Lucien Favre was appointed as the Borussia Dortmund manager ahead of the 2018-19 season and, so far, the tenure has gone to type.
Favre began his time in Dortmund like no other, seemingly alone atop the Bundesliga with even the insurmountable Bayern Munich lagging 9 points behind in third.
The three draws Dortmund suffered in the opening knockings of that particular season also went to type: three needless ties against teams far beneath them.
The first of which, a 0-0 at Hannover who were comfortably relegated at the end of the season. The second was a draw in Sinsheim against mid-table Hoffenheim with the third a draw secured late on by eventual-11th placed Hertha Berlin, a very different Hertha to what we see today.
Of course, the eventual defeat that was Favre’s undoing was another avoidable one: a 2-1 defeat away at newly promoted Fortuna Dusseldorf.
The lead was eventually chipped away at with defeats to Augsburg and then twice more in Dortmund’s biggest games, in Der Klassiker that April and at home in the Revierderby later that month. Those two games saw 9 goals shipped. Of course, draws to the likes of rock bottom Nurnberg didn’t help either.
Dortmund finished second, excruciatingly close to a first Bundesliga since the heady days of Jurgen Klopp. But Lucien Favre had been here before.
He had taken Hertha Berlin eye-wateringly close to the Champions League in 2009 in fourth place but surrendered his position in the capital seven games into the successive season by shipping five at Hoffenheim.
His next job took him to Gladbach, where he dredged Borussia from the foot of the Bundesliga to Champions League qualification. Marco Reus had excelled for the Swiss manager, Reus who would be quickly lost to Dortmund, just as his defender Dante was to Bayern.
But what followed a high of Champions League qualification for the first time since 1978 for Die Fohlen was the low of finishing 8th place.
Favre did get a taste of Champions League football in Gladbach, to the tune of a single group game. The second time around, Favre’s Monchengladbach qualified via the play-offs but on opening night of the group stages, lost 3-0 in Seville and with 0 points gleaned from the opening 5 Bundesliga matches, they sat rock bottom with 2 goals to their name.
Favre fled Germany.
In what was considered a coup, OGC Nice attracted Favre to Ligue 1. The man Favre was succeeding in 2016 was Claude Puel, a man who had brought UEFA football by way of qualifying through the league for the first time since 1976.
Puel finished fourth in 2013 and 2016. Favre went one better in his first season, enough for Champions League qualification. But when the going got tough (Napoli in the play-offs), the tough didn’t get going, as Nice were eliminated at the Round of 32 stage in the UEFA Europa League to Lokomotiv Moscow.
A similar drop off of eighth position after an enormous high that Favre experienced in Gladbach, resonated in Nice.
That didn’t stop Borussia Dortmund taking a punt on the Swiss manager, after Thomas Tuchel, Peter Bosz and Peter Stroger had attempted to succeed Jurgen Klopp at the Westfalenstadion.
Following the aforementioned traditional great first season from Favre, Dortmund have since trailed off, missing out on the league last year via a big margin and bowing out in successive last 16 stages of the Champions League to the eventual losing finalists in 2019 of Tottenham Hotspur and 2020 of Paris Saint-Germain.
The boom and bust cycle looks set to run its course once more, of a promising first 12 to 24 months followed by a tailing off and an inability to punch through that glass ceiling.
Before we take our deep dive into each of Borussia Dortmund’s Bundesliga games this season, who could actually succeed Lucien Favre and when could he be succeeded?
Well, the easiest answer to that is June, when his contract expires. There have been whispers of discontent after whimpering to second place last season but perhaps COVID-19 dealt a hand in Dortmund offering the Swiss manager a one-year extension on his contract until next summer.
The club’s Sporting Director Michael Zorc stated “neither the club nor the coach see no need for a contract extension at the moment,” which is a damning indictment on where Favre’s side are at the minute.
With any big club, the loudest whisper of the lot comes from Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine is an unlikely successor given that Pochettino cannot speak the language and would incur a big staff turnaround should he take the job, the latter of which seems to be unlikely at such an insular club like Borussia Dortmund.
Marco Rose, on the other hand, is a more likely option. The key question would remain: why would he leave Borussia Monchengladbach? Rose is striving to be on a par with Dortmund currently, so it seems unlikely he should make the jump midway through his job in the north-west.
Max Allegri, like Pochettino, is a high-profile name that sits there patiently in the darkness accumulating the good will of desperate fans who wish to have their manager replaced. However, both Allegri and Poch are likely to inherit the PSG hotseat from underfire Thomas Tuchel. Which, in turn, could necessitate the return of Tuchel to the Westfalenstadion.
Whichever way you look at it, Dortmund are likely to be patient. Their Champions League position for next season shouldn’t be under too much pressure, even if Wolfsburg and Hertha Berlin are snapping from beneath. Bayer Leverkusen could crash the top 4 party of Bayern, Leipzig, Dortmund and Gladbach should Lucas Alario and Leon Bailey continue their great form.
Should Dortmund be uncharacteristically impatient though, and cut Favre mid-season, there are many saleable assets that incessantly spit out from a conveyer belt and are much courted by the top clubs in Europe, namely Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho.
Borussia Dortmund 3-0 Borussia Monchengladbach, September 19
Der BVB began their campaign with an impressive win over Champions League rivals Borussia Monchengladbach. It was a game where Gio Reyna capitalised on his opponent’s indecisiveness to score his first goal in the league in the yellow and black.
The American won the foul that earned Dortmund’s penalty and second goal – of course from Erling Haaland.
The third goal was the first hallmark that I will discuss is the magnificent off the ball qualities of Erling Haaland.
As seen above, Dortmund win the ball from deep and from a Gladbach corner who are pushing for a way back into the game in the second half at the Westfalenstadion.
Haaland wouldn’t get the ball until the opposite half, however, springing the offside trap and clipping the ball high into the net to complete a 3-0 rout. This is the first sign all season of how devastating and quick-minded the Norwegian can be.
The run is timed to perfection, which allows a clear path to goal through an uncharacteristically flimsy Borussia Monchengladbach defence.
Augsburg 2-0 Borussia Dortmund, September 26
Whilst Favre had to wait until game 16 to be beaten in his first season at the Westfalenstadion, it took just two this time round.
The second hallmark of Borussia Dortmund’s season, first seen here but again much later on, at least in the Bundesliga, is of set-piece fragility.
The opener for Augsburg comes far too easily from a corner and a free header through Ohis Uduokhai. Augsburg are not the team they used to be a couple of seasons back when they qualified for the UEFA Europa League in 2015. In fact, they only staved off the daunting relegation play-off last season from Werder Bremen.
Dortmund’s soft under-belly wasn’t isolated to set-pieces in Bavaria, as a simple clipped ball over the defence left Daniel Caligiuri with a promising position.
New signing Thomas Meunier was left with two options: bring Calgiuri down and risk an almost definite red card or pray that goalkeeper Roman Burki could thwart the Italian. Caligiuri scored and the game was killed.
Borussia Dortmund 4-0 Freiburg, October 3
Borussia Dortmund returned to form at home to Freiburg, winning 4-0 against last season’s surprise package of eighth place.
Dortmund’s first goal had a number of yellow and black touchstones. They nipped in to steal the ball and counter-press their opposition in the final third.
Gio Reyna unpicked a lock to find Erling Haaland courtesy, of course, via a classic run and cool finish from the Norwegian.
As well as counter-pressing and making the most of Haaland’s exceptional attacking runs, another popular method of finding the net has been from set-pieces. Emre Can, who has been utilised as a third centre-back in Favre’s 3-4-3, headed in to double Dortmund’s lead.
A variation on the theme of their first was in play for the third: counter-press, then Gio Reyna assisting Erling Haaland. It is clear there is a vivid connection between the American and Norwegian, that much is plain to see in the pair’s interviews together.
‘American Dream’ as Erling Haaland labels Reyna, has assisted the Dortmund top scorer the most this season and it is no surprise on re-watching the club’s goals.
What was a surprise however is how the often selfish Haaland laid a fourth goal on a plate for Felix Passlack.
Hoffenheim 0-1 Borussia Dortmund, October 17
Ahead of Dortmund’s first Champions League game, they didn’t relent in the league as they eventually picked the lock of Hoffenheim late on in Sinsheim.
Thomas Meunier was caught cold a number of times as the majority of Hoffenheim’s early chances came down his right-hand side. Meunier, it has to be said, by this point is barely a month into competitive fixtures with his new club after signing from PSG to fill the gap by Achraf Hakimi’s move to Inter Milan.
Gio Reyna showed the maturity and composure of a man years in advance throughout this game, as he often does. Whilst Dortmund’s usual high counter-press resulted in the game’s only goal, as Haaland once again showed his unselfish side to allow Marco Reus at the winning goal.
Borussia Dortmund 3-0 Schalke, October 24
The intricacies of Erling Haaland and Gio Reyna’s on-field relationship were no more clearer than in the Revierderby. They linked up magnificently to force a rebound for goal number one against what has been a hapless Schalke side in 2020.
The unusually calm rout of their rivals was finished off by Mats Hummels, showcasing that Dortmund can score from set-pieces once more, in what was a 3-0 win.
Arminia Bielefeld 0-2 Borussia Dortmund, October 31
That deadliness from set-pieces was on show in Bielefeld against newly promoted Arminia, Hummels scoring in successive games. Hummels would find the net against Koln but that was correctly ruled offside.
Hummels got the second too. For once, Meunier was involved in the build-up, relieved of his inhibitions when marauding forward for Dortmund.
An enjoyable performance in Dortmund colours was from a more consistent summer signing, however. Jude Bellingham, barely 17 years of age, who had scored his first Dortmund goal in a DFB-Pokal win at Duisburg in September, showed his wide-range of qualities in this contest.
As pictured below, his deep playmaking abilities saw a dangerous cross into the box.
The young Englishman’s form earned him a call-up to the national side for November’s internationals, and subsequent debut against the Irish at Wembley.
Bellingham fits like a glove into this team. He can play as a deeper, more playmaking 6 in a double-pivot alongside more of a destroyer in Thomas Delaney or Axel Witsel or he can be more of a box-to-box number 8, with Thomas Meunier and Raphael Guerreiro covering out wide.
Should there be a threadbare attacking line-up or more of a narrow approach from Favre in a 3-4-1-2, Bellingham could also be utilised in a 10.
Borussia Dortmund 2-3 Bayern Munich, November 7
Der Klassiker, even at such an early stage in the season, was vital for Borussia Dortmund’s push for a first league title in 9 years.
It was a perfect display of both good and bad hallmarks of this Dortmund team. Erling Haaland’s dangerous movement off the ball was seen to almost full effect but he proved wasteful with his chances.
On the other hand, Thomas Meunier looked shot of confidence when taking on an irresistible Serge Gnabry.
The warning sign was there midway through the first half when he afforded the German too much room down the left-wing and his cross that found Robert Lewandowski and, in turn, the net, was fortunately ruled out for offside.
Dortmund, as a whole, couldn’t handle the counter-press being turned in on them. Leon Goretzka and, until his injury, Joshua Kimmich hauranged Dortmund into giving the ball away.
The first goal, however, was scored by Dortmund and by Marco Reus.
As pictured below in the build-up, there is absolutely no width on the right for Dortmund as Meunier seems far too worried to bomb on.
The goal comes from a ball from the left. Thomas Meunier tiptoes into the final third as the goal is completed, but sheepishly does so, making absolutely sure that he has Serge Gnabry’s whereabouts covered.
Achraf Hakimi, who had spent the last two years on loan at Dortmund, ran out his loan contract and moved from parent club Real Madrid to Inter Milan in the summer. The wing-back is more exciting than Meunier and has been linking up with Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku well at the San Siro.
Jadon Sancho’s new objective of drifting in, alongside Gio Reyna in a narrow 3-4-3, which mainly feels like a 3-4-2-1, sees little to no width in the big games from the right. The big games historically have been a problem for Dortmund, as they have lost 7 of the last 8 games against their Klassiker opponents.
Bayern’s second does come from this weary right-hand side of Dortmund, with Lucas Hernandez afforded the freedom of the Westfalenstadion to provide an unopposed cross which eventually finds the net.
Roman Burki in the Dortmund net won’t instill a lot of confidence in the new man, either. Burki’s replacing of club legend Roman Weidenfeller hasn’t been smooth sailing with high profile errors leading to vocal fans wishing for a new figure between the sticks.
Dortmund’s third concession is that of a counter attack, the defence left 4-on-2 at the back which, with ten minutes left on the clock and with a goal or two to score, is excusable.
Erling Haaland grabbed a consolation goal, as Bayern didn’t heed the warnings that yet more penetrative runs should have given them in the second half.
Hertha Berlin 2-5 Borussia Dortmund, November 21
It is here, in Haaland’s week of all weeks that he has quite possibly his greatest match in a Dortmund shirt.
However, perhaps this is the contest that we might point back to and identify that this was the beginning of Dortmund’s over-reliance on the newly-appointed European Golden Boy of 2020.
Haaland’s smart movement in the penalty area accounts for all five of Dortmund’s goals.
His first he nips in round the back of the Hertha defenders to equalise the game, his second turns the game on its head and the third – his hat-trick – was earned entirely by the Norwegian. He harassed the defender into losing the ball before showing great composure to complete his hat-trick, whilst the fourth was his greatest positives boiled down into one goal, showing composure, great movement and fantastic eye for the goal.
Even the goal he didn’t score was created by a superb movement that pulled a Hertha defender away from the target: Raphael Guerreiro in this case with Dortmund’s goal.
Borussia Dortmund 1-2 FC Koln, November 28
And in this game, it all went wrong.
Our final hallmark is Dortmund’s indecisiveness. I didn’t wish to point it out and ruin Mateus Cunha’s superb strike for Hertha in Dortmund’s previous game, but their first goal was made off the back of Emre Can’s defensive indecisiveness.
Dortmund’s home game against Koln, a Koln side who hadn’t won in the Bundesliga since March, was lost thanks to a copy-and-pasted set-piece routine.
Duda’s corner manages to evade everybody in the Dortmund box and there’s a two-on-one on the backpost for Ellyes Skhiri to tap-in with consummate ease.
The second, an almost carbon copy, sees Skhiri in even more acres of space on the back post, to double Koln’s lead.
Even in the darkest of games, some positive traditions of Dortmund’s game hold up: their goal is scored from incessant counter-pressing of Koln.
Eintracht Frankfurt 1-1 Borussia Dortmund, December 5
Borussia Dortmund were left undone by a simple ball over the top in the first 10 minutes, a lapse of concentration, whilst a piece of genius clawed the point back in a 1-1 scoreline.
It outlines the inconsistencies of youth, yet the other side of that coin was revealed in the second half. Jadon Sancho with an intricate assist for Gio Reyna, who provided a sumptuous piece of skill before hammering in a dream of a strike for the American.
There might be inconsistencies at Dortmund, but with those inconsistencies, is teamed beautiful feats of fearlessness and confidence in abundance.
I have seen some pundits declare that Borussia Dortmund’s 3-4-3 leaves them too passive. However, I think it is the perfect shape for them.
The counter-pressing game has obviously worked a treat for the yellow and black but I hasten to add that it could be even more extreme.
The world marvelled at Bayern Munich last season with their exceedingly high line as they won the Treble. My proposition to Favre is this: match that high line, match that aggressive pressing.
Dortmund boasts some superb young talent, which of course does breed inconsistencies at times, but given patience and moulded into a certain way, there’s no reason why a high-press, high-line 3-4-3 / 3-4-2-1 cannot work.
Manuel Akanji and Emre Can are two mobile central defenders that can aptly cover for marauding wing-backs Thomas Meunier and Raphael Guerreiro.
Jude Bellingham and one of Thomas Delaney or Axel Witsel compliment each other well, and a more attack-minded Bellingham owes more to a high-intensity game I propose Dortmund play.
The front 3 speak for themselves. At an average age of 19: Reyna, Sancho and Haaland are one of the scariest attacking prospects in global football. Should there be a need for perhaps wiser, more experienced heads, there is a glut of talent waiting in the wings.
For every Reyna there is a Thorgan Hazard, for every Sancho there is a Julian Brandt and for every Erling Haaland there is a Marco Reus.
And that’s before I’ve even mentioned Youssoufa Moukoko, Dortmund’s fresh face off the conveyer belt at barely 16 years of age.
The long term successor to Haaland perhaps?
The future surely has to be bright, it just might not be in Lucien Favre’s hands for much longer.