How A New Manager Replaced A Legend And Unlocked Borussia Dortmund’s Attack
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Borussia Dortmund spent $100.5 million on player salaries in 2014. Let’s get that out of the way, because the idea that BVB are anything but a financial giant in German soccer is at the best untrue and at worst annoying. Ok, we can have fun now!
You know the particulars: After flying through the club’s best four-year stretch of success in the modern era - champions in 2011 and 2012, runners-up in 2013 and 2014 - Dortmund did some real relegation flirting. Jurgen Klopp’s bunch were last in last season’s table in early February and needed to rattle off seven games unbeaten to escape a real battle at the bottom. In April, Klopp — beloved like few other managers in the world — announced he would step away from the club. Dortmund appointed former Mainz manager Thomas Tuchel as his successor. BVB rallied to finish the season seventh in the Bundesliga, got to the German Cup final before losing to Wolfsburg, and Klopp sailed off into the sunset where he’ll wait for Brendan Rodgers to bungle his Liverpool job before returning to coaching, probably.
Last year’s Dortmund campaign was difficult to diagnose even as it was happening - how can a team with Marco Reus, Mats Hummels and Jurgen Klopp be last in the table with three months left? - and it’s not much easier now. It does, however, get a bit simpler to understand through the lens of what Tuchel has tweaked about a roster that is essentially the same as the team that had to go all Leicester City to sneak into the Europa League.
It starts with this year’s flourishing offense, one that looks more dynamic than any of Klopp’s units. BVB only scored 47 goals last season after netting at least 80 in each of the previous three campaigns. Dortmund has racked up 11 goals in the Bundesliga, 30 (30!) total in eight games, and they’ve scored three or more in each of their last five games. They’re soaring again, looking more like the European runners-up from 2013 than the group who had to apologize to home fans in the middle of a season.
It’s been a joyous turnaround, leading to eight wins from eight, and the most goals scored in all of Europe’s top five leagues. So, this question would float around in my brain occasionally: There’s no way Klopp’s wise exit was the only factor in turning things around, right?
I had my own theories, but I first texted my brother, who’s watched every BVB game for the last five years (probably most of them twice). He dropped this on me:
“Tuchel has stressed the idea of playing short passes and build up rather than hoofing balls up to the striker, which they could get away with with [Robert] Lewandowski. The means [Shinji] Kagawa and [Ilkay] Gundogan have flourished and they're able to pick apart defenses who used to sit so far back last year. Just the difference in watching from last year to this is amazing. It's so refreshing to watch. It's like they're creating so many chances during a game that they're bound to score enough to win. They won 3-1 last week and it could've easily been 6-1 (the one goal they've let up in the Bundesliga was an offsides, ironically).”
I hadn’t thought about going back to the Lewandowski days to diagnose the offensive issues with Dortmund last year. Klopp tried to play that old English offense a bit too much even without the world-class Lewandowski up front.
Klopp's tactics were notoriously stubborn - even he would admit that, I think - and led in part to him leaving the club. Dortmund obviously can’t hoof it up to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and expect him to get Messi or Ronaldo goal totals. And if he’s your only healthy goal-scorer, which he was last year, he won’t score enough for two. You can’t have the fun, fragile Red Flash Liverpool side in 2013-14 without Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, and Klopp couldn’t revive the Dortmund attack without allowing for a second goal-scorer to emerge from the midfield or changing the tactics.
Tuchel has done both and has unlocked the Dortmund attack from the ground up. Switching from Klopp’s lone-striker 4-5-1 to a more stable 4-3-3 has taken some of the pressure off Mats Hummels in the back*, has given Shinji Kagawa more space and freedom in the midfield, and has unleashed a hidden weapon on the world.
(*Hummels wasn’t healthy for much of last season, and depending on where you look his knee got better and he was able to train more effectively, or he benefited from Tuchel’s ban on pizza. In any case, Dortmund hadn’t had a positive possession rating as a team since 2012-13, and the back line suffered because of it.)
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the biggest beneficiary of Tuchel’s open tactics. The Albanian* has scored four goals already, which matches his total from 2014-15.
(*He also has his country on the verge of Euro 2016, which would be its first-ever major tournament qualification. Those qualifiers have been bonkers from the beginning.)
Mkhitaryan has this winner against Odd in the Europa League, which capped a ridiculous four-goal, second-half rally:
And he scored a brace in the Bundesliga opener, a 4-0 tubthumping of Borussia Monchengladbach, last year’s third-place team:
Tuchel’s also letting him tag along with Reus and Aubameyang farther up the pitch in Dortmund’s high press. The press works because those are three lightning-quick, smart, aggressive players, and it works because Tuchel solidified the midfield with new tactics. Each line protects the line in front of it.
So you’ve fixed the team, that’s all well and good, but go spend some money why don’t you? After all, that’s what financial giants do. So Dortmund went out and stole Adnan Januzaj from Manchester United on a loan deal. For my money (which is not much), that’s a top-four signing of the transfer window, alongside Yohan Cabaye to the Crystal Pardews, Arda Turan to Barcelona, and Andre Ayew to Swansea City.
Januzaj was criminally underused by David Moyes and Louis van Gaal in the past two seasons. This year, in an attempt to loan him off, van Gaal let the Belgian play, and he was consistently the best player on the pitch. Now he’s gone and will presumably start in the midfield for Tuchel’s flourishing side when they face off with Hannover on Saturday.
Tuchel unhooked Dortmund’s reins, set there unintentionally by Klopp over years and successful years. It feels like a collective exhale and a return to the good times. It’s a shame this variation of the yellow wall has to slug its way through the Europa League instead of the Champions League, but that wall is still standing, pushing forward, and it looks stronger than ever.