3:42 PM ET
CloseSenior Writer• Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
On Friday, Borussia Dortmund visit Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga (2:20 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) with their season still hanging in the balance despite a pair of statement wins over VfL Wolfsburg and RB Leipzig in recent weeks. In those games, we saw the real BVB stand up. But a draw against Mainz and defeat at Leverkusen saw Dortmund effectively drop out of the title race. Amid financial difficulties due to the pandemic, a squad with fluctuating form and an inexperienced, interim coach on the sidelines, the pressure’s on to keep pace in the top four and secure Champions League football at the Westfalenstadion next term.
While Dortmund still have one of the best young attacking lineups in Europe — Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, Giovanni Reyna are all stars, with 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko on his way too — and are in the last-16 of the Champions League where they’ll face Sevilla, there’s pressure on interim coach Edin Terzic to steer the ship back on course and ensure they return to the continent’s premier club competition next season. As Dortmund continue their reboot, ESPN has spoken to those who know the club best to pick apart Borussia Dortmund’s turbulent campaign.
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Where has it gone wrong for Borussia this season, and how can they turn it around?
Goodbye Favre, hello Terzic
On Nov. 21, Dortmund were in a familiar position: breathing down Bayern Munich’s neck in the Bundesliga and looking to leapfrog the eight-time defending champions. BVB had just brushed aside Hertha Berlin 5-2, with Haaland scoring four. They were a point off the top. Then, in the next three matches, it unravelled. Dortmund earned only one point from a possible nine, Haaland picked up a muscle injury, ruling him out for the remainder of 2020, and manager Lucien Favre was shown the door.
The original plan was for Favre, 63, to see his contract through to the end of this season before Dortmund began the search for a long-term successor. Yet form and results slipped away from him this season — slow starters, they’ve only scored five of their 32 goals in the first 45 minutes; only bottom club Arminia Bielefeld have scored fewer in opening periods this season — and he was unable to arrest their slump. Favre’s final match was on Dec. 12, when Dortmund were crushed 5-1 at home by newly promoted VfB Stuttgart. The end was inevitable and both sides, club and coach, knew it.
Terzic, the 38-year-old assistant coach, had the club’s DNA running through his veins and made sense as an interim boss, especially seeing how Hansi Flick had recharged Bayern when appointed from within. Terzic had inhaled BVB on the famous Sudtribune in his youth, worked at the club in various positions, went away to learn at Besiktas and West Ham United and then returned under Favre.
“For the majority of the time, I had the feeling things were going really well,” Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke told kicker in early January. “This was no longer the case in December, that’s why we had to act. We no longer made any progress. Already in the summer, we anticipated it might be a difficult year for us.
“Many players lacked form. We had difficulties playing with ease, develop ideas, be creative. As if everything was buried under mildew. You could still see that in the first three matches under Terzic.”
By the end of 2020, Borussia Dortmund’s season had gone off the rails. Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images
Over the course of 45 minutes in the second half of the Leipzig match, when they put three past their upstart rivals, Dortmund returned to what once made them one of the teams to watch in European football. They were more than the sum of their individual talent; they pressed Leipzig high up the pitch, found spaces behind the attacking lines, used the width of the entire playing field and were helped by the masterclass of Haaland as well as players like Marco Reus, Sancho and defender Manuel Akanji returning to form.
“We said the last [few] weeks or months weren’t easy for us. The magic was missing a bit, but we knew that the magic was still in us,” Terzic told ESPN’s Archie Rhind-Tutt after the win at Leipzig.
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The return of that magic was much-needed, but it was short-lived as they once again dropped points against bottom club Mainz the following weekend. Coming back from a goal down, they failed to seal the win, with Marco Reus once again missing a penalty. He later apologised to his teammates, but crucial points and momentum had been lost. Against Leverkusen, Dortmund never showed up and were outclassed by one of the top teams of the Bundesliga, like they already were by dark horses Union Berlin in late-December.
Dortmund were back in chaos, and the team wasn’t happy. “I had to count to 10 before I came to you. It’s very disappointing. In the first half we played with a bad mentality, with bad body language,” midfielder Thomas Delaney said after the Leverkusen defeat. Terzic added: “After conceding the goal, I have to say the body language and the reaction was bad.
“We accepted the strength of our opponent instead of fighting against it.”
Rediscovering the Dortmund press
Dortmund’s once-fearsome pressing game had gone missing under Favre’s reign while the players were struggling for form. They looked aimless, merely waiting for opportunities to appear rather than forcing them.
“We must be patient,” Favre reiterated ahead of every game. But that patience meant Dortmund looked pedestrian, lacking width and failing to bring out the best of their attacking talent. Reus, Brandt and Sancho were inconsistent, Belgian international Thorgan Hazard was searching for a run of games without injury while United States youngster Reyna was playing well despite the team’s broader funk.
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Haaland had come to the rescue — the one-man scoring machine kept grabbing goals to keep Dortmund at the right end of the table — but once he was injured in training at the start of December, BVB were unable to replace that threat. They looked flat without him, but also suffered without Haaland’s hold-up play, which allowed for long balls into the opposing half and runs from deep. Without the prospect of new arrivals, under-23 captain Steffen Tigges was fast-tracked into the team, offering Terzic more options up front. They also brought in the talented teenager Moukoko to add a spark, though he needs time to adjust to the step-up.
They’ve also lacked dynamism down the right wing. Dortmund lost Achraf Hakimi in the summer: the right-back returned to parent club Madrid, only to join Internazionale for €40m. Dortmund had analysed their squad and believed Hakimi had cost them in defence with lapses in concentration, sources told ESPN. They were hoping to solidify the back line with Paris Saint-Germain full-back Thomas Meunier, who was signed on a free transfer. But the Belgium international doesn’t offer the same attacking power as Hakimi, which has had knock-on effects further up the field.
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Terzic also needed to sort out their system. Their much-admired pressing game came to a standstill under Favre, and there were fears within the squad it would take time to find it again under Terzic, sources have told ESPN. However, there were promising signs in the Leipzig match that it might not take that long.
Under Favre, Dortmund played with three centre-backs in a 3-4-3 system for large parts of the season, robbing them of attacking power. Terzic shifted things back into a 4-2-3-1, which offers more balance and more coherence in attack.
At the time of Terzic’s hiring, sources told ESPN there are concerns at the club about too many players being out of form and players like Sancho and Reus lacking the explosiveness of last season.
“You’d usually need a full summer of preparation to solve this,” one source told ESPN; instead, Dortmund had to navigate a busy month of football against most of the teams from the top half of the league. They played Union Berlin in late December, followed by Wolfsburg, Leipzig, bottom club Mainz and finally Bayer Leverkusen to open 2021. Friday’s match at Borussia Monchengladbach and the home game against Augsburg will round off a busy January schedule.
Missing their 12th man
The plan is for Terzic to at least finish this season in charge, sources told ESPN, and the fans are enjoying seeing one of their own on the touchline. But Terzic must deliver a top-four finish to not only guarantee Dortmund the steady flow of Champions League income, but also to appease their increasingly disgruntled fan base.
Dortmund — arguably more than clubs like Bayern or Leipzig — have missed their fans at home. This term, they have lost three of their eight games at the Westfalenstadion so far; they lost just three there all of last season, all coming after the restart, and just once in 2018-19, a title-hope-ending defeat against local rivals Schalke.
Will Borussia Dortmund fans return in the same numbers with the same energy as before the pandemic? Friedemann Vogel – Pool/Getty Images
Without fans, the numbers are more stark. This season, they’ve won only one of their five matches behind closed doors after taking three consecutive wins against Monchengladbach, Freiburg and Schalke with some fans in attendance. They have only picked up 10 of a possible 30 points from closed-doors league games since the start of the pandemic.
“There is no other club in Europe that has to cope without 81,365 fans at home,” Watzke told kicker earlier this week, addressing the economic impact while also highlighting the sheer power of a packed stadium. Hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, Dortmund recorded losses amounting to €44m following the 2019-2020 season in which only a few games were played without fans. It was the first time since 2010 they recorded a loss, and it won’t stop there: sources told ESPN that the club’s board is expecting another loss of around €75m this season.
Well aware of the club missing its fans, Terzic told Sky after the win at Leipzig: “Sure, we miss our fans. Whenever we take to the pitch they sing ‘Let’s go Dortmund, fight and win,’ that’s the slogan we work hard for.”
Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc told Bild following the Mainz draw: “We miss the Südtribüne. When we have fans behind us, it just helps us extremely.”
Steve Cherundolo doesn’t expect Marco Reus to take the next penalty kick for Dortmund after his miss vs. Mainz.
Pining for the prosperous past (on a budget)
Like many clubs across the continent, Dortmund have felt the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic and it has influenced their activities in the transfer market. The anticipation of reduced revenue was seen last summer, which was geared towards long-term planning. In July, Dortmund added 17-year-old Jude Bellingham to their ever-growing roster of wunderkinds, beating Manchester United to his signature, which was worth a €23 million fee for his old club Birmingham City. They also kept Sancho at the club after the Red Devils failed to meet their €120m asking price for the England international.
“BVB are still a top club for [such] players,” one agent told ESPN. “But they need Champions League [football] to remain a top club and attractive.”
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This winter, financial limitations will prevent Dortmund from making any additions to their squad, while they’re open to listening to offers for players like Germany internationals Julian Brandt, Nico Schulz or Mo Dahoud sources have told ESPN. On-loan attacker Reinier could also leave the club and return to Real Madrid after only a handful of minutes in nearly five months in Germany.
While Dortmund have been excellent at developing and refining international talents, the transfer fees paid for German internationals since 2016 have not brought a return on the pitch or in the accounts. Brandt, Schulz, Dahoud — a under-21 international when he signed from Gladbach — and former players Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle joined for a total fee of over €110 million. The latter two have since left the club without any fees, one retiring from professional football at 29 and the other leaving on a free transfer to PSV Eindhoven.
The financial constraints are stifling every club, but they seem to be especially sensitive for Dortmund as they risk being left behind. Bayern Munich, who won the treble last season, paid €356m in wages in 2019-20 compared to Dortmund’s €205m — significantly more than all other clubs in the division. Leipzig are coming up strong and despite having announced a self-imposed salary cap, sources have told ESPN that other big German clubs have found it hard to compete with wages offered by Nagelsmann’s side.
Four matches into the new year, Dortmund are 10 points behind Bayern and six behind Leipzig. Bayer Leverkusen move three clear of BVB on Tuesday, while Union Berlin, VfL Wolfsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt are hot on BVB’s heels for the remaining Champions League spot: just seven points separate fourth place from 10th. Dortmund’s margin for error has decreased all while they try to reboot their system amid a pandemic, with no fans in the stands and players searching for their form.
In just three weeks in late 2020, Dortmund went from title challengers to possible “crisis club.” Over the course of two matches this week, they dropped out of the title race, and the two remaining matches in the month of January will determine whether BVB’s season will turn into one they could miss out on the 2021-2022 Champions League altogether.
“We’re not happy. We’re not happy with all of the results we got. We’re not happy with the way we performed in many games. But still we have the chance to change and turn things around,” Terzic said after the Leverkusen match. Time, however, is running out.