Dortmund deep in the doldrums as meeting with Manchester City looms
As the full-time whistle sounded, Eintracht Frankfurt’s coaching staff embraced but tried to hold something back, conscious that their season’s work was not yet complete. Such is the hole that Borussia Dortmund have dug themselves already this season, however, that there was already a feeling of a full stop having been inked.
If there was a sense this weekend that some teams on the continent had more than half an eye on their Champions League commitments in the upcoming midweek, Dortmund had neither the time nor the comfort to project that far ahead. The prospect of a visit to Premier League leaders Manchester City would have to wait if they were to keep their hopes of sharing the same competitive air again next season.
As it turned out, incoming BVB coach Marco Rose might be reduced to messaging his new pal Pep Guardiola, asking him to WhatsApp a couple of video clips of the famous anthem from City’s adventures in the competition next term. The prospects of maintaining their place in the European elite are not looking bright for Dortmund after Saturday’s home defeat to Frankfurt, which left them seven points adrift of their fourth-placed opponents.
This game felt a bit like the Australian soap Neighbours. Even if you’d missed a load of episodes, it would only take watching this one to be quickly up to speed with the trials, tribulations and dramas playing out at Dortmund in the medium-term. “We have made too many wrong decisions,” said sporting director Michael Zorc. He meant during Saturday’s game, but could easily have been talking about the club as a whole over the space of the season.
It began with a hope of a tilt at the Bundesliga title, or at least of inconveniencing a Bayern Munich side prospectively pushed to the physical and mental limit of two seasons rolled into one. Some of a BVB persuasion might have seen something of recent Bayern history in their own, beginning a season with a coach, Lucien Favre, on whom they were neither completely sold nor convinced there was a superior replacement available. Bayern had begun last season under the far-from-unanimously-backed Niko Kovac for similar reasons.
Accordingly, a run of three defeats in five Bundesliga games – the last of which a particularly humiliating 5-1 home thrashing by Stuttgart – was all the persuasionDortmund needed to remove Favre. Like Bayern last season, BVB opted to replace the departed coach with his assistant. They were seduced by his youth, his knowledge of and passion for the club as a childhood fan and his keenness for front-foot football, moving away from Favre’s pragmatism. Unfortunately for them, Edin Terzic is no Hansi Flick.
It is not Terzic’s fault that he has been put in this position, or that he is underprepared for it. Wanting to change Dortmund’s approach to a more dynamic one is great in theory, corresponding more to the profile of the squad and certainly the fans’ desire, but this is the worst possible season in which to change tack mid-exercise. There has been no time to get on the training field and work it out, with pressure on the calendar even whittling away the famous Bundesliga winter break.
Accordingly, the team’s record since the 38-year-old took over in mid-December is only the Bundesliga’s sixth-best. As disappointing as the season was shaping up to be under Favre, it felt like the bare minimum of top four was rarely in danger. Now, tactical confusion and imprecision reigns. Emre Can battled gamely on Saturday against the excellent Filip Kostic as a makeshift right-back while three actual right-backs – Lukasz Piszczek, Mateu Morey and the admittedly out-of-form Thomas Meunier – watched on from the bench.
The origin of both Frankfurt goals was from their left, and Dortmund’s right. Chasing a win that would have cut the gap to the top four to one point with desperation but little guile, Giovanni Reyna and Reinier came on for Nico Schulz and an annoyed Marco Reus, but the team further lost shape and André Silva’s late winner turned a disappointing Dortmund day into a ruinous one.
Frankfurt may largely be short of Dortmund’s quality on player-for-player terms (though the excellent Silva, whose goal took him past Erling Haaland’s Bundesliga tally for the season, has been suggested as an eventual replacement for the Norwegian). On Saturday, they showed greater purpose and composure in the moments that counted.
“I always defended the team,” said the CEO, Hans-Joachim Watzke, in a Sunday interview with Ruhr Nachrichten, “but I can’t do that for [this game]. It’s a question of will, and our team disappointed me immensely.” BVB are now on the brink of “a sporting and financial catastrophe,” as Mats Hummels described the prospect of missing the top four. The defender brutally (and not incorrectly) assessed Dortmund as “too unfocused and technically just not good enough”.
Terzic could still theoretically finish his spell in charge with two trophies: the DfB Pokal and the Champions League. Yet dealing with the Haaland situation – with Mino Raiola and dad Alf-Inge’s midweek European tour not exactly sensitively timed – and a restless squad would be hard for an old hand, let alone an inexperienced head coach.
Reaching the Champions League quarter-finals is a victory in itself, a welcome sporting and financial boost, to borrow Hummels’s parameters, and the first time they’ve reached the last eight since 2017, an occasion overshadowed by the infamous bus attack before they played Monaco. This time, against City, Dortmund couldn’t wish to be more pronounced underdogs.
The absence of Jadon Sancho weighs heavily, with the England winger definitely missing the first leg and probably the return too – if the tie should even be still alive when it arrives back at Westfalen. Guardiola may have overthought recent Champions League knockout ties, but little suggests this incarnation of Dortmund have the unity to take advantage of a repeat.
No Robert Lewandowski but no problem for Bayern, who won at Leipzig with a fine goal from the mighty Leon Goretzka to move seven points clear of their hosts at the top. They had it all covered, from Manuel Neuer mending a broken net which delayed the kick-off, to Flick resting Serge Gnabry – expected to cover for Lewandowski against PSG in the Champions League on Wednesday – from the starting XI.
Perhaps Dortmund fans can start thinking “roll on Marco Rose” after he masterminded a second straight Borussia Mönchengladbach win, with Marcus Thuram’s double sealing a comeback over Freiburg. BVB alumnus Hannes Wolf had a good debut coaching Leverkusen, who beat Schalke 2-1 after he replaced Peter Bosz.
There were fireworks at the Berlin derby, even without fans, with some 70 Union fans assembling to greet Hertha’s team bus at Köpenick before being dispersed by the police. An artillery of fireworks were let off on kick-off, briefly setting fire to a snack kiosk, and the former Hertha youth product Robert Andrich scored a cracker to give the hosts a lightning start. Dodi Lukebakio’s penalty salvaged a desperately needed point for struggling Hertha.