DORTMUND, Germany — One week into December, Borussia Dortmund are still looking for their first Bundesliga win since September.
After winning six and drawing one of their first seven games, resulting in a five-point cushion at the top of the table, the Black and Yellows have plummeted to sixth place, amounting only three draws and four losses in their past seven. Across all competitions, they’ve won only one of their past 13 games.
Naturally, the first question to Peter Bosz at Friday’s news conference ahead of Saturday’s home match against 17th-placed Werder Bremen was what makes him optimistic that his team would return to their winning ways.
“Several periods of recent games,” Bosz answered. “For instance, the first half against Schalke, where we played well at home and also the period after the first 20 minutes against Real Madrid, where we played some great football. We do not only have to defend well but show good football on the ball.”
On the flip side, it means that Dortmund haven’t been capable of playing well throughout an entire match in recent weeks, nay months. In the Revierderby, they threw away a 4-0 lead in the second half to draw 4-4; at Bayer Leverkusen, they were far inferior until the hosts were down to 10 men; and Real Madrid significantly stepped off the gas after 20 minutes, being comfortable 2-0 leaders in a meaningless fixture.
Hence Bosz has to clutch at straws to find some optimism going into Saturday’s game against a reinvigorated Bremen side that have won two of their past three games since Florian Kohfeldt took over for Alexander Nouri as manager.
And another worrying trend for Bosz is that information about his lineup is being leaked to the press. Funke Mediengruppe wrote ahead of the Leverkusen match that they had heard out of the player’s circle that Neven Subotic would find himself in the starting lineup. It’s not war-deciding information, yet details about the lineup haven’t been publicly available for years in Dortmund unless the coach himself had revealed them.
Though, for what it’s worth, some aspects of BVB’s game have improved, which also has to do with Bosz’s switch from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3.
Two wing-backs and two holding midfielders instead of just one mean more passing options in the first build-up phase for the three centre-backs. Dortmund can construct more triangles and find ways to play around the pressure of their opponents, as they did very well in the first half against Schalke.
The change is not the solution to all their problems but it’s a better plan than reverting to long balls, as Dortmund were forced to do in league games against Frankfurt (2-2 draw) and Hannover (4-2 loss).
Captain Marcel Schmelzer has revealed to ESPN FC that the team is feeling more comfortable with three at the back, and Nuri Sahin confirmed that to Ruhr Nachrichten as well after the game against Real Madrid. For a team that concedes goals left, right and centre due to the peculiarities of a three-back system, it can only bode well to take fewer risks.
On Saturday, however, Dortmund won’t be able to afford a style as risk-averse as they were in the second half against decimated Leverkusen, in which they found the 1-1 equaliser to salvage a point but tried to keep the ball away from the Rhine side with 89 percent possession rather than going out guns ablaze seeking a winner.
“There are no ifs and buts,” Sahin said on Wednesday night, “only a win counts against Bremen.”
The Northerners have a tied third-best defensive record in the Bundesliga, having conceded only 16 goals in 14 games, and will set their hopes on nifty Fin Bartels and Max Kruse to dissect Dortmund on the counterattack. Both have set up four goals for each other in the past four games.
Bosz, meanwhile, will hope that his star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang keeps his form up. The Gabonese international scored braces against Schalke and Real Madrid while being suspended against Leverkusen due to a red card. And also Shinji Kagawa has shown promising glimpses in the wake of the injured Mario Gotze and Gonzalo Castro either in midfielder or further up front.
Due to the recent injuries, including the long-term knee injury of Maximilian Philipp, chances have increased that 17-year-old Englishman Jadon Sancho will see more minutes on the field amid Dortmund’s crammed schedule. After playing in Madrid on Wednesday, an away match in Mainz will follow Saturday’s game.
Those are two games Dortmund ought to win in order to stay in touch with a top-four spot ahead of the winter break. At the moment, Dortmund are only two points off but cannot afford to drop any further behind.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.