DORTMUND, Germany — Continental contests at the Signal Iduna Park used to be intense, intimidating affairs for visiting teams. Some may remember Borussia Dortmund‘s thrashing of AC Milan in the 2002 UEFA Cup semifinals, or Robert Lewandowski‘s four-goal performance against Real Madrid in the 2013 UEFA Champions League semifinals.
Yet Wednesday’s clash between Dortmund and Milan lacked that special atmosphere as the two teams played to a goalless draw. Granted, it was only a group-stage game, but the majority of the home crowd inside the Signal Iduna Park rarely got up and out of their seats. Their team didn’t give them much to be excited about, other than a few shots that came mostly from outside of the box. While Milan are a dangerous team, given the counterattacking threat posed by Theo Hernández and Rafael Leão, Dortmund should have been more in control over the 90 minutes.
The lacklustre outing on Wednesday mirrored Dortmund’s start into their 2023-24 campaign.
They may be fourth in the Bundesliga, equal on points with Bayern Munich, but the Black and Yellow needed luck, late goals and a lot of willpower to beat the likes of FC Cologne and TSG Hoffenheim. They’ve also enjoyed a relatively easy schedule, yet to play any of this season’s early title protagonists: Bayern, Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig or VfB Stuttgart.
Dortmund’s uninspired start to the season shouldn’t come as too big of a shock. On top of the hangover they must be feeling after losing the Bundesliga title on the last day of the 2022-23 season, they also have massive holes to fill in the squad, several players aren’t living up to expectations, and the German top flight has seen a couple of surprise contenders looking to upset the established order.
Trying to reimagine Dortmund
Reports in August suggested that Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic and sporting director Sebastian Kehl were butting heads over player recruitment. Kehl was quick to shoot down these rumours, saying that success would not be possible without some friction, and there’s nothing to suggest that Dortmund’s summer signings were made against Terzic’s will.
Dortmund’s domestic opponents are often smart in the way they construct pressing schemes and put pressure on BVB’s centre-backs and midfielders. After the summer departures of Jude Bellingham and Raphaël Guerreiro, Dortmund were unable to assemble a midfield perfectly suited to possessing the ball more than their opponents in the majority of games.
New arrivals Marcel Sabitzer and Felix Nmecha have so far not proven that they possess the kind of creativity to outmanoeuvre defensively minded teams. Emre Can, who extended his contract and was promoted to the role of captain during the summer, has also been far from the top-notch form he showed in the second half of last season.
Without Bellingham’s ability to move the ball effectively between the penalty areas and Guerreiro’s ball-playing skills, Dortmund are left with previous few difference makers in the middle of the field. Julian Brandt is undoubtedly a talented playmaker, but he needs support from behind him. Against Milan, as in previous games, the 27-year-old Germany international often found himself chasing after passes or trying to retain possession against defenders close to the offside line. He was rarely in position to feed the forwards and be the guiding hand for Dortmund’s attack.
“The first few games were wild on our part,” Terzic said after Dortmund’s 3-1 win at Hoffenheim last week. “The control came back in the second half against Freiburg and in the game against Wolfsburg. That’s when the team reacts well to what we are addressing.”
In his second year as head coach and after letting the Bundesliga title slip away on the final matchday of the 2022-23 season, Terzic knows that expectations are rising and his work is under more scrutiny. He hasn’t tried to sugarcoat recent performances and instead has begun to make tactical and personnel changes just a few weeks into the new season.
For Dortmund’s home game against Wolfsburg on Sept. 23, Terzic switched from the customary 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-2-1 and dropped Can from the starting lineup in favour of Salih Özcan. As a result — for one half, at least — his team was able to move the ball more fluidly against a deep-sitting side. Terzic then returned to the 4-2-3-1 for the games against Hoffenheim and Milan, though, which saw his team be less dominant in the middle of the field once again.
The 40-year-old, however, focussed on his team’s inability to finish.
“Either the ball comes in and no one is inside the box or we got guys in the box and then we do not play the ball into [this area],” he said after Wednesday’s match against Milan. “We won the ball many times in high field positions towards the end, but we did not make anything out of it. That was too little.”
Form deserts the perennial contenders
The numbers dispel the coach’s notion that this team isn’t finishing. Dortmund have scored 12 goals in six league games, with an expected goals (xG) value of 12.0, indicating that Brandt, Marco Reus & Co. have not been unlucky in front of goal — they create too few chances. With 4.67 shots on target per 90 minutes, BVB have only the seventh-highest output in the league.
One player who once was a tremendous initiator of scoring opportunities is Jadon Sancho. The winger is on the outs with Erik ten Hag and Manchester United, where he’s never fully broken through after his big-money move from Dortmund in 2021. Recent reports suggest that Sancho might leave Old Trafford in January, after little more than two seasons with the club.
The 23-year-old England international has stayed in touch with Terzic since leaving Westphalia, and it would be only logical that Dortmund’s manager would like to have his star player back. Whether BVB are able, or willing, to afford such a deal remains to be seen.
Terzic must take some of the blame for how underwhelming Dortmund have been, particularly compared to Bayern and Leverkusen. Under Xabi Alonso, Leverkusen are demonstrating how a coach can design and teach his players execute a specific tactical approach, while also bringing in signings that perfectly fit certain needs. Meanwhile, Terzic continues to tinker both tactically and with his personnel selection.
That said, the early post-Bellingham period was always going to be tough, considering how strongly the England midfielder influenced Dortmund’s style of play in previous years. In addition to losing arguably one of the best players in Europe, too few in the team have performed at the level that they’re capable of in the opening stages of the season.
Karim Adeyemi, the fast-paced winger, is nowhere near as dangerous in the final third as he was in early 2023. Sébastien Haller, who contributed nine goals in the second half of last season and enjoyed an incredible comeback as a survivor of testicular cancer, has struggled to rediscover that form. Others, including Özcan and Nmecha, as well as Ramy Bensebaini, the left-back who arrived on a free transfer from Borussia Mönchengladbach, have been inconsistent in their week-to-week performances.
The latter two were not with the club when Dortmund suffered the dramatic defeat against Mainz on the final matchday of 2022-23, but others may very well still suffer from that devastating experience. Haller went so far as to say that it hurt more than when he was informed about his cancer diagnosis.
“When you are ill, then you cannot change anything about it. You have to accept it and push through,” he said in a September interview with Bild. “But we had the title in our own hand, we could control the outcome.”
Keeping Leverkusen, Leipzig at bay
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom at the Signal Iduna Park these days, as Terzic and his staff are trying everything they can to push the team in what they consider the right direction. Both the head coach and sporting director remain composed and optimistic about the general quality of the squad, with Kehl recently saying that he sees improvements “piece by piece, step by step.”
There have been a few bright lights in recent weeks, most notably Gregor Kobel, Donyell Malen and Niclas Füllkrug. Kobel, the goalkeeper, has been almost flawless as a shot-stopper and decided to commit to the club by signing a contract extension until 2028. Malen, the Dutch forward, has usually been the best at securing the ball in tight spaces and interacting with Brandt.
Füllkrug, who moved from Werder Bremen to Dortmund on transfer deadline day, has looked sharp technically and tactically in his role as the replacement for Haller. Füllkrug’s go-ahead goal against Hoffenheim marked the first time he hit the back of the net wearing Black and Yellow, although the Germany international’s performances suggest that with better support he could become as dangerous as Haller was last season.
However, a few standouts and a lot of mediocrity is not enough to satisfy the club and its supporters’ expectations. CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke stressed in early August that BVB were determined to give Bayern another neck-and-neck race for the championship. Perhaps Dortmund will turn the corner and challenge once again, although it seems increasingly likely that Leverkusen and Leipzig will seriously challenge BVB for the No. 2 spot in the Bundesliga’s pecking order.
As for Terzic, he can count on the support of many inside the club and in the stands of the Signal Iduna Park, but if his team continue their underwhelming play, the wind could shift rather quickly.