Can Borussia Dortmund really challenge Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title?
Borussia Dortmund’s start to the 2016/17 season has been disappointing.
In a season in which Bayern Munich, regardless of their quality, are going through transition, the expectation was that Dortmund would provide a strong challenge for the Bavarian side.
Dortmund’s 5-2 win over Hamburg was their first Bundesliga win since September and Thomas Tuchel’s side enters the last international break of the year in fifth place. A record of five wins, three draws and two losses isn’t horrible, but slightly surprising.
One of those losses came at the hands of the Bundesliga’s surprise team so far this season, the newly promoted Red Bull Leizpig. Red Bull are currently Bayern’s sternest challengers, and are level on points with the champions, but have yet to face the juggernaut. The other teams above Dortmund include TSG Hoffenheim, who drew with Bayern at the weekend, and Hertha Berlin.
History suggests the cream usually rises to the top and these teams will eventually fall off but Red Bull in particular seem capable of pulling a Leicester, as it were. Dortmund, meanwhile, have their own issues to sort out.
The laundry list of outgoing and incoming changes at Signal Iduna Park makes the slow start somewhat understandable. Dortmund finished 10 points off the pace last season in second place but three key faces left during the summer. Any team would have found it difficult to replace the varied talents and experience of Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Dortmund’s approach saw the club bring in players who have failed to live up to their full potential, like Mario Gotze and Marc Bartra, and wonder-kids like Ousmane Dembele. The effect has been mixed.
The stand-out performer so far from the new signings is Raphael Guerreiro, the Portuguese left back who has been extremely impressive in a midfield role. Both Dembele and fellow wonder-kid, Emre Mor, have shown flashes of their potential while Bartra put in some decent performances early on. Gotze and Andre Schurrle haven’t been hugely disappointing so far but more is expected from two well-established senior internationals. Marco Reus’ constant injury issues are further cause for frustration and one can envisage a much stronger side when all the senior players are fit and firing. In total, seven new players have been brought that have played a decent role so far.
Tuchel has tried to rotate things to keep players happy and that has played a part in the early form. Those decisions will help keep legs fresh towards the end of the season, but also means players like Shinji Kagawa have yet to find their best form. Consistency across the board has been a key issue for Dortmund so far this season.
There have been good signs from some players though, with Christian Pulisic continuing to progress well and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang retaining his prolific form. Aubameyang’s goals are the cherry on top of a league-leading 25 goals, to go along with 11 in the Champions League.
That attack hasn’t suffered too much after the departures but there is work needed in the defense. The 12 goals conceded in the Bundesliga is the worst among those currently in the top seven although it is keeping in line with the 34 goals conceded in 34 games last season. More time to adapt to Hummels’ departure and the new talents to adjust defensively should fix that issue.
The January transfer will be key for Dortmund, as Tuchel will need to streamline the squad without ridding it of too much depth or quality. A place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League has already been secured and a decent run will be expected in the German Cup. Bayern will also be fighting on three fronts and their focus on the Champions League might leave them vulnerable domestically.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side has only shown glimpses of the imperious form that was on display under Pep Guardiola. The Italian’s track record in league campaigns isn’t the greatest and that has shown in Bayern’s rocky start. The league leaders will visit Dortmund when league play resumes and that game will show how much work needs to be done. It is only 10 games into the season, 11 after the derby is complete, but if Bayern find a groove it will be hard to catch up.
There is a long road ahead and certainly no need for Dortmund to panic. This is a youthful squad shorn of a few leaders, both through transfer and injuries, so some growing pains can be expected. Dortmund has the talent to surpass those ahead of them not named Bayern Munich. If the likes of Gotze, Schurrle and Reus provide the quality they are capable of then the end of the Bundesliga season will be a lot closer than previous seasons. A win against Bayern in their first meeting would be a good way to start. Dortmund bought for the future over the summer but they can get something out of the present as well.
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