The origin of Borussia Dortmund’s struggles

Dortmund's Struggles | FI

Top 10 features the top ten stories from the previous month from across the footballing world. The featured articles may be about a massive headline or a result from the previous month, or a culmination of a particular story that needs to definitely be noticed and discussed about. This feature is to bring a different flavor to the breaking news we see and talk to others about and aimed at constructively looking at the point in discussion. The stats used in the article below are accurate as of November 30, 2017.

All is not well in the Ruhr valley. While FC Schalke 04 are flying high and sitting third on the back of impressive performances under the tutelage of young Domenico Tedesco, rivals Borussia Dortmund, under their own new boss, are struggling mightily.

On the back of an impressive season with Ajax Amsterdam in which he led them to a Europa League finals appearance, Dutchman Peter Bosz was brought in to replace the once heralded Thomas Tuchel.  Though his brand of football was appeasing to the eye, the issues off the pitch – and one or two on it – were too much to bear for Hans-Joachim Watzke, and Tuchel was let go far earlier than anyone could have predicted. A buyout price of €5million was paid to the Dutch side to secure Bosz’s managerial services, a German record buyout for a manager.

Aesthetically, the appointment of Bosz made sense.  His brand of football that he began to develop at Vitesse Arnhem, then found additional success with in Amsterdam, had all the hallmarks of a Tuchelian approach; quick, penetrative, possession-based football that was easily adapted into a counter-attacking system when applicable. Bosz’s system, also similarly to Tuchel’s, relied on the individual brilliance of key players, both creatively and technically, while maximizing their importance as part of the collective approach going forward.


But the warning signs were there, and all Dortmund had to do was look back to the Europa League final to see things in a very familiar light. For all their attacking quality, against a well-drilled United side, Ajax struggled mightily in Stockholm. Though Ajax dominated possession (67%), they did little to utilize it properly, hitting the target only three times from seventeen efforts. And despite having the lions share of the ball, Ajax always looked very susceptible to getting hit on the break at the other end. So, is it a surprise that Dortmund, who struggled with this many times under Tuchel, are now struggling with the same issues under Bosz?

It may not be the winterpause just yet, but the similarities with what has ailed the club under both managers are striking. If Watzke’s words and temperament at the club’s recent AGM are anything to go by, Bosz certainly may be living on borrowed time. But the two mentioned issues aren’t the only ones giving the Schwarzgelben faithful a headache or two.

Tactical Imbalance

Normally deployed in a 4-3-3, on paper, Bosz relies one of the more flexible formations available. It has proven, since the days of Klopp, that it works. Three mobile and interchangeable front men make it incredibly difficult to handle, whether if you’re a possession-based side or one that relies on the quick counter.  A three-man midfield also causes headaches. More men in midfield primarily make it harder for the opposition to retain as much possession as they’d like, and it also means more ground covered than if you only had two in the center of the park. But is this formation, and the type of football being played, really getting the most of what Bosz has on the books? Under his command, no.

Creating chances is never going to be an issue for Dortmund, but rather it’s the type of chances that lets them down.  So often, the Westfalenstadion outfit lack real imagination this season in the final third/in the penalty area. Though there is plenty of control in the midfield through Julian Weigl, a revitalized Nuri Sahin, what was a resurgent Mario Götze, and Mahmoud Dahoud (when he does feature), but it’s real invention to break down many a stubborn side that has seen Dortmund in a spot of bother this season.


This is where Ousmane Dembele excelled, and what made him so vital to their attack. Able to rely on his otherworldly ability on the ball and searing pace, the French international made something out of nothing so often last season, when passing just wouldn’t suffice; Dortmund really lack that player now.

They do have intelligent players up front in Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, new signings Andriy Yarmolenko and Maximilian Philipp, and rising starlet Christian Pulisic, but their best qualities are the same as the others; movement into central channels with a view of getting into the area to score. Dembele was different, as he would often drag players wide to help create space and opportunities for the final pass, or get chalk on his boots to supply the final ball across the face of goal himself.

Pulisic shows promise in this area, but he’s less developed than the young Frenchman already was. The prolonged absence of the mercurial Marco Reus is also hard felt. He may be an inside forward, but Reus has instincts that were far more advanced than those that Bosz currently has on offer, including an eye for goal from outside the area and wonderful ability on set pieces, not to mention quality service provided.

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Overall, Dortmund have too many attack-minded players, many of whom are along similar lines in terms of qualities both positive and negative.  Out of all the forwards and midfielders in the first-team, only Weigl and Sebastian Rode can claim to scupper their desire to get forward into the final third, and only Weigl deserves the amount of first-team opportunities he gets. The same holds true for Dortmund’s defensive options. Both Jeremy Toljan and captain Marcel Schmelzer are at their most effective when they get further forward, and the same can be said for Lukasz Piszczek.

And let’s not forget Raphaël Guerreiro, who’s performances at Euro 2016 netted him a move to Dortmund last season. Such were his offensive contributions to the Portuguese that summer, that he’s been shifted further up the pitch away from his natural left-back position, a move that was done by Tuchel last term. The defensive imbalance is to the point where Dan-Axel Zagadou, a center-back by trade during his development at PSG, has been shifted to the left-back role. It was a move that perfectly summed up Dortmund’s campaign thus far; a brilliant beginning that has begun to nose dive, and fast. Simply put, there’s too much of one mentality amongst the first-team, and that’s a direct indictment of it’s headmaster, both current and past.

Over-Rotating The XI

It is impossible to speak against the positives of having a deep first-team.  Campaigns are long and hard, and when you’re a club like Dortmund, who are expected to make a decent run in Europe as well as the DFB Pokal, injuries and fatigue are unavoidable. What isn’t healthy, is the over-utilization of said depth to the point where it adversely effects the squad’s rhythm. Granted, at current, no less than eight first-team players are out injured, but most of those injuries have popped up recently.

Form is temporary, as is tactical understanding and cohesion; both instances of football are incredibly delicate, and must be treated as such.  It was a problem under Tuchel as well.  As professional footballers, playing twice in the same week should not be an impossibility, but rather a guarantee unless you are genuinely fatigued.

For Bosz, it almost appears that he’s a kid in a toy store with the mountain of player options he has at his disposal.  Certainly, at Vitesse he wasn’t blessed with any amount of depth, and relied on the same players for the entire season bar injury. At Ajax it was much of the same. Though he would have been more willing to give young players a chance every now and again, given the nature of the club’s vaunted academy, Bosz had the same policy at Ajax with keeping a consistent XI. But at Dortmund, where options are falling from trees, perhaps he’s fallen pray to promising too many players that they will receive significant time on the pitch.

When the squad is fully fit, Bosz will have three first-choice left-backs, three first-choice left wingers, three box-to-box midfielders, and two identical former central attacking midfielders, all vying for the same position and match minutes, over rotation is bound to occur. Unfortunately for the Dutch manager, his shortcomings regarding man-management – another similarity to Tuchel – only exasperates the issue of trying to keep everyone happy.  Seemingly, over-rotating the team is the only way to keep everyone happy, at least in his estimation.

Questionable Decisions and Poor Transfer Business

Dortmund wasn’t always a big club, in fact, many will argue that they’re still not bigger than domestic rivals Schalke. What is not up for debate is their massive growth over the past eight seasons, netting six trophies, finishing runner-up on ten occasions (domestically), and making a Champions League final appearance against the club they’re desperately trying to keep up with. No club starts out as a big club, but it’s how they embrace the growth once it’s begun that will define them.

In Dortmund’s case, questions can be raised on how the board have been guiding the ship in recent seasons. Sacking Tuchel wasn’t necessarily a poor decision based off the facts, and the same can be said of Klopp, but one major complaint of many involved with the modern game is that managers have an increasingly shorter lifespan when they’re at bigger clubs.

One or two seasons of perceived regression or stagnation, and you could be out the window. This is more indicative of the Tuchel situation than Klopp’s, though it was quite clear that a positive working relationship between Tuchel and the Dortmund hierarchy was unlikely. In that regard, Tuchel had to go, but his body of work from a results standpoint didn’t warrant his dismissal.

With the honeymoon period in Germany now at a conclusion for Bosz, how he responds and moves forward with building bridges with Watzke will either make or break his career in North Rhine-Westphalia. There is a large section who feel Watzke, not Bosz, is the problem at Dortmund. While the CEO cannot shoulder any blame for what is taking place on the pitch, he certainly can in many respects regarding what happens off it, including the hiring of Bosz in the first place.

As stated earlier, there are quite a few similarities between Bosz and Tuchel, some good, and some bad. It’s early in the Dutchman’s career, and many of the issues he’s currently suffering can certainly be corrected, but these are issues that could have been avoided all together if Watzke didn’t drink the Bosz-flavored Kool-Aid to begin with. Though they are a big club, Dortmund do not have to make what often amounts to poor managerial appointments that many big clubs often make.

Argue all you want about their size in relation to Dortmund, but Schalke are massive domestically, but after taking a risk on Markus Weinzierl, they took another risk when they appointed Tedesco; Weinzierl didn’t work, but Tedesco has done brilliantly early doors. Much of the same can be said of Stuttgart taking a punt on a younger manager in the form of Hannes Wolf, and Hoffenheim with Julian Nagelsmann. Both are managers of the new generation, and both have done brilliantly in their charges. Could Dortmund not have taken this approach, rather than gambling on a bigger name? The pressure to succeed and continue their growth seemingly outweighs other ways of approaching questions, a notion that the club must tread lightly with.

In that same light, the clubs transfer business can be called into question as well; names before sensibility is how I like to describe the overall situation. Was Ömer Toprak smart business? From an experience standpoint yes, from a quality standpoint no. Jeremy Toljan, despite the bags of promise he does have, was better off being nurtured at Hoffenheim for a few more years before jumping to a big club where expectations and the demands of the fan-base are far, far greater. While Maximilian Philipp turned out to be a brilliant bit of business, what happens when Marco Reus returns to the first team, to go along with André Schürrle being on the books.

What’s more, and the most frustrating of all, is the clubs’ failure to still properly replace Mats Hummels; Marc Bartra may fancy himself the same type of center back, but he’s no where near the same quality. The same can be said about the failure to replace Dembele. Yarmolenko, for all his seasoning and proven ability for club and country, is nowhere near the same type of player, and Pulisic isn’t either. Identifying the type of players to bring in is part of building a first-team with the right balance and mentality. It must certainly be said that Dortmund have dropped the ball on this test recently.

Part of being at the top of the hierarchical ladder at the club is doing your utmost to help those below you solve the problems that are apparent to everyone. Watzke’s treatment of the now departed Sven Mislintat will also do him no favors. If Bosz is to be blamed for the issues on the pitch, surely Watzke must face the music for the issues off it.

It isn’t all doom and gloom at Borussia Dortmund, despite sitting tied for sixth in the Bundesliga and being relegated to the Europa League after an abysmal European campaign. The club can still correct its issues, and it can still right the ship to make a run up the table and in Europe. What is important to remember, however, is that the size of the club doesn’t always mean acting like one of the giants of the footballing world; maybe decisions can and should be made under the auspices of prudence and probity rather than perception of instant gratification.