#ISSUE 20: BVB's Blueprint For Success
In a season plagued by inconsistency & individual errors, Borussia Dortmund's 5:1 victory over SC Freiburg could provide the framework for a late title challenge from Die Schwarz-Gelben.
In the past 19 issues of The German Football Newsletter, there has rarely been a time when I’ve been personally so struck by a particular game that I feel sufficiently motivated to dedicate an entire issue to its discussion.
Yet, Dortmund’s 5:1 thrashing of SC Freiburg was precisely a match which deserves such a thorough examination, a potential turning point in a campaign where Die Schwarz-Gelben have otherwise labored their way into a title race.
Marco Rose summed up the strong-performance in his post-match interview,
"We did a lot of things right today, the first half in particular was really strong. We won the ball a lot, had a good positional orientation, and scored two nice set pieces.”
Those three points are precisely what left the often grimacing Dortmund head coach finally gleaming at the full-time whistle, seeing his plan come to fruition which had otherwise appeared only in selected phases of previous matches over the 18 gameweeks of the current season.
The ability to quickly regain possession in a compact manner was always at the core of Rose’s philosophy, but too often this season it felt like individual lapses or a failure to communicate would leave the entire unit open and exposed.
Just take the defeat against Hertha in the final match of December, coming just 14 days after the loss to Bayern, in a situation where Dortmund really couldn’t afford any slip-ups before the new year. Against a Berlin side winless in 6 of their previous 7 matches, Dortmund fell to an embarrassing 3:2 defeat, leaving Rose fuming at the listless attitude his side showed.
Some viewed his post-match remarks as an evasive maneuver from a manager looking to deflect away from his own tactical shortcomings, but Rose’s assessment does hold weight when evaluating the core moments in the Berlin match where it all went wrong.
With the hosts setting up in a compact 4-4-2, Dortmund had to look for quick vertical interplay in order to shift Hertha's defensive lines and create passing lanes into the attacking half-spaces. It was a solid game-plan which frustrated the hosts in the opening 45, but it also left Dortmund susceptible in transition when they didn’t press turnovers with the necessary intensity.
These factors ultimately played a part in both the 1:1 (pictured below) and 3:1 for Hertha BSC, needless giveaways which ruthlessly exposed Dortmund as they failed to get direct pressure against the ball.
An errant pass from Julian Brandt stops a Dortmund attack in its tracks, but the real issue only comes when Rose’s side fails to get adequate pressure on the ball carrier in transition. Thus, Vladimir Darida is allowed to play an uncontested chip-ball over BVB’s defensive line, leaving a 33-year old Axel Witsel hopelessly outmatched in a foot race with Ishak Belfodil.
In isolation these goals can be ascribed to pre-christmas burn out, but this fatal combination of individual errors, and the lack of desire to recover in transition, have been emblematic of Dortmund's shortcomings this season.
Throughout the botched Champions League campaign, in BVB's midweek Pokal exit, or in key Bundesliga defeats to RB Leipzig and FC Bayern, various goals have come from almost identical scenarios. One of Rose’s defenders loses the ball while attempting to break a line in possession, and then BVB are sent under intense pressure as a wave of opposition attackers pour forward without any resistance from a well-structured defensive press.
Even in last weekend’s 3:2 victory over Frankfurt where Dortmund showed an outstanding mentality to claw back a 2-goal deficit, Die Schwarz-Gelben’s issues in transition remained far from resolved.
An unnecessary give away from Thomas Meunier left Dortmund in an uncomfortable position, but it was only made worse by his teammate’s half hearted response. Dortmund neither fell back into a conservative shape to slow down the attack, nor applied significant pressure to immediately regain possession. This ultimately left large gaps for Frankfurt to play out of.
Though just 6 days separated the flat first half against Frankfurt and Dortmund’s 2022 home opener against Freiburg, Marco Rose clearly found the right words mid-week to make Dortmund’s transitional pressure click into action.
Whereas in the Frankfurt victory Dortmund allowed their hosts an average of 11 passes before making a defensive intervention, last Friday Rose’s side were far more alert, regaining possession every 8.4 Freiburg passes. On top of this, Dortmund were also extremely effective when going into defensive duels - the literal backbone for setting up their flowing attacking football without the fear of being caught in transition.
Since a 3:1 defeat to Union Berlin in August of 2019, BVB haven’t lost any of their 21 matches in which they held more than a 70% duel success rate. It was no surprise then, that their 74.29% was converted into such a resounding 5:1 victory.
More than any of the raw data though, Dortmund’s key defensive success comes from both winning the ball immediately after turnovers and doing so in the crucial areas of the pitch.
Dortmund’s 3rd & 4th goals were prime examples of this, with the squad applying the initial collective pressure to lock an opponent into a 1v1 duel, before a Dortmund defender would go in with the necessary conviction to come out with possession. Take a look at the 4th goal in the following clip (below).
Erling Haaland will receive the praise for his cool finish, but it was the work from numerous BVB players which was at the heart of Dortmund’s 4:1. Initially, Nico Schulz and Jude Bellingham apply exceptional pressure to force the Freiburg ball-carrier into the congested center of the pitch. There, Mo Dahoud is able to win not one, but two defensive duels, before allowing classic Dortmund football to take over; fast, vertical, and centered around their elite goalscoring phenom.
It wasn’t just in attacking phases though that Dortmund’s refined defensive approach bore fruit. The same application of pressure helped minimize the impact of errors which have abounded in Dortmund’s backline this season.
According to Whoscored.com, Dortmund’s starting fullbacks both turned over possession more times against Freiburg than in either of their previous two matches, but due to the alert pressing structure, none of these resulted in a dangerous opportunity on goal.
This was of course the primary issue throughout the 90 minutes vs Hertha, and the first half in Frankfurt. Although most of Friday's headlines were directed towards the goals which BVB created, how this approach helped contain the consequences of a costly mistake in Dortmund’s own final third was equally, if not more important.
Mats Hummels looks to break Freiburg’s initial pressure with a vertical pass, however it goes horribly wrong and BVB now have their backs to the wall.
Not to worry though, Thomas Meunier is alert to the danger and immediately pounces to divert the Freiburg attack. This was almost entirely missing in the first 45 minutes against Frankfurt, but was near to impeccable at the Signal Iduna Park last Friday.
Though Dortmund fans would have loved to call the Freiburg victory a turning point in the Bundesliga title race, the issues surrounding Rose's tenure are still far from resolved.
Just 96 hour after dancing off the pitch, Dortmund crashed out of the DFB Pokal to an inform, but nevertheless second-tier, St. Pauli. It’s yet another slip-up in a season defined by impressive highs and desperate lows.
Michael Zorc, Borussia Dortmund’s record appearance maker and current sporting director, got to the heart of the matter in his remarks for the Ruhr Nachrichten the day after the defeat.
"St. Pauli did not surprise us. Everything that happened on the pitch, the coach addressed very clearly in advance. Obviously, many players didn't listen closely enough. The team keeps making old mistakes. That was an embarrassing performance."
It all comes back to the big question that will either define Rose’s tenure as another trophyless failure, or make him the manager capable of wrestling the domestic power balance away from Bavaria.
Can Dortmund recreate their top form in a consistent manner, or only show in spurts and flashes the raw individual talent and ruthless defensive edge needed for a title challenge?
A 6-point deficit to Bayern may prevent Dortmund from ending the Bundesliga monopoly this season, but there’s no reason they can’t continue to apply pressure if they can implement these habits.
For all of Dortmund’s humility in the face of Bayern’s financial pull, this is ultimately a squad that sits just 4-places below Bayern in Transfermarkt’s most valuable club rankings, with two of the most sought after young talents in World football in their ranks.
Winning the Bundesliga will never be a given as long as Bayern remain at the peak of their powers, but for Dortmund, it also shouldn’t be the unassailable task it’s increasingly been seen as for the past decade.
The lack of depth on the bench, a troubling injury-crisis, and relentless individual errors have provided issues this season, but ultimately, each and every Bundesliga club can point to areas in their squad or key absences which have plagued their campaign so far.
If Dortmund can retain the structure they presented against Freiburg and replicate it more consistently, there will be a lot more to come from Marco Rose in the black & yellow dress of Borussia Dortmund. However, if BVB continue to allow lapses in concentration and key matches to slip out of their hands, he will be the next to leave the club with moments of exceptional football, but little tangible success to show for it.
Cover Photo: Gabriel Foligno