Borussia Dortmund made an exceptionally fast start to the 2017/18 season. Following the appointment of Peter Bosz, a Dutch coach who had led Ajax to the brink of the Eredivisie title and the Europa League final in the previous campaign, they won six and drew one of their opening seven Bundesliga games. Along the way they executed four rather merciless thrashings – 3-0s against Wolsburg and Hamburg, as well as a 5-0 over Koln and a 6-1 over Borussia Monchengladbach – and averaged an impressive three goals per game.
Bosz’s classically Dutch 4-3-3 system produced some scintillating football early doors. Mario Gotze appeared restored to something like his best, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could not stop scoring, and Christian Pulisic was loving life as a regular starter. The possession was fun; so too was the high defensive line. Even the great Bayern Munich couldn’t keep up. Languishing five points behind BVB in the league standings and struggling in Europe, the reigning German champions reacted by pushing Carlo Ancelotti out with the season barely a month old.
Unfortunately for Dortmund, the decline was as rapid and extravagant as the rise that precipitated it. Having gone unbeaten in their opening seven, they went without a win in their next eight. While they continued to score fairly consistently, they were simple unable to stop leaking goals. Injuries to key players such as Gotze, Lukasz Piszczek and Marco Reus didn’t help, but then nor did Bosz’ defensive tactics: the high line that previously looked so brave quickly began to look stupid.
The team veered sharply away from the top of the Bundesliga and exited the Champions League group stages without registering a single win. Perhaps the 4-4 draw with Schalke embodied the sheer ridiculousness of it all – 4-0 up at half-time of what was a make or break derby game, Dortmund went on to concede four times in the second period and drop two more points. Bosz departed soon after with the side sat eighth in the table. In the space of eight games, a five-point advantage over Bayern had turned into a 13-point disadvantage.
So you’ll forgive Lucien Favre for not getting carried away, then. Appointed Dortmund head coach over the summer, the Swiss has won six and drawn two of his first eight Bundesliga games in charge. Simultaneously, he has led the club to the top of their Champions League group – with wins over Club Brugge and Monaco, they face Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid in a clash of table-toppers this Wednesday night. But the spectre of Bosz still looms large, effectively nixing any wild speculation of potential domestic or continental challenges.
The wounds from last season’s collapse remain raw. Peter Stoger took over from Bosz and brought in some sense of stability, guiding the team to a top-four spot, Champions League qualification and the last 16 of the Europa League. However, Stoger’s conservatism came along with attacking disconnection; while he made Dortmund tougher to beat, he didn’t provide the offensive sparkle fans were used to seeing.
Early underlying statistics indicate optimism over Favre’s start to life at the Westfalenstadion should be tempered. In Bosz’s first seven league games at the helm, Dortmund’s expected goals (xG) tally was 2.65 per game, while their average expected goals against (xGA) was 0.6. Under Favre, the average xG is 1.86 and the xGA is 1.23. According to these numbers, his unbeaten run is built on shakier foundations than Bosz’s, and that shouldn’t thrill BVB supporters.
There are, however, reasons to believe Dortmund are in a better place thanks to Favre’s management. Tactically, they are far less gung-ho than they were under Bosz, with a lower back line, a less intensive pressing style and a more effective build-up involving the centre-backs, two relatively deep full-backs and a double pivot in midfield. The new 4-2-3-1 system is built for establishing stable possession and ensuring good central presence in case of turnovers, though it also appears far more creative and structured than Stoger’s approach in an attacking sense.
It’s also worth noting a couple of relevant caveats. Firstly, Favre is operating during a time of great transition. A number of experienced personnel, including Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Nuri Sahin, Gonzalo Castro and Andre Schurrle, left in the summer. Secondly, this season’s team are a younger edition, with Achraf Hakimi, Jacob Bruun Larsen and Jadon Sancho joining Dan-Axel Zagadou and Pulisic as key players under the age of 23.
This young team, as well as the new signings, are still growing used to one another within Favre’s 4-2-3-1 setup. For example, despite scoring seven Bundesliga goals since joining on loan from Barcelona, Paco Alcacer is, quite literally, just getting started – three of his four league outings have come from the substitutes’ bench.
With each passing week there is a developing feeling that something special might be happening in Dortmund. But before the talk of titles starts up, Favre’s first aim will be to sustain the good form beyond October.
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