This Saturday, Borussia Dortmund host Bayern Munich at the Westfalenstadion with their seasons heading in opposite directions and the Bundesliga title possibly on the line. A little more than a month ago, Peter Bosz’s early tenure as Borussia Dortmund’s head coach was off to smashing success. The team had reacted positively to a tough 3-1 defeat against Tottenham in their opening Champions League fixture and put together a run of three Bundesliga wins that saw them score 14 goals and concede just once—the only goal allowed in their first six league games. They topped the Bundesliga table.
While Bosz was succeeding, Bayern’s manager was in the process of losing his job. After an early September 2-0 defeat at Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, rumors swirled about the effectiveness of Carlo Ancelotti’s training methods. A little less than two weeks later, Bayern carelessly squandered a two-goal advantage to draw, 2-2, at home to Wolfsburg, and then endured a chastening 3-0 Champions League defeat away at Paris Saint Germain. The club’s brass reacted quickly and ruthlessly. The genial Italian was fired mere months after delivering an expected domestic title and going out in the quarterfinals of the Champions League in an unfortunate and controversial defeat to Real Madrid.
The same week that Ancelotti departed, Dortmund hosted Madrid themselves and lost 3-1. The Tottenham game could have been written off as a blip, but another convincing European defeat felt like something bigger. Dortmund have long held ambitions to return to the top tier of European club football, and the manner in which they were brushed aside by the Spanish champions was alarming. Dortmund were reduced to shooting from distance, while Madrid carved out chances in the box almost at will. Zero points from two games in Europe meant they had left themselves with an enormous task to climb out of their Champions League group.
The Champions League has shone a light on both teams’ immediate weaknesses. Bayern has stabilized without Ancelotti, while Bosz’s honeymoon in Dortmund has come to an end.
Bosz’s squad still remains in touching distance of Bayern in the Bundesliga, but their last three league games have yielded no victories and just one point. In the Champions League, two 1-1 draws against minnows APOEL Nicosia put Dortmund’s qualification into the realm of being technically possible while realistically really not, and the performances in those games were disappointing enough to provoke stark questions about Bosz’s long-term suitability for the club. It’s perhaps too soon for that question, but demotion to the Europa League looms large.
By contrast, Bayern have won three consecutive league games and two Champions League fixtures with the returning paternal guidance of Jupp Heynckes, who was last sighted retiring from the club in 2013 with a Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal Cup, and Champions League treble in his back pocket. They now lead the Dortmund in the Bundesliga by three points, which makes this meeting a potentially decisive matchup. A win for Bayern would create a six-point gap, and underline their status as favorites to win an unprecedented sixth successive title. For now, the pressure has been lifted from them and instead resides heavily on top of their rivals.
Dortmund’s current problem is clear: their defense. They conceded in all four of their Champions League fixtures, and after opening up the season with five clean sheets in the league, have conceded at least once to each of their next five opponents, and nine times in the last three.
There are a few reasons behind this problem. First, Bosz deploys a high defensive line. When the team is out of possession, counter-pressing kicks in and the team pushes forward with a view to winning the ball high up the field, enabling attacks. This has worked well on the attacking side; the team has taken more shots than all other German sides but Bayern, and has the strength to dominate possession. But, defensively, it has left them vulnerable at times, particularly to fast breaks.
Having conceded three goals to Tottenham, Real Madrid, and RB Leipzig, it’s clear that Bosz’s side approaches each game with the intention to impose their style on their opponents. Dortmund were opened up by opposition packed with lightning-quick attackers ready to feast on space. Neither Eintracht Frankfurt nor Hannover 96 have been free-scoring this season, yet each profited from learning Dortmund’s weak spots and secured positive results.
Dortmund have also hampered themselves with poor discipline. They conceded a penalty in each of their three October Bundesliga games, with two of them caused by goalkeeper Roman Bürki. Defenders Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Dan-Axel Zagadou also saw red cards during that same stretch. This erratic defensive play is partly a function of the system—when stretched, the defense is more liable to make such mistakes. But it’s also a product of inconsistent team selection.
A combination of injuries, suspensions, and manager choice has led Dortmund to rarely field the same defense game to game. It’s genuinely difficult for a team to build up the understanding required to deploy a new defensive system without consistency in personnel.
And that leads straight into a third factor: time on the job. Perhaps the real surprise should be that the team was able to click immediately under Bosz. A similar scenario emerged after Pep Guardiola’s opening run of wins as Manchester City boss in 2016. As time wore on, results went bad, and it showed that Guardiola couldn’t just wave a magic wand and fix his new team. Only now, a year later, with extensive work in the transfer market, are we seeing his vision come to fruition.
Bosz has faced some difficulties in the market. Across the last two seasons Dortmund have had a revolving-door policy. Key performers have departed and replacements have arrived in high volume. Bosz’s tenure bears a resemblance with that of his predecessor, Thomas Tuchel. His 2015-16 Dortmund team started the season full of goals but was weak in the back. Tuchel started 2016-17 looking to replace Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Ilkay Gündogan—all vital components of his 2015-16 team. In came a slew of young players, including the since-departed Ousmane Dembélé, as well as more experienced German internationals like André Schürrle and Mario Götze. In total, seven new players arrived to contend for a starting slot.
This summer was been no different, Dembélé’s impossible-to-refuse fee was banked from Barcelona, and six players arrived as starting contenders. Because of the turnover, Dortmund’s absolute first choice eleven has remained in flux. Only Bürki and ever-prolific striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have started all 10 Bundesliga games, and the variety of talent available to Bosz has caused inevitable selection dilemmas.
It has been curious how quickly he has rehabilitated Nuri Şahin. The Turkish international has struggled with injuries, making just 23 Bundesliga and European starts in the last three seasons. But he has started 10 games already under Bosz and shown decent form. His return is useful, but one wonders if he has been overused. Injuries were a significant issue for Dortmund last season, and once again they have plagued the squad this time around. Dortmund have used 25 players in the Bundesliga and while that is partially due to Bosz experimenting with his options, it also reflects how this club, so well-stocked with talent, has had to patch up their first team as they try to transition toward a new era.
There is immense potential within the team: Christian Pulisic remains a remarkable talent and at just 19 years old is performing at an extremely high creative level. Maximilian Philipp, Mahmoud Dahoud, Julian Weigl, and the returning Raphaël Guerreiro represent the long-term future of the team. Further promising youngsters such as forwards Jadon Sancho and Alexander Isak remain on the fringes of the squad, while defender Zagadou is featured heavily already. Even Götze is only 25 and has hopefully fully recovered from his metabolic illness. His early form this season suggests he may well be able to return to his best, too.
The match against Bayern will not define where the Bosz project stands, but will provide a useful opportunity for Dortmund to put their Champions League failure behind them. Bayern’s lead is not yet insurmountable, and judging by a slender victory away at Celtic this week, they may have not yet entirely shaken off their early-season malaise. Second place in Germany hasn’t quite been a lock for Dortmund in recent seasons, and while they may well return to that slot this time around, to mount a true title challenge may require more stability and time.