FEATURE | Can Borussia Dortmund still win the Bundesliga title after their latest stumble?

Borussia Dortmund somehow appear hellbent on searching for newly found methods of total collapse in this 2022/23 campaign. The typical narratives that have come to surround the club, its current crop of players, and their position in Germany as the club that isn’t willing to get its hands dirty to win, need very little introduction.

It’s a subplot that seems to be encased in a painfully repetitive loop – Bayern stumble, Dortmund has a chance to take advantage, but proceed to somehow follow the lead of the Bavarians and revert to their place as a largely tame threat. It’s in these moments that you get the sense that Dortmund takes Bayern’s place as the most hated club in the Bundesliga. Simply because of its inability to avoid the unforgivable.

A new chapter, and likely the most damaging to date, was written over the weekend as Edin Terzic led his team to relegation threatened Stuttgart. It was supposed to be a forgone conclusion that Bayern would inevitably rebound from a disappointing loss to Manchester City by taking out their anger on one of the Bundesliga’s worst sides – Hoffenheim. However, the drama and obvious discontent within the Munich camp continued as Thomas Tuchel’s rocky start took another unexpected twist.

Hoffenheim managed to steal a point from the encounter and suddenly gave Dortmund a lifeline that nobody would have expected. After all, Terzic’s title pursuit was all but over in the aftermath of a horrifically weak showing in Tuchel’s debut with Bayern. Surely, there wouldn’t be any gifts handed out to Dortmund at this stage of the season, right?

Somehow, a thoroughly bizarre, yet entertaining title race sprung back into life. That is, for about 25 minutes. As Andrej Kramaric had brought Hoffenheim level in Munich with a 71st minute free-kick, Dortmund was holding a 2-0 lead with a man advantage following a first-half red card for Konstantinos Mavropanos. The scenario meant that, should Hoffenheim hold onto the draw, then die schwarzgelben would inexplicably find themselves back on top of the league table with only six fixtures remaining in the season.

Terzic had substituted Mats Hummels at half-time due to an apparent injury concern which was later described as a potential “circulatory” issue. The absence of his leadership on the pitch for a second-half that will surely be known as the nail in the coffin of Dortmund’s title aspirations was evident almost from the start. As so often is the case, a weaker, yet clearly hungrier opponent, was clawing its way back into the game.

Keep in mind that Sebastian Hoeneß is the fourth manager to take the reins at Stuttgart this season alone. Indicative of the chaos and inconsistencies that can take place in football. The most discouraging reality, however, is that the face in the mirror was Dortmund’s biggest obstacle. Stuttgart began to find space to operate on the counter-attack and the alarm bells clearly started to ring for Terzic. Both he and his staff were visibly unsettled with the obvious momentum shift.

The shift turned into genuine concern for everyone with the club, except for those representing it on the pitch. Overly ambitious dribbling and negligent defensive positioning increased with every passing sequence. The ten-man home side pulled one back on 77 minutes as Julian Ryerson and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens failed to handle a relatively routine and predictable cut onto the right foot from Stuttgart’s Tanguy Coulibaly. The shot then took a deflection on its way past Gregor Kobel. The understandably exuberant reaction from Stuttgart was met with an unmistakably careless one from Dortmund.

It was as if they’d just conceded a goal in a summer friendly. So, the trajectory continued and more questions were being asked of the maturity of Terzic’s squad. Just two minutes later, Stuttgart should have equalised from a corner in which Dortmund vacated the middle of their penalty area to allow an uncontested header to be sent into the crowd. In addition to a congested middle of the box, the trio of Bynoe-Gittens, Youssoufa Moukoko, and Karim Adeyemi had each decided to mark the same unthreatening opponent.

It’s at this point that you’d have already expected the sloppiness of the defending to have been blatantly unacceptable from the players’ perspective. The only issue is that this is Borussia Dortmund. Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, that name has become synonymous with the concept of choking under pressure and refusing to show a commitment to defending a lead. Another corner, delivered by the same player (Borna Sosa) and to the exact same spot in the box, was turned in for the leveler only moments after the previous attempt.

This time, it was Salih Özcan’s botched clearance that fell to the feet of Josha Vagnoman for an uncontested shot to Kobel’s left. What had been a straightforward first-half had come crumbling down once again. Most Dortmund and Bundesliga supporters were well aware of the Bayern scoreline at this stage. The unthinkable inability to capitalise on the uninspired performance at the Allianz Arena was developing before the eyes of any and all who’d hoped for this to be the year that things just go somebody else’s way.

A desperate Dortmund threw everything they could into attack to try and find a winner. Mind you, a winner against one of the Bundesliga’s worst defenses that was taking plenty of risks in its own right even after they’d tied the game. Gio Reyna, who replaced Adeyemi and has contributed multiple game-winning goals since the turn of the new year, seemed to have once again broken the hearts of opponents as he collected a blocked shot from former Dortmund player, Dan-Axel Zagadou, and slotted home a would-be winner. Would-be, should have been, seemingly never truly is.

Terzic turned toward his bench reacting as if it was Dortmund that had conceded. One can hardly blame him. The Reyna goal felt like underwhelming stress relief more than a clutch goal that, in hindsight, should have placed the club at the top of the league table once more. Their fate was in their hands again. Disorganisation was pardoned by the Bundesliga gods and three points presented to them on a silver platter.

The reaction? Arguably the most inexcusable, lethargic, and pathetic excuse of defending a lead that you’ll ever witness. Due to a couple of stoppages in play, and a needless late foul deep in the Stuttgart half, an extra minute was justifiably added onto the original six that were given. As Jude Bellingham pressed the ball, a desperate Stuttgart searched for an avenue to advance the ball up the pitch. With Terzic’s arms raised in disbelief, they found a simple lifeline when nobody assisted Bellingham in his efforts to force a long ball.

Bynoe-Gittens needed to join the press and prevent an attempt at finding an easier outlet from the Stuttgart perspective. Instead, he ran backwards without knowing who he was looking for in particular while Özcan stood and watched the play develop. It resulted in an enormous amount of space afforded to the home side and a simplistic switch of play to the opposite flank.

As the ball was swung to the other wing, Reyna and Raphael Guerreiro found themselves marking the same opponent. With the Portuguese playmaker far too advanced following the previous attempt at heading to the corner flag, he elected to leave the wing-back defending duties to Reyna and made a lifeless attempt at cutting off a through ball down the sideline.

Theoretically, once he’d made the mistake of committing to this action, he still could have either made a clear effort to stop a pass or intentionally commit a foul that would allow Dortmund to set up their defence. Instead, he did neither and shockingly seemed to jog past the challenge and simply shrug his shoulders as the play advanced without him. The rest is now the latest chapter in Dortmund’s recent history of calamity. Reyna was unable to get his body in front of the impending cross into the box.

A hopeful and misplaced attempt at that. French teenager, Soumaily Coulibaly, who had taken Hummel’s spot for his senior debut with the club, reacted well to the misdirected cross only to whiff the attempted clearance and allow the ball to casually fall to the feet of Stuttgart’s Silas. Once he’d settled, he passed the ball into the back of the net for yet another equaliser.

The chance had been officially rejected to leapfrog the Bavarians in dramatic fashion. With it? The hope that a season which features an inconsistent and stumbling Bayern would actually produce a new champion. One should wonder how much it actually enrages Bavaria when this happens time and time again. After all, if Dortmund will never mature, then how can Bayern maintain their ruthless level of dominance for 34 match days?

Thus, Dortmund have made no progress. A season which has seen it break records for consecutive league wins, witness the resurgence of players like Julian Brandt and Emre Can, and Bayern willingly play the part of FC Hollywood, is set to end in an all too familiar demise.

“It is hard for me to find the words [to explain] why it happened,” Terzic admitted following the game. “There are reasons we haven’t been able to finish on top for 10 years.” Indeed, there are more than a few. It isn’t simply down to the manager or his lack of brutally outlandish tactics. It’s too easy to point to Marco Reus’ role as captain and blame team-wide mentality weaknesses on one player.

This is the heart of the issue which has no obvious short-term answer. Dortmund has a heart problem. One which puts on the face of youthful flair and disguises itself in the allure of the future. You can develop technical qualities in players, but when large portions (not all) of a locker room lacks the desire to meet pressure with clenched fists you’re already discounted as potential champions. The club lacks fighters. It lacks contextualisation that results in tactical efficiency in both young and experienced players. The road ahead remains blurry. As does any line of sight leading toward a mentality shift in this team.

GGFN | Reece Edwards

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