DORTMUND, Germany — “A win [in Frankfurt] would be good for the table and for the atmosphere,” Borussia Dortmund manager Peter Bosz said at Friday’s news conference ahead of Saturday’s game. Yes, the atmosphere surrounding Dortmund has become somewhat gloomy after only one win in four games across competitions.
The season of a football club — or any sports team to be true — often is similar to the mood swings of a teenager. Just weeks ago, the Black and Yellows were celebrated for resounding wins against Cologne and Borussia Monchengladbach, glossing over the negative results in the Champions League against Tottenham and Real Madrid. But since then, the plot subsequently slipped from the used-to-be firm grip of Bosz. Still, they are on top of the Bundesliga, but their 3-2 defeat to RB Leipzig saw their five-point gap to second-placed Bayern Munich shrink down to two points.
Tuesday’s infamous 1-1 draw away to APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League dealt another psychological blow to a team that just lost its first league match. BVB very much formulated their ambition to make it to the knockout stages regardless of the prominent adversaries, however, there is no shame in falling short to Madrid and Tottenham this year. But like Switch’s uttered last words in The Matrix: “Not like this.”
Dortmund pulled the plug on their Champions League campaign with what can only be described as a wretched performance in Cyprus. The Westphalians looked in command of the game for a good 10 minutes but instead of making their dominance count they tailed off. What followed were 80 minutes of stale positioning, overhit passes, aimless crosses and a confounding lack of urgency in what had been dubbed as must-win match. Roman Burki’s double whammy to give the hosts a temporary lead was the icing on a three-week-old cake.
“We are currently lacking the easiness,” sporting director Michael Zorc said into the microphones after landing back in Dortmund. “Everything, that worked out smooth and well in the first weeks, now looks cramped. We have too many players that cannot play at 100 percent of their abilities.”
On Friday, Bosz seconded the claim of his sporting director.
“Yes, we’re not on the same level as we were at the start of the season,” he said. “It’s not science: I didn’t see my players for two weeks due to the international break and then games against Leipzig and Nicosia immediately followed. Right now, one game is quickly followed by the next. Currently, we don’t have a lot of time to train.”
Add the fact that Dortmund played seven matches within 21 days before the international break — with the narrow 2-1 win away to Augsburg already showing that they were running out of steam — it is no surprise that BVB show heavy symptoms of fatigue due to a tight schedule. One only needs to rewind 12 months to uncover the exact same problems under Thomas Tuchel, where Dortmund lost all of their three league matches in October with a brand of truly uninspiring football that also coincided with a barrage of injuries.
But of course, the factors for Dortmund’s rough patch are more diverse than just fatigue. After both the loss against Leipzig and the draw in Nicosia, Bosz was unhappy with the stuttering build-up play, singling out his backline that would not progress the ball quickly enough down the field.
Against Leipzig, Burki received a season high 57 back-passes opposed to the season average of 31 per game due to pressure on BVB’s centre-backs, which may very well act as a blueprint for coming opponents. The partnership of Omer Toprak and Sokratis Papastathopoulos at the heart of the defence may not be the optimal solution when looked at under the aspect of build-up play, as both players are not overly press resistant.
In Frankfurt, Dortmund will be forced to play with a different centre-back pairing due to Sokratis’ one-game suspension after his sending off against Leipzig. With Toprak being touch-and-go due to a hamstring issue, the Black and Yellows could field two strong ball-playing centre-backs in Dan-Axel Zagadou next to Marc Bartra.
It remains to be seen whether that will be enough for Dortmund to beat Eintracht Frankfurt at the Commerzbank Arena on Saturday, something they failed to do in the past three seasons. Niko Kovac’s side remain a tough nut to crack this season, boasting the third-most defensive actions in the Bundesliga behind Augsburg and Leipzig, and may be looking for revenge after losing to BVB in the German Cup final in May.
In said cup final, Frankfurt tried to exploit the space in behind left-back Marcel Schmelzer with darting runs; it’s a recipe that could work on Saturday with the Dortmund captain not yet as his full capacity after returning from injury against APOEL on Tuesday.
Bosz will have to find a team that can hide their problems at the full-back position, that puts Frankfurt under pressure with aggressive pressing while being sharp in its possession and has the right balance in order to not run into in open knife. It sounds like an impossible task at the moment but in order to get back to good spirits, Dortmund have to grab a result against the Eagles. In an uncomfortable October, dirty smash-and-grab wins, however, are very much allowed.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.