Borussia Dortmund, the defending Bundesliga champions, are off to an anonymous start in their quest for a third straight league success. Précis of the season: 1) Mere eight points from a possible 15 in the first five games. 2) Conceded eight goals in five matches. Till now Dortmund have looked its former self only once this season – in the game against Leverkusen. In the rest of the games, there were signs of improvement but only in flashes. So, how did a team, that remained unbeaten for 28 games in the last season, lose its polish to this extent?
A lot has been said about Kagawa’s departure and how that could have a negative impact on Dortmund’s future endeavors. Kagawa scored 29 goals in all competitions for Dortmund over two seasons, also notched up several assists. His link up play with the lone man upfront (Barrios at first and then Lewandowski), ability to find teammates with gilt-edged through balls, and composure as an auxiliary forward in front of the opposition penalty box were pivotal to Dortmund’s two-year long domestic dominance.
It is obvious that a team will need time to adapt to personnel changes. Similarity can be drawn with Dortmund’s mundane show posterior to Şahin’s departure in the preliminary stages of last season. Dortmund faithful can only hope that these early blips will get evened out by the time the rückrunde starts. But is this rusty display only a side-effect of the change in personnel?
Since the start of the pre-season, Klopp was seen experimenting with the squad to help the team adapt to a 3-5-2 allomorph of a more natural 4-2-3-1. The wit-craft was to boss the midfield by increasing the number of personnel along with the application of aggressive pressing and closing down all over the pitch.
The dynamic breaking up of the 4-2-3-1 would happen during the building-up of attack with the wing-backs moving high up on the pitch to work as auxiliary attacking flanks. Their primary job would be to restrict the opposition wing-play by pressing high up on the field. Their secondary task would be to aid their own wingers in launching attacks through overlapping runs, pinning the opposition fullbacks.
Meanwhile, the center-halves would retain a high backline and disperse more toward their respective wings – a position which could be best described as a quasi-center-half-fullback. Not to blackwash their defense, one of the holding midfielders in the double pivot is expected to drop back to anchor the defense along with the slightly skewed center-halves.
The other half of the double pivot is supposed to move further up on the pitch to incorporate the role of a number 10. His dual job would be to link up with the attackers up front and in the flanks. While defending, he is expected run the distance to provide the defensive cover as well. Lastly, the attacking midfielder is given carte blanch to roam forward to keep the lone center-forward company.
Dortmund started the new campaign looking forward to implement this concept in their build-up play. Hummels and Subotic ensured that they keep a high backline, something in which they excel in. The fullbacks, Piszczek and Schmelzer, ran their socks off to fulfill their attacking commitments. Skipper Kehl played the role of the holding midfielder who tried his best to emulate an anchorman to shield the defense.
Both Gündoğan and Leitner were given run-ins for the complex playmaker’s role, one at a time. Reus and Götze were tried to fit into a Kagawa –esque role, to roam forward to bond with Lewandowski. The roles of the wide-midfielder were handed out to Reus, Götze, Kuba, Perišić and Grosskreutz, in a merry-go-around order. Thus, the stage was all set for the Borussian to ride on their new wave of tactical idyll.
To make this build-up plan work, Dortmund needed a whole lot of intensive running to cover a lot of ground and frequent sprints to change the pace of the game. In other words, a lot of movement off the ball was incorporated. And apparently, Klopp has the correct set of players to implement the plan, at least technically.
Yet, as of now, the plan has not come of age. And there are reasons for that. The defenders Subotic and Hummels hardly stay back. In order to press their oppositions high up and to limn their ball-playing skills, the defensive duo is habitués of spending more time in the opposition third. With the fullbacks already stationed high up on the pitch, the inenubilable regular overtures of the center-halves only make Dortmund’s defense a perfect prey for teams that employ counter-offensive game-plan.
This leaves Kehl all on his own to hold fort during counter-attacks. Still Kehl has done well in the past five games, picking the right passes and safe-guarding the defense. He has been aerially dominant, winning 75% of those challenges. However, he has not been that dominant on the ground, where he has made only 54% successful challenges. This goes onto show that Kehl has done a moderately a good job as a holding midfielder. But the new custom anchoring role is tailor-made for Sven Bender more, who is more accomplished in defensive work and whose no-nonsense defensive abilities are something Klopp is missing badly.
The quiddity of the fullback’s role needed desirous of running. Piszczek and Schmelzer offer just about that. In the past four games Piszczek has run an average of 12kms, and Schmelzer, more than 11kms. They recorded the highest number of sprints in each and every match for Dortmund, averaging around 35/game. Barring the game against Frankfurt in which Leitner made the highest number of runs, the fullbacks have made the highest number of runs (Piszczek averaging 70 runs per game, Schmelzer averaging 60 per game) in rest of the games for Dortmund this season.
Hence, after already featuring in the weekend’s fixture against Hamburg, when they were again installed against Frankfurt with only two rest days in between, the fullbacks ran out of steam. Thus, in the 3-3 stalemate against Frankfurt, Frankfurt ran the Dortmund flank ragged in counter-attacks, opening up spaces and forced Dortmund to make mistakes.
This actually holds true for the entire team as well. In all the games played so far, Dortmund have run more than each of their opponents, averaging 120kms. Dortmund have also registered more average speed throughout the games (7.2 km/hr.) and more number of intensive runs (averaging around 615 per game) than any of their opponents so far. End result: Ever since the Frankfurt equalizer, the home team looked more likely to score again than the already panting Borussian unit.
If a gap of two days can cause this much damage to Dortmund’s working class heroes, they will be in for another rude awakening in four days’ time when they welcome Gladbach. Last year, an early exit from the Champions League helped the team start afresh in most of the games in the league. With this new tactical implementation where Klopp’s men need to run a lot, if Dortmund manage to clear the hurdle of the Champions’ League group stage, they may have to pay heavily for that success by finding themselves exhausted in their bid to continue their domestic offensive. The safe option is to not to implement the strategy at all when there is more than a game to play in a week.
Another aspect of Dortmund’s game that has taken toll is ‘Passing’. To put it simply, Dortmund haven’t yet learnt the trick to string in a series of successful passes if counter-pressurized. Dortmund’s possession buckles up under aggressive pressurization resulting in loss of ball possession and that is exactly what happened in the last two games. Dortmund completed more than 400 successful passes in the first three games. But under Hamburg’s and Frankfurt’s high pressing game, Dortmund could only complete 347 (79%) and 332 (80%) passes respectively.
Usually the holding midfielders are expected to stake claim in most number of passes in a game. It is bemusing to see Subotic to top the list of playing highest number of passes, that too in two of the last five games. In fact, this season in Dortmund’s list of number of passes made, Subotic is there in the top three in each of the games. Pulling strings from behind does not fall under a defender’s demesne, does it? Why, then, is a defender making so many touches? That is another reason for Dortmund’s disappointing start – Misplaced passes.
Dortmund’s passing has been erratic right from the word go. In the best game they had so far, their passing accuracy was only 84%. Giving away the ball at crucial junctures on a regular basis has not done any good to Dortmund. In the last three games Subotic holds a poor record in giving away the ball – 14 times against Leverkusen (team – 81), 11 times against Hamburg (team – 89) and 10 times against Frankfurt (team – 82).
Marcel Schmelzer, who has already featured in the list of maximum sprints and intensive runs for the club this season, has surprisingly made relatively less number of touches with all that running. But even then, his passing accuracy is appalling – 15 mispasses out of 36 against Nuremberg, 15 mispasses out of 48 against Hamburg and 10 mispasses out of 30 against Frankfurt. In plain words, 1 in every three passes is a misplaced one.
As of now, the verdict is out on Klopp’s tactical bibelot. Instead of launching a lalochezia on the fourth official, Klopp would do better to concentrate on any one of the following three options to bring back the belief amongst the followers of the Echte Liebe sect – 1) Dump the re-jig, 2) Sort out the defense without compromising re-jig, and 3) Improve the bench-strength to avoid burnout.