Germany: Bundesliga
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By Ultan Corcoran@UltanCorcoran

Dortmund’s dilemma: A cause for concern or will fortunes turn?

In preseason Borussia Dortmund’s managing director, Hans-Joachim Watzke, said the club need to become ‘more stress resistant’. A bold statement clearly aimed at the club’s shortcomings last campaign. The Meisterschale they so badly craved slipped away from their grasp on the final matchday due to Bayern’s superior goal difference. Three matchdays into the 2023-24 season, it appears that stress has only increased. A string of underwhelming performances and results has raised concerns amongst fans. But with 31 Bundesliga games to go, should concern be so strong?
Where fears began
A club’s transfer activity has become one of many cruxes for a successful campaign. In the face of inflated prices and a budget dwarfed by wealthier European superpowers, Dortmund have always defied the odds. Their ability to get business done quickly for an affordable price has become an artform in recent windows. However, this window took an uncharacteristic turn.

Jude Bellingham’s imminent €103 million transfer to Real Madrid was always a certainty. Losing a marquee player has never concerned BVB as recruiting an adequate replacement is their wheelhouse. But as first target, Edson Alvarez, opted for the claret and blue of West Ham, alarm bells sounded. In a rushed state Dortmund splashed €30 million on the inexperienced Felix Nmecha. With just one season of senior club football under his belt, filling Bellingham’s boots would be highly unlikely. A youthful, attack minded player replacing a box-to-box general didn’t add up.

Compounding that lapse came the transfer of Raphaël Guerreiro to Bayern Munich. The Portuguese full-back made tracks for free having supplied BVB with a league high 12 assists last campaign. Although Gladbach’s Ramy Bensebaini filled the void, Dortmund had lost an invaluable cog in their attacking game. While the savvy signings of Niclas Füllkrug and Marcel Sabitzer offered some comfort, defensive acquisitions fell short. Armel Bella-Kotchap flirted with a move to the Ruhrpott but PSV would pip them to the promising centre back. An area where Dortmund fans fear Terzic’s squad is light on personnel.

A slow start
On paper, opening games against Köln, Bochum, and newly promoted Heidenheim looked ideal. A vastly experienced and talented Schwarzgelb against opponents that could face battling the drop. The reality is both Köln and Bochum have become tough nuts to crack for some time. Steffen Baumgart is a master of motivation, and his Köln outfit made the season opener a dogfight. Donyell Malen’s 88th minute strike the difference in a close-fought encounter.

A Matchday 2 ‘kleinen derby’ against neighbours Bochum offered a chance to build steam. Ultimately, Terzić’s side looked second best. Once again Malen forged the goal to take a miserable point back from the Ruhrstadion. It took 15 minutes for BVB to open a 2-0 lead against Heidenheim. The wrongs had finally been righted, or so one thought until an almighty second-half collapse left whistles ring out at the 2-2 fulltime scoreline. Julian Brandt bravely confronted the media justifying the fans’ chorus of boos for their lacklustre start. A measly 5 points from three games – not good enough.

While the latter statement is adequate, the truth is Dortmund have become perennial slow starters. Last season taught us that more than ever. Prior to the winter break BVB had lost six of their 15 games. Post 2022 World Cup they embarked on a 19-game ‘Rückrunde’ in which they competed fiercely for the Bundesliga title – a sole loss to Bayern being the only point-less blemish. In fact, you must go back eight years to find the last time Dortmund won all three opening Bundesliga fixtures. Two 4-0 victories over Gladbach and Ingolstadt complemented a 3-1 defeat of Hertha Berlin.

Since then, ‘Die Schwarzgelben’ have dropped points in each season’s initial three matches to newly promoted sides like Leipzig, Union Berlin, as well as Freiburg, Augsburg, Bremen, and Hannover. Give or take a point or two, perhaps Terzić’s BVB are on course like bygone campaigns – no strangers to a slow start.

On the horizon
With three Bundesliga goals to their name, goalscoring has become a concern for Dortmund. With an expected goals (xG) tally of 6.4xG, it is clear they have underperformed. Its safe to say the collapse against Heidenheim was self-inflicted coupled with the fine form of Kevin Müller and his seven saves. However, underlying data shows the probability on two of the three goals BVB have conceded were extremely low. Kleindienst’s penalty aside, both Eren Dinkçi and Kevin Stöger’s goals shared an xG of 0.03 each.

As for Köln and Bochum, the two sides are content with defending their goal and playing on the counter. Bochum rank a league-high for tackles per game (19.6), with centre-back duo Bernardo (44) and Ordets (43) leading the way in duels won. Köln, meanwhile, rank 6th on tackles per game (17.3), but average second highest in shot blocking (16) and interceptions (13) per game. Teak tough defences Dortmund failed to unlock.

Dortmund being drawn in the Champions League ‘group of death’ may seem like a nightmare. Paris St. Germain, AC Milan, and Newcastle represent big tasks, but they also represent attacking opponents. With a total of 89, 64, and 68 domestic goals bagged by each respective team last season, sitting back is not their modus operandi. Historically, Dortmund have found joy against opposition who similarly like to attack. Furthermore, BVB have experienced more Champions League action than either of their Italian or English opponents in the last 10 campaigns which may stand to them.

After what seems like a lengthy international break, Dortmund return to action this Saturday against Freiburg. Streich’s team have endured a similarly turbulent start to league action. With the Breisgau based side shy on goals but posting a strong xG of 6.1 akin to Dortmund, it could be the perfect catalyst for Terzić’s outfit to kickstart their season. Perhaps what could be a demonstration of what is to come. A game worth paying a close eye to for better or worse.

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