ANYONE who has become tired of the Bayern Munich monopoly in the Bundesliga over the past six years will find the resurgence of Borussia Dortmund somewhat heartwarming, particulary as the Bavarians have, in the past, made a habit of cherry-picking the best players from their rivals.
BVB are seven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, while Bayern are getting to grips with a new coach and a team that is past its peak. This is in stark contrast to Dortmund, who have a young, vibrant team under former Nice coach Lucien Favre.
Dortmund’s revival will, at the very least, make the Bundesliga more interesting this season. Their team is one of the more cosmopolitan in the league, with only three Germans in the starting line-up that beat Bayern 3-2 in November.
Already, at this early stage of the team’s development, there is talk of vultures circling the Westfalenstadion to lure some of the club’s top talent away. Jadon Sancho, for example, who joined the club in the summer of 2017 from Manchester City as an untried but promising midfielder, is being targeted by none other than Barcelona.
Sancho, who has since won three England caps, provides a very clear example of how young English players are starting to look abroad in order to gain first team experience. Dortmund have tied him up until 2022 and have been vocal in telling would-be suitors that the Londoner is not for sale.
Sebastian Kehl, who returned to Dortmund as director of player licensing, told the media: “The focus is on the English market. Jadon Sancho is a good example. In England, the young players have not been getting the chance because of the structure of the clubs and the squads being totally different. This could be a good thing for us, but we have to act fast.”
Kehl is responsible for recruitment and one of the key elements of the club’s strategy is the development of young players. Sancho is one of half a dozen players in the team that are under 23 years of age. One player who is struggling to get into the starting line-up is 20 year-old American Christian Pulisic, but there’s talk of bids in the region of £ 70 million waiting to take him to the Premier League. Others, such as Danish forward Jacob Bruun Larsen and French defender Dan-Axel Zagadou also have the potential to also attract the biggest names in Europe.
Dortmund have lost some high-profile names over the past couple of years in lucrative transfers, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) and Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona) brought in some EUR 170 million. Yet they have resisted the urge to make huge signings to replace these star names. The players arriving in the summer have, nevertheless, settled in well, with Belgium’s Alex Witsel, Denmark’s Thomas Delaney and Paco Alcácer all making an impact. The latter has assumed the role of “super sub” having started few games but finding the net on 10 occasions. In addition to new signings, Dortmund can still call on World Cup matchwinner Mario Götze and Marco Reus.
Favre has transformed a team that was high on drama but lacking in consistency. Dortmund ended 2017-18 in fourth place, but they were the early season leaders in the Bundesliga. Their Champions League campaign ended at the group stage as they failed to win any of their six games. They moved forward to the Europa League but were surprisingly beaten in the last 16 by Salzburg.
This season, Dortmund are not only more organised, but they are playing with a spirit that has yielded 37 goals in 13 games. In seven of those fixtures, they have scored three or more goals and they’ve also shown they have a stable backline by conceding 13. Starting with an impressive 4-1 victory against RB Leipzig, they’ve dropped only two points at home and they’ve won four of their six away games.
Their only defeat this season has come in the UEFA Champions League, a 2-0 loss at Atlético Madrid, whom they beat 4-0 in Dortmund. They have qualified for the last 16.
Few would have expected Dortmund to come out of the traps at such speed this season. Favre became the fourth coach to be appointed since the departure of Klopp in 2015. He had Bundesliga experience from his time with Gladbach and Hertha Berlin, but fans would have been forgiven for assuming it would take time to adjust from Ligue 1 to the high-octane environment that is the Bundesliga.
Certainly the performances have been something of a throwback to the halcyon days of Klopp, when Dortmund won the title in 2011 and 2012 and reached the Champions League final, where Bayern broke their hearts at the death at Wembley.
Since the departure of the charismatic, white-teethed one, Dortmund have been far from title contenders, in 2015-16, they were runners-up but 10 points behind Bayern, and since then, it has been a third a fourth place. They did win the DFB Pokal in 2017 and reached the last eight of the Champions League.
The fresh impetus provided by Favre has also been supported behind-the-scenes by the arrival of Matthias Sammer, who was so instrumental at Bayern as sporting director during Guardiola’s time at the Allianz Stadium.
Is Dortmund’s current momentum a sign the balance of power is tipping back towards North-Rhine Westphalia? Dortmund were the last team other than Bayern to win the Bundesliga and with Bayern seemingly less effective than they have been over the past half decade, there could be an opportunity to regain the upper hand.
But as exciting as they have been in the first months of 2018-19, Dortmund will have to remain consistent and be aware that Bayern can never be written off. Dortmund are currently nine points ahead of their old rivals, but this weekend (December 8), Dortmund have to travel to Gelsenkirchen for the Revierderby (Ruhr Derby) against Schalke 04. This is a ground they haven’t won at in the league since 2013.
They won’t lack confidence, but this is one of Europe’s most passionate local derbies. Dortmund will be hoping for business as usual, while a defeat for BVB will give encouragement to the aristocrats of Bavaria that the title race is still very much open.