third quickly and use wide channels to create goalscoring opportunities.
It is quick and energetic football that can resonate with the fanbase, and win results on the pitch.
While the unshackled enthusiasm and creative freedom is keeping fans off their seat, Dortmund seems to have taken the next step by tempering this heavy-metal approach with clarity and reason in deeper portions of the pitch.
Particularly in the hotly-contested midfield third, Dortmund have developed a maturity that extends far beyond the re-introduction of Emre Can as a defensive anchor.
Even more important than the 29-year-old’s resurgence, is the fact that collectively, BVB are turning over possession in the midfield third almost 4 times fewer per game in 2023.
An Entire Squad Playing their Part
Not only are Dortmund creating goals, and scoring chances on an elite level, but Edin Terzić can take extreme comfort from the fact that almost the entire squad is playing their part in this up-turn of form.
Though only FC Bayern have scored more goals in the Bundesliga, no individual in Dortmund’s squad stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.
In fact, when looking at the Bundesliga’s top goal scorers, Julian Brandt is the only BVB member who even falls within the top 20 - ranked #10 with 8 goals.
Without a focal point like Erling Haaland, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, or Robert Lewandowski carrying the load, Terzić has needed the entire BVB squad to step up to the task.
For the longest time, this looked like a fleeting hope, but in 2023, it’s finally turned into a reality.
11 different players have already chipped in with a goal across the 9 matches (in all competitions) Dortmund have contested, and 10 players have already registered an assist.
From the attacking incentives provided in the fullback position to the new-found set-piece qualities of Nico Schlotterbeck, there are goals to be found all across this Dortmund squad.
The entire starting eleven are doing their part, but arguably even more important is the impulse Dortmund are setting from the bench!
4 of Dortmund’s 7 Bundesliga fixtures in the new year have involved a goal scorer who started the match on the bench.
In contrast, the first 15 matches which kicked off the Bundesliga campaign, involved only two fixtures where a substitute got on the scoresheet.
Even more significant than the goals themselves though, has been the value that these substitutes have brought to Dortmund’s game.
Other than Gio Reyna scoring the 5:1 against SC Freiburg, all of Dortmund’s substitute goals could end up having a season-altering significance in the race for the Meisterschale and the Champions League.
In the first match back, Jamie Bynoe-Gittens and Gio Reyna came off the bench to put Dortmund 3:2 and then 4:3 up over rivals FC Augsburg.
Just 3 days later, Reyna again made the difference with a stoppage-time winner over Mainz, only for Jamie Bynoe-Gittens to get the last laugh by opening the scoring against Werder Bremen less than 60 seconds after entering the field of play.
In 3 Matches spread over less than a month, a 20-year-old and 18-year-old have possibly rescued up to 6 extra points for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga.
That is the difference between being neck and neck with FC Bayern in the race for the league title, and sitting in 6th place; struggling to even maintain stride in the fight for Europe.
While FC Bayern travel to the Mercedes-Benz Arena for a fairly winnable fixture against VfB Stuttgart, it is Borussia Dortmund who kick off the matchday with the biggest match of their season.
Edin Terzić’s side may be the talk of the town in 2023, but their rivals this evening don’t trail far behind.
Since Marco Rose’s appointment in early September, RB Leipzig have been firing on all cylinders to find their way back into this Bundesliga title race.
Die Rotten Bullen have lost just one of their last 15 matches in the Bundesliga, made it to the quarter-finals of the DFB-Pokal for the third season in a row, and held Manchester City to a 1:1 draw in their round of 16 opener in the Champions League.
Rose will be out with a point to prove given his dismissal from the Signal-Iduna Park last season, and there probably isn’t a better side to expose Dortmund’s weaknesses than RB Leipzig.
The East-German outfit are masterful in the transition, extremely capable of soaking up pressure, and will be spurred on by recent history where they have taken 3 victories from the last 3 meetings.
It may not be a title decider as so many sides are still playing a part in the Bundesliga title race, but as far as important matches go, there isn’t a bigger fixture on the European calendar this weekend.