It may not have been pretty, or even particularly inspiring, but Borussia Dortmund survived the plucky efforts of Club Brugge to emerge the victors in their first match of the 2018 UEFA Champions League. Lucien Favre’s men overcame two untimely knocks to important players last week to earn the 1-0 victory at the Jan Breydelstadion in Bruges. Following the latest international break, Dortmund set off on a congested run of fixtures, playing twice a week for the next month. The victory ensures a strong start to their Champions League journey, and Favre has now presided over 6 competitive matches without defeat, though he will be looking to avoid the fatal swoon that affected Peter Bosz’s tenure last season after a similarly hot start.
Bürki Resurgence Continues
While the rest of the squad has been struggling to produce consistently cohesive performance under their third manager in 2 seasons, Roman Burki has been surprising supporters with his relatively consistent performances since the beginning of the new campaign. Through 5 starts thus far, including Tuesday’s Champions League clash and a victory in the first round of the DFB Pokal, Burki has conceded just 4 goals. 2 clean sheets in 5 attempts is not an earth shattering, but considering the state of flux the team in front of him currently finds itself in, his performance has garnered few complaints thus far.
Against Club Brugge on Tuesday Burki was not overly taxed, with just 3 of the host’s 11 shots finding the target, but he did enough to keep from being beaten on the night. He was only called upon to make a taxing save once, on a long range effort from Arnaut Danjuma, a player who was perhaps the best performer on the pitch in the first half. With Roman Weidenfeller now a figure of the past at Dortmund, the time is now for the 27 year old Burki to remove all doubts as to his status as the unquestioned number one at the Westfalenstadion. Despite it still being early days, the signs are increasingly positive that he will.
An Uninspired Pivot
Since Lucien Favre became the Borussia Dortmund manager, no position on the pitch has seen as many changes in both personnel and philosophy as the central midfield. A focus on defensive stability as the foundation of the team has seen a move toward multi-dimensional hard workers in the centre of the pitch, a shift from the combination of a controller with more technical, progressive players that dated back to the days of Juergen Klopp. No player represents the shift from technical prowess to an action oriented style than summer signing Thomas Delaney, but the Dane was forced to miss out on Tuesday’s match after suffering a knock against Frankfurt last week.
To open the match, Favre opted for a double pivot of Julian Weigl and Axel Witsel. It was not the finest first half for the duo, as the energetic Club Brugge were able to find purchase in central areas utilising their 3-5-2 formation to great effect. Weigl in particular showed a bit of rust early on in his first competitive match of the season. Witsel meanwhile, back in the country he represents on international level, had a similarly spotty evening. While solid enough when defending, there was a distinct lack of dynamism coming out from the base of midfield, a fact brought into even sharper focus when Mahmoud Dahoud’s late introduction immediately resulted in Christian Pulisic’s winning goal. The duo did improve as the match wore on, but in Lucien Favre’s rather conservative system, the midfield needs to do more to link defence and attack in a cohesive way.
Lack Of True Striker Still Hurting Dortmund
After the matter of who would become the next manager of the club was decided in the summer, the most urgent matter for many supporters became finding the next great Dortmund striker. Having witnessed a continuous string of top quality strikers perform for the club, from Robert Lewandowski through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Michy Batshuayi, fans could not help but worry about the lack of a true number 9 in the squad apart from a struggling young Alexander Isak. The club did manage to eventually find a temporary replacement in the closing days of the transfer window, nabbing Paco Alcacer on loan from Barcelona, but his slight injury last week left Favre with a lack of options heading into Tuesday’s match.
Marco Reus was handed the start as centre forward, but he was unable to make a consistent impact on proceedings. Far better suited to a wider role or to playing off of a more natural striker, the German international is not overly polished in the role. He doesn’t possess the strength to play with his back to goal and hold the ball up for his teammates, which can be a real hindrance in a single striker formation when the attack is transitioning out of a low or mid block. His pace and creativity makes him an impressive weapon on the counter, but if the opponent manages to blunt the initial surge, the Dortmund attack grinds to a halt. Alcacer should help to alleviate some of the pressure on Reus once he returns to the starting XI, but whether in January or beyond, Dortmund must either find more depth or a long term solution to the position.
Pulisic Gets Lucky
After lasting nearly an entire 90 minutes without allowing Dortmund to break through, the hosts will feel a bit hard done by to have conceded so late in proceedings. It makes matters even worse when considering the nature of Christian Pulisic’s goal, which will likely make any chance of Club Brugge advancing beyond the group stage highly unlikely. Dortmund finally got the break the were looking for in the 85th minute when, following an aggressive pass into the feet of Reus from Dahoud that was poked away, Pulisic streaked into the box to close down an attempted clearance. The ball glanced off the American’s foot, looping high into the air and coming down behind goalkeeper Karlo Letica and into the net.
The goal was massive for both Dortmund and Pulisic, who has struggled to find consistency over the last 16 months since seeing his star rise meteorically the season before. He has struggled with occasional injuries as well, preventing him from embarking on a consistent string of performances for his club. With Jadon Sancho now the latest young talent in the system, Pulisic is no longer THE golden boy at the club. Lucien Favre demands that all 11 players contribute defensively, meaning that both Pulisic and Sancho must add that dimension to their games in order to force their way into the manager’s plans for the biggest matches on the calendar.
It Only Gets Tougher
Dortmund may have required a fair bit of luck to come away with 3 points on the road, but those points are essential to the Ruhr club if they intend on advancing beyond the group stage. For the second straight season, die Schwarzgelben find themselves generally considered the 3rd best team in the group, with Monaco and Atletico Madrid firm favourites to advance. However, the Spanish giants have shown cracks in their early season performances after seeing many of their players follow a long season the previous campaign with a truncated summer holiday due to the World Cup. If Dortmund can catch Diego Simeone’s men before the morph back into the well-drilled defensive juggernaut they have been in past seasons, they stand a chance of forcing their way into the battle to top the group.
Monaco meanwhile have continued to defy the odds, supplementing a team constantly ravaged on the transfer market with a seemingly endless supply of young talent from the academy and intelligent dealings on the market. After suffering a bit of regression last season following their Ligue 1 triumph the season prior, Monaco again look a tough side to beat. However, having lost to Atletico in their first group match, they already find themselves in a vulnerable position.
Unlike some “groups of death” there is a balance to Group A that could make it one of the races to watch as we approach the knockout stages. While it will be difficult, Dortmund do have the talent to have an honest go at advancement. All 4 teams are capable of playing exciting football when the mood strikes, and the battle for the top 2 places will be fierce, but if Dortmund can add a bit of attacking consistency onto the defensive foundation that Lucien Favre is working diligently to build, we may just see Dortmund survive in the competition beyond the holiday period.