Why Dortmund need Champions League to save season

19 February 2024 0 By Total Football News

Jude Bellingham and manager Edin TerzicJude Bellingham was an unused substitute when Borussia Dortmund lost the title to Bayern Munich on the final day of the Bundesliga season in May 2023

While Bayer Leverkusen, sensational under manager Xabi Alonso, are threatening to run away from Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund have long been out of the race.

Dortmund are 17 points behind leaders Leverkusen, facing a battle to finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League.

It is a far cry from last season, when Dortmund were one win from breaking Bayern’s stranglehold on the German top flight, which has lasted more than a decade.

Dortmund led by two points going into the final day of the 2022-23 season, but a 2-2 draw at home to Mainz allowed Bayern, who won 2-1 at Cologne, to take an 11th successive Bundesliga crown on goal difference.

The sense of what might have been has haunted Dortmund all season – exacerbated by Leverkusen’s form. Alonso’s side are eight points clear and were hugely impressive3-0 winners over Bayern earlier this month.

Now Dortmund, who hoped to build on last season’s near miss of clinching a first Bundesliga title since 2012, are reliant on the Champions League to stop this campaign being a write-off.

The hangover from throwing away the title was not severe, as they went unbeaten in the league for the first three months of this campaign.

But as so often happens to modern-era Dortmund, they came unstuck against Bayern. A 4-0 home defeat on 4 November – in which Harry Kane scored a hat-trick – triggered a run of one win in seven league games going into the winter break, including failing to win in the Bundesliga during December.

A 1-1 draw with Mainz left Dortmund 15 points off the pace over Christmas, and though they have found some form – they are unbeaten in eight league games – it is surely too big a gap to close.

While this upturn has eased some pressure on manager Edin Terzic, questions remain for Dortmund – particularly regarding recruitment.

It is impossible to ignore how much Dortmund have missed Jude Bellingham following his departure to Real Madrid last summer, and how – perhaps predictably – they have struggled to replace him.

Underwhelming signings and changing formations

Felix Nmecha celebrates scoring against NewcastleFelix Nmecha (second left) has only scored once for Dortmund following his £25m arrival – at Newcastle in the Champions League

A chunk of the £88.5m Madrid shelled out for Bellingham was reinvested in attacking midfielder Felix Nmecha, with Wolfsburg paying £25m for the former Manchester City youngster.

Dortmund’s return from Nmecha has been one goal in 15 games, a hip injury which has kept him out since November, and backlash from fans because of perceived homophobic and transphobic activity by the Germany international on social media.

Part of the Bellingham fund was also invested in central midfielder Marcel Sabitzer. While the former Manchester United loanee has been more of a success than Nmecha, the three goals and five assists the Austrian has provided in 24 games represents a significant downgrade from Bellingham’s 14 goals and seven assists from 42 matches last season.

The January re-signing of Jadon Sancho on loan from Manchester United has so far failed to reproduce the good old days of his first Dortmund spell. Sancho is yet to complete 90 minutes for the German side, and missed the recent goalless draw with Heidenheim because of a muscle problem.

Bellingham’s quality and intensity was such that he was effectively two players in one for Dortmund last season – a creative force in the centre, and a scoring threat on the break. Terzic has attempted to replace him with two players, with half the effectiveness, while tinkering to find a system which works without the Englishman.

In the first half of the season Dortmund mainly played a 4-2-3-1 formation, but Terzic also lined up his side 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1, and occasionally switched to 3-4-3 or 5-3-2. That experimentation has continued into their more successful post-Christmas period – against Bochum and Heidenheim in recent Bundesliga fixtures, Dortmund started in a 4-4-2 with two deep-lying central midfielders.

Such upheaval has left Dortmund failing to hit the heights of last season. Their stats are good, but not title-challenging – third in the Bundesliga in possession, fifth in pass completion.

Were it not for the phenomenal form this season of goalkeeper Gregor Kobel, they would be significantly worse off. Their defensive expected goals (xG) suggests they should have conceded eight more than they have, which has left them four points better off, while Kobel has saved 74 shots this season – more than any other keeper for a Bundesliga top-eight side.

While the top flight has been a disappointment for Dortmund, the Champions League has proved a saving grace for Terzic and his players – winning a tough Group F including Paris St-Germain, AC Milan and Newcastle.

This included victories in Italy and England, before holding PSG to a point to secure top spot, and a favourable last-16 draw against PSV Eindhoven.

It provides hope that, amid a tough campaign for the Black and Yellows, the Champions League could yet salvage their season.

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