There are still some visible reminders of a time when Bayern Munich didn’t solely rule the Bundesliga.
Mats Hummels led Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in minutes when they rolled to the 2011-12 title and now, at the age of 34, he’s still semi-frequently roaming BVB’s back line. Mario Gotze was emerging as a delightful, creative force; these days, he’s serving as a catalyst for Eintracht Frankfurt. Robert Lewandowski was becoming one of Europe’s best goal scorers back then; now at Barcelona, he continues to age like a fine wine. Ilkay Gundogan and Ivan Perisic were midfield dynamos in black and yellow, and they’re still playing key roles for Champions League teams in the Premier League.
Of course, there are far more reminders of just how long it’s been. A burned-out Klopp left nearly eight years ago. Gotze, Lewandowski and Hummels spent some or all of their prime years at Bayern. Also, the Bundesliga table from 2011-12 looks like an ancient artifact: Schalke, VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96 all finished in the top seven, while current top-five sides Eintracht (then in the second division), Union Berlin (second division) and RB Leipzig (fourth division, only recently acquired and renamed) were nowhere to be seen.
In other words, 11 years is a long time. The past 10 have all ended with Bayern holding the Meisterschale.
Bayern still tops the Bundesliga table, but they head into March in an absolute dogfight with four teams within five points of the lead.
1. Bayern Munich (46 points, +43 goal differential)
2. Borussia Dortmund (46 points, +18)
3. Union Berlin (43 points, +8)
4. RB Leipzig (42 points, +18)
5. Freiburg (41 points, +3)
For now, it’s an old challenger presenting the biggest new challenge. For the first time, Borussia Dortmund has won its first nine games of the calendar year, seven of those in league play. Bayern has only lost once since the post-World Cup restart, but BVB has still made up a nine-point deficit in little time.
While we wait for the first Dortmund blemish of 2023, let’s look at how they got this hot in the first place and how they might — or might not — be able to keep it up moving forward.
The 2021-22 transfer windows didn’t really work out as planned for Borussia Dortmund. BVB did bring in an outstanding goalkeeper in VfB Stuttgart’s Gregor Kobel, but they let Jadon Sancho join Manchester United for an €85 million fee, bringing in only one attacker as a replacement: PSV Eindhoven’s Donyell Malen.
Malen has only 11 goals and five assists in his first 60 matches with the club, just as Sancho only has 10 and four, respectively, in 59 matches in England. The trade didn’t really work out for anyone, and when star Erling Haaland spent a portion of the 2021-22 season injured, with another rising prospect, Gio Reyna, missing most of the year as well, the team suffered.
Facing the impending loss of Haaland as well — he moved to Manchester City for €60 million, and defender Manuel Akanji joined him for another €17.5 million — BVB had to absolutely nail the 2022-23 transfer windows to make up ground. They may have done even more than that, even if injuries prevented us from seeing it for a while.
With the funds generated by the Haaland and Sancho moves, BVB brought in Ajax veteran Sebastien Haller (€31 million), rising RB Salzburg star Karim Adeyemi (€30 million), Freiburg defender Nico Schlotterbeck (€20 million), Koln midfielder Salih Ozcan (€5 million) and Bayern defender Niklas Sule (free transfer). They added Union Berlin fullback Julian Ryerson (€5 million) in the winter window, too.
Put another way, BVB lost two starters last summer and replaced them with what would become six. That is downright transformative; it just took a while for us to see all the pieces together. Haller missed the first few months of the season while undergoing treatment for testicular cancer, Adeyemi took a while to find a niche, and manager Edin Terzic’s first first-choice lineup featured too many redundancies to work properly.
Redundancy No. 1: three center-backs in two spots
For starters, Terzic stuck with what was primarily a 4-2-3-1 formation despite having three center-backs – Schlotterbeck, Sule and Hummels. Sule ended up filling a lot of minutes as more of a right back or right wingback, but his production (0.14 xG+xA per 90 minutes, zero goals, one assist on only five chances created) was too much like that of a center-back.
BVB’s buildup play lacked proper width, and while Sule is faster than a 6-foot-4, 218-pound human has any right to be, it probably isn’t a coincidence that BVB was one of the worst transition teams in the Bundesliga over the pre-World Cup portion of the season. They were playing more true defenders than they had spots for, but were still suffering far too many defensive breakdowns.
Technically Borussia Dortmund added only one player to the senior roster in the winter transfer window (Ryerson), but the simple act of getting players back from injury transformed the roster. We’ll get to the impact of Haller’s return (and that of winger Jamie Bynoe-Gittens) in a bit, but the defense was transformed by the addition of not only Ryerson but also Marius Wolf, who missed time in the fall due to an infection and what was classified as a “vestibular disorder.”
With Ryerson and Wolf, BVB has been able to play with actual right backs to mirror Raphael Guerreiro on the left. (Ryerson can fill in on that side, too.) Sule has moved to more of a true center-back role, and Hummels’ minutes have been cut quite a bit. (He played 70% of minutes before the World Cup, but only 34% since.) Hummels still has plenty to offer, but by simply solving a “square peg, round hole” problem, BVB has been able to create more natural width and shore up some transition issues.
Redundancy No. 2: two defensive midfielders doing the same things
Signing Ozcan over the summer made a lot of sense — with star midfielder Jude Bellingham encouraged to maraud up the pitch in more of an attacking role, BVB needed to make sure they had a more physical and defensive presence behind him. But they already had Emre Can for that, and it took quite a while for Ozcan and Can to figure out how to coexist in the midfield.
BVB before the break:
– When both Ozcan and Can started: 1.3 points per game, 1.3 goals allowed per game
– When both played in some capacity: 1.5 points per game, 1.5 goals allowed per game
– When only one or neither played: 2.0 points per game, 0.7 goals allowed per game
With a far more natural back four, Terzic has been able to create more order in his midfield, too. Can is dropping back to assist in buildup between the two center-backs, while Ozcan has played a role slightly more up the pitch on average. Touching the ball sooner and more frequently has coaxed more production out of Can, too.
Key Emre Can statistics (per 90 minutes)
– Before the break: 65.2 touches, 49.7 passes, 0.1 chances created, 7.1 ball recoveries, 8.5 combined progressive passes and carries
– Since the break: 76.5 touches, 61.4 passes, 0.8 chances created, 9.4 ball recoveries, 10.3 combined progressive passes and carries
Ozcan’s touches have gone down, but he is still playing a solid role in transition defense, and BVB have become both more stable in possession and more sturdy in defense.
Establish a hierarchy
Signing a bunch of new players and then battling a pretty significant injury crisis is the perfect recipe for constant experimentation and poor chemistry. Before the break, only two players played more than 75% of available minutes for BVB: Bellingham (93%) and Schlotterbeck (89%). Six players logged between 55-75% of minutes, and another seven were in the 35-55% range. The lineup changed constantly, even at goalkeeper, where Kobel missed nearly one-third of the pre-break season, and the effects were pretty clear.
(For a look at the positive effects of a steady lineup, look no further than the Bundesliga’s third-place team, Union Berlin, for which five players have recorded at least 79% of minutes. The Premier League’s surprising top-four contender, Newcastle United, has had eight players at 84% or higher.)
Since the break, the injury bug has been kinder to the black and yellow. Bellingham, Schlotterbeck, Kobel, Can, Sule and Julian Brandt have all been on the field at least 78% of the time, and Ryerson (69%), Ozcan (68%) and Guerreiro (67%) have come close.
There has still been plenty of rotation in attack, where Haller (58% of minutes), Adeyemi (49%), captain Marco Reus (42%), Bynoe-Gittens (39%), Malen (30%), Youssoufa Moukoko (22%) and Reyna (17%) have all alternated between pitch and bench. But Dortmund had a particular need for stability in the back, and they have achieved it. And while all the disparate attacking pieces have produced when given the chance — a comforting reminder, since Adeyemi is out for a few weeks with a muscle injury — it’s also helped that Brandt has stepped up in a major way.
Combined Bundesliga goals and assists since the break
– 7: Jae-Sung Lee, Mainz (five goals, two assists)
– 6. Julian Brandt, Borussia Dortmund (four and two); Randal Kolo Muani (five and one); Jonas Hofmann, Borussia Monchengladbach (three and three); Ellyes Skhiri (five and one)
– 5.5: Andre Silva, RB Leipzig
– 4.4: Thomas Muller, Bayern Munich
– 4.1: Brandt
-3.8: Kolo Muani
-3.6: Maximilian Arnold, Wolfsburg
– 26: Hofmann
– 22: Brandt
– 15: Raphael Guerreiro, Borussia Dortmund; Arne Engels, Augsburg
– 13: Jeremie Frimpong, Bayer Leverkusen; Christian Gunter, Freiburg
During BVB’s nine-match winning streak, Brandt has scored four times with two assists from 30 chances created. That’s a nearly De Bruynian average of 3.4 chances per 90 minutes. (Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne is averaging 3.6 this season.) Brandt is creating both width and opportunity on the right while Guerreiro has served up exciting chances from the left. Their creativity has presented opportunities to a number of BVB attackers, and Brandt has tied Adeyemi with four post-break goals, too.
Barring the rarest of exceptions, not even the best, most talented teams in the world win nine games in a row without a good break or two. You know, things like “scoring a game-winner off of your hottest player’s back.”
Never a dull goal with these 2 😍 pic.twitter.com/ysx1lzImls
— Borussia Dortmund (@BlackYellow) February 28, 2023
Borussia Dortmund has spent a good portion of this nine-game winning streak looking awesome, and the advances they’ve made in terms of organization and structure are real and sustainable. But they’ve also won five of these nine matches by one goal. They won two via late Gio Reyna winners, and they have outscored opponents 6-1 over the final 15 minutes of matches in this streak (despite an xG differential of just 4.9 to 3.9 in that span).
Both Hoffenheim last weekend, and Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, created a legion of late chances, and BVB was fortunate to hold on for 1-0 wins. And in a potentially huge league match against Freiburg, BVB benefited from a 17th-minute red card.
One assumes the breaks will start evening out pretty soon. This streak allowed Dortmund to catch up to Bayern, but now comes the hard part: actually securing enough points to win the title.
So … how many points is it going to take?
Bayern’s overall league dominance has receded a bit over the course of their decade-long title streak. In the first six seasons of this run, they averaged 85.7 points in league play and won the title by an average of 16.7 points. In the last four, they’ve averaged 78.8 points with an average win of nine points. They needed a final matchday victory over Eintracht Frankfurt to hold off Borussia Dortmund in 2018-19, and they finished with only 77 points in 2021-22, their lowest total of the streak.
At the moment, Bayern’s currently on pace for only 71 points. FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings project them to finish with 73 on average.
Let’s say, then, that Borussia Dortmund needs to finish with at least 74 points to win the title. That’s 28 from their last 12 matches, a maximum of eight dropped points. Keeping this winning streak going for a while longer would quite obviously help a lot, but their two most likely remaining losses come in their next four league matches.
First, they host RB Leipzig this Friday — 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+ — and then, after the late-March international break, they visit Bayern on April 1. A win in either match would keep some margin for error intact in the quest for 74, though a pair of losses would all but end their title hopes.
You could make the case that Friday’s match is for the title of “Bayern’s Primary Challenger.” RB Leipzig has topped the table since Marco Rose was hired in early September — in their last 17 matches, RBL has 37 points to Bayern’s 35, BVB’s 34 and Union Berlin’s 32 — and is perfectly built to test just how much Dortmund’s transition game has improved.
In what I define as transition possessions (possessions that start outside the attacking third and last 20 or fewer seconds), RBL’s +0.45 goal differential per match is second to only Bayern’s; despite recent improvement, BVB still ranks 12th at -0.14 per match. If they can’t hit you with quick transitions, the Red Bulls establish the most languid and non-direct possession game in the league, and they aren’t as direct or effective as BVB when behind. They don’t create (or prevent) as many high-quality shots (think 0.3 xG or higher), either.
These are the second- and third-best possession teams in Germany, which means their encounter should be nip-and-tuck. Caesars Sportsbook lists BVB as a favorite of 0.5 goals, while the SPI ratings give the home team an edge of just 0.2. If Borussia Dortmund wants to maintain optimism in its title quest, it would be a very good idea for them to extend their win streak to 10.
For quite a while now, the biggest criticism of the Bundesliga has been its near-total lack of title drama. The league’s style of play is delightful, the stadium atmospheres live up to all hype, and the races for top-four finishes are usually packed with intrigue. But no one has been able to top Bayern over 34 matches since Klopp & Co. did so all those years ago.
That’s not Bayern’s fault, mind you — it’s never going to be a bad thing for a league to have an annual Champions League title contender, and at the moment Bayern is the Champions League favorite per SPI. But the best-case scenario for the league would be Bayern winning Europe … and someone else winning the Bundesliga. It would make sense that Borussia Dortmund might once again represent the best shot at the latter.