Borussia Dortmund manager Lucien Favre could see it play out beforehand. In warning his players that they would have to be “very clever” to get a result against Bayern Munich, the 61-year-old Swiss manager understood that the challenge was just as much staying mentally strong as it was about their trademark, counter attacking speed. And despite getting dominated in the first half, his side were down just 1-0. The scoreline allowed Favre to implement a slight but significant tactical change in bringing on Mahmoud Dahoud in midfield. Three minutes into the second half, Marco Reus received and buried a penalty to tie the game. Testing their mentality, they would go down again from another Lewandowski goal, to which Reus responded with a volley of his own. That gave uber-sub striker Paco Alcacer, currently scoring a goal every 29 minutes, the platform to win the match with a cheeky chip in transition.
Dortmund maintained their unbeaten start and kept their four point gap at the top of the table, but most impressive was how a side that started four players 20 years and younger in Jadon Sancho, Jacob Bruun Larsen, Achraf Hakimi, and Dan-Axel Zagadou outpoised Bayern. After all, that idea of cleverness that Favre spoke about implies a savvy knowing only gained through experience. The commentator noted that how Reus could have jumped out of Manuel Neuer’s way but cleverly leaned into the keeper’s chest to get his penalty. And the cleverness applied to their game management as well, in the manner in which they went down twice before delivering the knockout blow. 23-year-old defender Manuel Akanji admitted they knew Bayern wouldn’t have enough energy to last the entire match.
Alcacer’s match winning goal began with Sancho taking the ball off Franck Ribery near his own box before laying it off to Reus. The duo - a 29-year-old former prodigy and the 18-year-old current prodigy - have developed a relationship on and off the field. Sancho said that Reus taught him how to be more mature on the ball, especially as they play give and goes from the right wing into central areas. Reus described his appreciation for Sancho’s streetball-influenced game, injecting his creativity and determination in creating game winning moments either by scoring or through the final ball with six assists. We’ve previously written about Sancho’s development after leaving Manchester City for Germany. It is difficult to imagine a better setting for any teenager to develop than with a combination of Reus’ mentorship alongside the experience of making an impact in Bundesliga’s biggest match.
While the focus is centered around the development of their youthful wingers from Sancho to Christian Pulisic, it is Reus’ tasked with finding space for their speed through quick interchanges of passing. The now 29-year-old, once in danger of becoming a familiar tale of a former prodigy who never lived up to expectations, is having a second life taking the creative responsibility of the side’s high powered engine. After bursting onto the scene in the initial Dortmund run under Jurgen Klopp in 2012, he played a combined 28 matches in the last two seasons due to injury. His struggle mirrored Dortmund’s in the post-Thomas Tuchel possession era as they finished fourth in the league last season. Yet if Reus’ mentorship of Sancho links him to the club’s future, his relationship to Favre firmly grounds him in the present.
Favre must receive credit for healing what he described as a broken Dortmund squad through his unique stylistic philosophy. He and Reus first came together for three seasons at Gladbach at the turn of the decade. It was there, in the shadow of gegenpressing, where Favre built his reputation as one of the best counter attacking minds in football while developing young players from Reus to Granit Xhaka to Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Asked about his tactical philosophy, he simply stated that a team that “can’t counter is not a great team”.
We can speak of his use of the 4-2-3-1 formation with a focus on midfield solidity, yet the most interesting aspect of his teams is their analytics breaking style. His Gladbach side so outperformed the expected goals model that analysts wondered whether there was a blind spot in the statistic. Even while topping the table this season, Dortmund had a negative expected goal difference. There is a grounded explanation in his philosophy that his side take only good shots while conceding bad shots, leading to a disparity in average shots per match that has no effect on his side achieving results. Is football really as simple as that?
Favre’s ability to balance the development of youth with the contributions from veterans like Reus or midfielder Axel Witsel protecting the young backline is particularly impressive. Personality-wise, it is inevitable that Favre, or any Dortmund manager, draw comparisons to Klopp, such is the German’s shadow. And the dualities between the two managers make an easy comparison between right and left brain, emotion against analytics, extrovert and introvert. If Klopp’s style is described as heavy metal football, Favre is more modern jazz with room for improvisation. Thus, the importance of Reus’ intuition, Pulisic’s dribbling and Sancho’s streetball instinct.
In contrast to recent seasons in top European leagues where slow starts by dominant teams would only give way to the inevitable climb, this Bundesliga season has the feel of a Dortmund title. Or rather, it’s Bayern conceding the top spot after six straight championship seasons. Even Bayern president Uli Hoeness said that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if his side didn’t win the league. It is partly on their roster’s aging talent and Nico Kovac’s inexperience at the top, but Dortmund have the manager and the players to capitalize.
The player Favre took out for Dahoud at halftime to begin the Bayern comeback was Julian Weigl. Once thought to be the future of not only the club but of the deep lying midfielder position, it was only Weigl’s second appearance this season, showing how far he’s fall out of favor.
Despite being vaunted in analysis circles due to his role in Tuchel’s passing play as a 19-year-old, Weigl is still just 23 years old. It was just two seasons ago that Weigl was not only Dortmund’s most important player, but the piece that future sides would build around. Even just last year, we thought that in order for Dortmund to be at their best, the ball would have to come through Weigl. The midfielder possessed the combination of press resistance and vision for buildup play. Yet there is an inherent tension in style between Reus’ ability to create havoc in transition and Weigl’s methodical buildup play. It is the difference between controlling the ball and controlling space, with Favre in the latter camp.
The manner of Dortmund’s success under Favre this season - counter attacking, intense, pacy yet technical - is a return to their core principles that enthralled us their first time around in Europe. With that however, Tuchel’s positional play appears to be just a blip with the slick passing of Weigl replaced by the dynamism and stability of Witsel and Dahoud. But Tuchel, Dortmund and Weigl were of the moment as well: after Pep Guardiola left Bayern three seasons ago, many Bundesliga managers spoke of his possession-based influence upon the league. But in the wake of Germany’s World Cup failure, even manager Joachim Low admitted that the side had gone too far with possession football. So back to pace in transition it is.
After Dortmund last won the Bundesliga in 2011, Bayern raided the club for Lewandowski and Mario Goetze. The story then was of a scrap-heap, value based side who took time to develop their players instead of buying. The current team is the most expensive Dortmund side in club history with the tenth highest wage bill in Europe. Sure, it lacks the fairy tale feel, but it also represents maturity in this globalized footballing world. We may never see a story like that first Klopp run again, but this season in particular shows how a scrappy underdog can grow, sustain, and eventually reach the top again through intelligent player signings young and old, and a manager who can integrate both. Reus says he can feel the good times returning. This time, they may even be able to keep it going.