Borussia Dortmund winning 3-0 away from home against Freiburg wouldn’t have been regarded as a shock result at the beginning of the season, but the fact that this is what it took for Jürgen Klopp’s side to leapfrog their opposition and get them off the bottom of the Bundesliga table shortly after the winter break undoubtedly was. It’s been a rapid demise in standing for a side that’ve finished in the top two for the last four consecutive seasons; made all the weirder by the fact that they’re far from playing like a side that are in the middle of a relegation dogfight.
In terms of goals scored though, they are – the lack of them has been a huge concern for Jürgen Klopp’s team. Despite possessing a high level of individual quality within the squad compared to most, a team total of just 21 goals in 20 games (the drawn fourth-lowest figure in the league) has been recorded: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s rather average tally of seven somehow being enough to make him their clear top scorer. It’s a terribly low attacking output for anyone, let alone what you’d expect from Dortmund with their recent history.
What makes it so strange however is that in these circumstances, chance creation hasn’t really been an issue for them this season – a long way from it in quantitative terms. The amount of shots per game (16.8) they’ve been having actually represents the second-highest amount in the league, equal with Bayer Leverkusen and behind only Bayern Munich, and it’s not as if they appear to be coming from massively disadvantageous positions on the pitch either.
Their 9.0 shots per game from inside the penalty box (excluding ones from inside the six-yard box) is again only bettered by Bayern Munich, accounting for a pretty decent 53.6% of their overall shot tally. That figure rises to 57.1% when the six-yard box is included, a proportion that is the 11th highest in the league for the season, which, whilst not great, also isn’t too bad for a team who has so many shots overall.
Perhaps the six-yard box shot statistics on their own are somewhat low, being the drawn fourth-lowest in the division, but with it representing such a small proportion and there being such a finite difference between the highest and lowest figures (a range of 0.7) it’s hard and unwise to draw any significant conclusion from that. Instead, the best conclusion can be drawn in shot conversion. And that’s where the problem begins to get a lot clearer.
Their average number of shots on target per game (5.5) in itself isn’t bad, but in the context of how many shots they record per match that equates to a staggeringly low 32.7% of their shots which go towards goal – the fifth worst figure in the league. It gets even worse when you look at how many attempts it takes them to score a goal on average; 16.0. Other than Hamburg (16.7), the lowest scorers in the Bundesliga this season, no other side comes close to being so dismally inefficient.
Though far from entirely conclusive, some of the explanation for that lack of a clinical touch can come down to the departure of Robert Lewandowski and the injuries which have been suffered by Marco Reus. The two were respectively the first and drawn-fourth highest scorers in the Bundesliga in 2013/14, grabbing a combined total of 36 goals: 45% of their overall tally.
Without those two BVB have had to rely on very different sources for goals, and unfortunately for them they haven’t been very reliable at all. Ciro Immobile (Serie A’s top scorer with 22 in the last season) and Adrián Ramos (one of the two players who equalled Reus’ tally in 2013/14) were the two central strikers bought and entrusted with making up for Lewandowski’s departure, but because of injuries, adapting to their new environments and poor form – as well as simply not being as good or well suited to the team – they’ve only scored five league goals between them at their new club.
Aubameyang has picked up some of the slack, as mentioned being their top scorer at this point with seven, but the Gabon international is neither a clinical finisher nor a natural striker. That’s reflected in that on average it’s taken him 8.4 shots (a conversion rate of 11.9%) to score a goal this season, compared to Lewandowski’s 5.9 (16.9%) of the previous campaign. A rather significant difference, that. Add in Adrián Ramos’ 9.0 (11.1%), Ciro Immobile’s 11.7 (8.5%), and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s failure to score even a single goal in 37 shots despite his excellent perception of space and positioning, and it doesn’t make for very good reading for Dortmund.
So why, with a still – albeit less – talented group of players in a team creating lots of shooting opportunities from what at least appear to be good positions, are the players not scoring? Well, as touched on there, a lack of adaption and confidence (perhaps due to poor early season form or the pressure of expectation) certainly has to be thrown into the ring. But maybe, rather than looking at it from a positional point of view, the key is in a situational one instead.
Perhaps the first, and also simplest, thing to look at is the change in the efficiency of their set-pieces. Having scored 34 of their 80 goals (42.5%) from these situations last season, a drop to just 4 of 21 (19.0%) is enormous. They’ve gone from effectively having a guaranteed goal every game through them, to one every five matches. Dortmund do still average a fourth-highest Bundesliga figure of 4.6 shots per game through set-pieces, equating to 27.4% of all their chances, yet have scored the third-lowest total from them – and comparing the percentage of chances to the percentage of goals from them certainly shows a newly developed inability to score from these situations.
Unquestionably the bigger concern however is in open play: which isn’t so simple to look at. For that, the type of team which BVB are has to be largely considered initially. And looking at that can also go some way to explaining why, despite it appearing so on the surface earlier on, the quality of chances really isn’t as good as the positional indicators suggested.
The success under Klopp had – and still requires – a well-sized orientation around brilliantly executed gegenpressing, lightning transitions and brutal counter-attacks, three linked actions which are predominantly enhanced and reliant on controlling space rather than the ball. However by having averaged a pretty high level of possession (55.4%) this season, and especially with other teams notably sitting a bit deeper against them than before, the capacity to do what they do best is instantaneously reduced.
Although the possession is actually not that much higher than last season, in their prime period under Klopp there was no actual dependency on the counter-attack. The likes of Lewandowski, Reus, Mario Götze and İlkay Gündoğan in particular were all capable of making the difference with high quality finishing, passing and associative play, but with two of those regularly injured and the other pair now at Bayern Munich, the reduction in talent from truly gifted to just ‘good’ players has hurt them. Teams can simply defend deeper in the knowledge that they won’t be as badly harmed if they can avoid Dortmund using their best method of attacking – the talent drain, or in other words their best players leaving, has finally affected them.
With a dependency having now developed on the system and the need to counter-attack, it’s easier to stop them now than ever: give them the ball and make them play. Having excess control is counterproductive for them, taking away what is by some distance their most effective offensive mechanism. They can’t rely on masses of space to expose because of the lower defensive block which other teams are taking up, and even when they do generate chances they’re lower than normal for them in a qualitative fashion. That’s something which not only worsens but helps to explain the inefficiencies of their attackers.
What these higher possession figures also do is reduce the effectiveness of Dortmund’s gegenpressing. Before, when winning the ball high up the pitch as other teams attempted to transition into attack, there would only be a handful of players between them and the goal. But with more players back who are able to cover, the implications of a turnover of possession are reduced in severity.
This means that the shots gained through the opportunistic nature of their pressing are generally lower in positional quality than they’d hope for, enhancing their shooting numbers (teams who press like this, like Bayer Leverkusen, often have high shot numbers) but restricting how positive the opportunities truly are. Evidence for that can be seen when looking at the percentage of their shots which are blocked per game, 26.2% (equal to 4.4 shots), the third-highest behind Bayer Leverkusen and Freiburg.
Having more possession themselves could also be seen as a thing which somewhat directly relates to their poor defensive record this season too. Like with how the amount of shots Dortmund have had makes their placement in the table seem quite bizarre, the amount of shots they’ve conceded does similarly: the average number against them per match (9.0) is the third-lowest figure in the league, yet they’ve conceded the ninth-highest number of goals.
Whilst Dortmund’s own chances are reduced in effectiveness because of their inability to attack on the counter-attack, the opposition’s are improved due to them being able to expose Klopp’s side in such a manner. With the press having also dropped in intensity (though not massively but it’s enough to make a difference) – a result of personnel changes, injuries, and also even mental tiredness – it’s now easier to bypass and make use of the space behind.
As the BVB players are pushed higher, a consequence of them having more possession as they commit more numbers forward, there’s less pressure on the opposition attackers when they break through and chances are easier to fashion. Referring to blocks again, they average stopping just 20.0% of the shots against them, the sixth-lowest of the league’s 18 sides, somewhat reflective of the lack of bodies back when the opposition have chances.
In fact, moving the possession factor over to a purely statistical output clearly demonstrates the negative impact which having too much of the ball is having on their results. Looking at the figures recorded for points per game (a difference of 0.95), goals scored per game (0.55) and goals conceded per game (0.34), there is an evident improvement in the matches where the impetus isn’t on them to control the play. That’s a pretty significant change.
Of the seven games where they’ve had less possession, it should be noted that five of them have come against teams who are currently in the top six. Their better record despite the strength of opponent (which is also reflected in their Champions League form) could be influenced by them stepping up their game in more important matches too, so that has to be considered, but less possession – a result of the more technically-gifted teams taking away their excess level of ball control – undeniably has a significant part to play.
Going back to the topic of Dortmund’s defensive deficiencies though, on top of the influence of possession there have been other factors in the worsening of their record at the back too; consistency in the line-up being a particular problem. A large portion of Dortmund’s success was built upon having a very well-functioning defensive unit (Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels, Neven Subotić and Łukasz Piszczek making up the back four), players who understand the whole style perfectly, but injuries have drastically limited the amount of playing time that those four have been able to have together on the pitch.
In BVB’s 20 Bundesliga games so far, they’ve only been able to put out that back four on three separate occasions; 15% of them, the first of which coming at the start of December. Add first-choice goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller into the equation and it drops to a sole match – their most recent one.
Such irregularity leads to them not only having to use lower quality players, but also a lack of cohesion and understanding between them, ultimately resulting in defensive mistakes becoming far too common practice. Roman Weidenfeller’s form has been a big concern too, even leading to him being dropped for a short period of time in December.
Combining all these factors together results in the potential for calamity at any time and, with only Eintracht Frankfurt experiencing a higher shots to goals ratio against them (15.0% for Dortmund, or a goal every 6.7 shots), it is certainly happening all too regularly.
Being able to use their first-choice defence and goalkeeper all together for the first time this season against Freiburg in their last game is certainly a cause for optimism at the club though. If they can keep that group playing regularly, though it won’t solve everything, there should be a significant tightening up at the back – possessing the kind of understanding (and quality) which they have is absolutely massive.
In fact, with three goals scored and none conceded, that match had a few other reasons for Dortmund to stay positive. Off the bottom of the league with their first three points on the road since their first away day of the season in August, there’s now just seven points between them and 7th place. That’s a lot of other teams who are in with a similar threat of relegation and, if their individual quality can at last shine through and improve things in both penalty boxes, they should feel confident about overtaking a number of them.
One such reason which it may shine through is the return of Reus, who was amongst the goals for the first time since the middle of November after picking an injury up around that time. He’s now played at least 70 minutes in each of the last three matches since the winter break, and him renewing his contract after continued speculation about his future should lead to a few heads picking up at the very least. After struggling so badly with finishing off their chances, things can surely only improve with their best individual and a vital component of their attacking play back in the side. Gündoğan's slow but steady return to match fitness after a long period out may also go some way to helping to increase their ability to break teams down.
Most significantly of all – in most factors they really aren’t playing like a team who are sitting third-bottom of the league. Dortmund do have everything they could possibly need and more to avoid relegation, and whilst it’s a very real threat, they should feel confident about doing more than just surviving this season.