Changes abound as new manager Lucien Favre and Borussia Dortmund begin 2018-19
DORTMUND, Germany -- Borussia Dortmund will put the lid on the first Bundesliga round Sunday, hosting RB Leipzig at the Westfalenstadion. After the Black and Yellows narrowly avoided an embarrassing first-round cup exit Monday, needing 120 minutes to squeak past 2. Bundesliga side Greuther Furth, it will be the first litmus test for the Ruhr side under newly installed manager Lucien Favre.
Considering the number of changes the club made during the summer, there is a lot of uncertainty going into the first match of the season, but some new developments have been evident early on, while others might be on the horizon.
New style of play
Like a frustrated kid playing Super Nintendo, Dortmund have hit the reset button after a disappointing season, overhauling their general approach in almost every aspect. Shipping 47 goals in 34 league games in the previous campaign was simply unacceptable. Pouring roughly €90 million into two new centre-backs and two defensive midfielders in Manuel Akanji, Abdou Diallo, Thomas Delaney and Axel Witsel, respectively, since January will undoubtedly help to improve the quality individually, but the bigger change might be the one of coaching mentality.
Favre is more defensive-minded than any other Dortmund coach of the past decade, and it quickly showed in preseason. The Black and Yellows have not completely abolished a high press, but use it in a far more nuanced fashion. They are more often seen in a low block, applying pressure to opponents only once the ball has crossed the halfway line. Going forward, Dortmund have become more deliberate as well. The full-backs are far less adventurous, which automatically leads to more deep possession, as Favre prefers his players to play a secure pass over a risky one.
Overall, BVB will be more balanced going forward. Last season's average of 3.3 goals per match in matches involving Dortmund is unlikely to be replicated -- not least because the Westphalians still lack some precision in the final third when building the play against deep-sitting sides. When it comes off, though, Dortmund's small-ball combination play can be very easy on the eye, and the Swiss coach has quite visibly improved the team's attacking transition play. "Big teams need to be able to counter-attack or they will not be feared," was Favre's credo at his introductory news conference.
Seven players have left the club in the summer permanently, on loan or due to retirement. The likes of Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Arsenal), Andriy Yarmolenko (West Ham), Andre Schurrle (Fulham) and Gonzalo Castro (Stuttgart) have all been shipped off to make way for new arrivals.
As mentioned earlier, Dortmund's priority has been bolstering up their defensive prowess, and the operation seems to have been a successful one. New €28m-signing Diallo from Mainz is one of the first names on Favre's team sheet together with Akanji in central defence. The duo is forming a much-needed pair of modern centre-backs that will allow the Ruhr side a more multifaceted buildup than was the case with the somewhat ham-fisted Papastathopoulos.
The back line will find more cover than in the previous seasons, too, with new midfielders Delaney and Witsel, who were signed for €20m each. For opponents, it will mean that playing against Dortmund will hurt a little more from now on, as both newcomers utilize their physicality to force turnovers in midfield.
Both Witsel and Delaney were not just acquired for the footballing talent but also due to their reputations as constructive personalities, as the club are keen to rekindle a mental resilience and team spirit on the field. The Danish international has instantly been very audible in his commands on the training ground, while Witsel put on an impressive display of leadership within his 45-minute cameo in Monday's cup match, in which he became a ball magnet in midfield after coming on and controlled the tempo of the game.
Extrapolated, Witsel would have had 136 touches in 90 minutes, indicating how influential he can become very quickly. On the flip side, that could mean trouble for others.
Players under threat
If the Belgium international imposes himself in holding midfield as many assume he will, Julian Weigl might see more of the Bundesliga's Recaro seats this season than he would like. The 22-year-old had to skip chunks of the preseason due to muscular injuries and will need a few more weeks before being declared fit. The midfielder was a key part in Thomas Tuchel's system but struggled severely in the previous season under both Peter Bosz and Peter Stoger while fighting his way back from a long-term injury.
But Weigl isn't in the only prominent name in Dortmund's bloated midfield who could find himself benched or even watching from the stands. CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke has said multiple times during the summer what a crucial year it will be for Mario Gotze. The midfielder has to deliver under Favre to justify his high wage. His campaign is not off to a good start, as he was the first one to be subbed off in Furth, after 60 minutes.
But it could also be Portuguese international Raphael Guerreiro or Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa who gets left behind. The latter has been linked with a move to Sevilla, and when asked about Kagawa's role in midfield at Friday's news conference, his coach remained diplomatic. "We are many in midfield," Favre said. "Sometimes it's difficult. We are aware of his qualities, of what he can do. The season is very, very long. Every player will be important."
However, if multiple reports are to be believed, Barcelona's forward Paco Alcacer might also soon join BVB on loan with a buy option. The Spaniard would be the 30th outfield player in the squad, and there won't be enough oxygen for everyone.