When Dortmund fans look back on the 2017/18 season, frustration will be the operative word that comes to many minds. Despite a typically young and talented squad, this season will ultimately go down as one in which club executives got it wrong. Michael Zorc and Hans-Joachim Watzke have earned their reputations as some of the wiliest and most respected executives in Europe, but they handicapped the team’s performance this season with their decisions off of it.
When the decision was made to part ways with Thomas Tuchel last year, Dortmund were willingly letting go of one of the brightest managerial talents in world football, but his relationship with the club had deteriorated beyond repair. However, the club seemed to get the benefit of the doubt from most outlets, with Tuchel’s prickly nature and cold-hearted chasing of Sven Mislintat out of the club often cited as reasons why he had to go, After all, isn’t this the club that seemed to pull world class managers out of nowhere (ok well…Mainz)? Surely they could do it again?
Here now in April of 2018, it is safe to say they did not. Peter Bosz was a flash of brilliance followed by months of embarrassing decline, and Peter Stoeger’s tenure has been all about finding a balance in the squad and righting the ship. In some ways, he has been able to do that, with the defence showing clear signs of improvement and the team moving from “mercurial” to merely “inconsistent”. However, this balance has come with a hefty cost for much of Stoeger’s reign, with the team on the pitch often sharing little resemblance to the high-octane side that oozed class and struck fear in opponents over the last few seasons. Sure, the counter attack is still among the best in Europe, but sending Marco Reus streaming up the pitch with the ball and numbers is sure to net you goals under most circumstances. This season has seen Dortmund lose their edge against most lesser sides in Germany, with emphatic wins often coming far less frequently than games where they did “just enough” to capture the points.
Heading into last weekend’s match with a very strong Leverkusen side, it was clear that Stoeger had to do something to get his team to perform better than they had against Schalke the week prior. For a manager known for his fastidious attention to defensive organisation and an aversion to conceding goals, his solution was perhaps a surprising one: aggressively choosing an attacking lineup and giving them the freedom to play positive football. The result was perhaps the greatest performance, front to back, that Dortmund have had all season. Stoeger stacked his midfield and forward line with attacking midfielders and wide men, a surplus of pace and skill in a “front 5” of sorts, which Julian Weigl anchoring the midfield and Manuel Akanji replacing Marcel Schmelzer at left back. The injured Michy Batshuayi was replaced by Max Philipp, who was excellent from ostensibly the centre forward position. Teenaged English sensation Jadon Sancho was also given the start by Stoeger, and he was one of the brightest stars on the pitch, even setting a record by becoming the youngest Englishman to ever score in the Bundesliga.
A Blip on the Radar or Has Stoeger Cracked The Code?
Watching Dortmund totally dismantle a Leverkusen side that had been hot heading into the weekend, it begs the question whether or not this team has had a performance like that in them all along this season. Perhaps Stoeger, who took his brief to balance the side and improve the defence very seriously, took this team too far in a conservative direction to the point where the style he wanted to play wasn’t fitting the players at his disposal. Whatever the case may be, for what seems like the first time since he took the job, Stoeger was not just thinking about how best to negate the opponent, but rather about how his team could impose their will on Leverkusen.
When Michy Batshuayi went down injured last week, many felt that it seriously jeopardized Dortmund’s late push to hold on to a Champions League place. With Alexander Isak the only other true striker in the squad, Stoeger was forced to get creative with his team selection. When Dortmund had the ball, the positions of his front 4 attackers would freely flow and interchange, causing confusion in the Leverkusen defence. Without a true number 9 to set the positions of the surrounding attackers, the improvisational brilliance of Marco Reus was in full effect, with Christian Pulisic, Sancho and Philipp all quick to join him on the break. It may have been a slightly new approach for Stoeger, but the result was classic Dortmund in its execution.
At the back, perhaps the most significant change of the match was the decision to leave Marcel Schmelzer on the bench for “sporting reasons” (read: not good enough anymore) in favour of the rangy centre back Manuel Akanji. The Swiss international took his opportunity with both hands, playing a very strong match on the left side of the Dortmund defence while using his elite passing range to spray the ball forward to the attackers. The result was a team that not only attacked with an air of unpredictability, but defended soundly at the back as well.
Even if Dortmund continue to perform in much the same way for the remainder of the season, it is likely already too late for Peter Stoeger’s future with the club. The one positive managerial move the club made this season was to only give the Austrian a deal to the end of the season, keeping their options open for next season. Stoeger fulfilled his brief, and he should be commended for it, but he just is not a long term fit with the Borussia Dortmund way and culture. Last weekend’s match showed just how good this team can play when on its day, and the job will most likely fall to someone else to extract these sorts of performances from the team more often next season. Stoeger will likely use this experience as a spring board into another managerial job in Germany while Dortmund will look to find a manager to once again give them an identity. There will be much written about who the next man in might be, but this time the club must choose one in line with the club’s values. Giving youth a chance, winning matchesandplaying exciting football that packs the Westfalenstadion with the best fans in the world should be at the top of the club’s priorities list this summer. With a World Cup on the horizon, teams will have even less opportunity to complete their summer business, so whomever the candidate is, he must be decided on as soon as possible.