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Bayern-Schreck: can Borussia Dortmund win the Bundesliga?

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Dortmund is off to a dazzling start under Lucien Favre. Unless Niko Kovac can squeeze more offense from his team, this could be the year Dortmund ends Bayern Munich’s six-year Bundesliga streak.


DORTMUND, GERMANY - OCTOBER 06: Borussia Dortmund players celebrate following their sides victory in during the Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Augsburg at Signal Iduna Park on October 6, 2018 in Dortmund, Germany.
Borussia Dortmund celebrates defeating Augsburg 4-3, October 6, 2018.
Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images

This past Wednesday, Borussia Dortmund crushed Atletico Madrid, widely regarded as one of the stingiest defenses in Europe, with a 4-0 victory in the Champions League group stage. If outsiders wondered whether Dortmund might collapse in a hypothetical real test against a top team — the skeptic’s arbitrary test of quality — those observers were disappointed.

Lucien Favre handed Atletico its biggest defeat under Diego Simeone, and Dortmund is duly sitting atop their Champions League group with a 3-0-0 record. Back in Germany, Dortmund also leads the Bundesliga table with an impressive 6-2-0 record. Lucien Favre and his roster of veteran stars and new signees are off to a blazing start.

Just how good is Dortmund’s Bundesliga start?

So just how good is Dortmund’s start this season? It is their second-best start ever, and the best since Jürgen Klopp coached Dortmund to a 7-0-1 record in the first 8 matchdays of the 2010-2011 Bundesliga season. Dortmund’s current start is in fact the twelfth-best in Bundesliga history — in just over a thousand debuts for the now 18 teams in the league over 54 seasons since 1963-64.

Top 15 Bundesliga starts

Rank Club Season Goal difference Points Coach Finish
Rank Club Season Goal difference Points Coach Finish
1 Bayern Munich 15/16 28:4 24 Pep Guardiola 1
2 Bayern Munich 12/13 26:2 24 Jupp Heynckes 1
3 Bayern Munich 98/99 23:8 22 Ottmar Hitzfeld 1
4 Borussia Dortmund 10/11 20:6 21 Jürgen Klopp 1
5 Schalke 04 71/72 19:5 21 Ivica Horvat 2
6 Bayern Munich 80/81 22:10 21 Pál Csernai 1
7 Bayern Munich 84/85 19:7 21 Udo Lattek 1
8 Bayern Munich 05/06 17:5 21 Felix Magath 1
9 FC Kaiserslautern 01/02 20:9 21 Andreas Brehme 7
10 Bayern Munich 95/96 20:9 21 Otto Rehhagel 2
11 Mainz 05 10/11 18:8 21 Thomas Tuchel 5
12 Borussia Dortmund 18/19 27:8 20 Lucien Favre ?
13 Bayern Munich 07/08 22:3 20 Ottmar Hitzfeld 1
14 Bayern Munich 14/15 21:2 20 Pep Guardiola 1
15 Eintracht Frankfurt 93/94 23:7 20 Klaus Toppmöller 5
The top 15 Bundesliga starts through matchday 8 by points. All stats from Transfermarkt.de.

There is a very high correlation between eventual Bundesliga championships and the teams with the very strongest starts this deep into the season. No coincidence that the coaches who led the top two teams are none other than Pep Guardiola in Bayern’s incredible 2015-16 season (the one in which Thomas Müller scored a career-high 20 goals) and Jupp Heynckes himself in the treble-winning 2012-13 season.

In Dortmund’s best-ever start, the fourth-best all time in the Bundesliga, Jürgen Klopp led Dortmund to a 7-0-1 record before going on to win the league in 2010-11. He famously led Dortmund to a domestic double and a second-place finish to Bayern in the Champions League the next year.

Compared to Dortmund’s last two champion teams, Favre’s team is just behind Klopp’s dominant side in 2010-2011 in terms of points. The picture is even rosier, though, if you rank the best starts ever by goal difference. Dortmund’s very flattering 27:8 goal difference through 8 matchdays is the fifth-best ever, behind Guardiola in 2015-16 again (28:4), Jupp Heynckes twice (26:2 in 2012-13 and 21:1 in 2011-12), and Udo Lattek’s 1972-73 Bayern (23:4). All those teams won the Bundesliga except Heynckes’ team in 2011-12.

A winning squad

Dortmund prepared for the season by making smart transfer decisions regarding several players, including veterans. Center-back stalwart Sokratis was sold to Arsenal; disappointing forward Andriy Yarmolenko was shipped to West Ham; midfielder Gonzalo Castro was offloaded to Stuttgart and Nuri Sahin to Werder Bremen. Erik Durm left on a free transfer, and Roman Weidenfeller, at last, retired in black and yellow glory,

In their place, Dortmund brought on board a bevy of relatively reasonably priced talent from Germany and beyond. Abdou Diallo moved from Mainz directly into Dortmund’s starting lineup alongside Manuel Akanji, who joined the team from Basel last season. Axel Witsel, bought from TJ Quanjian in the Chinese Superleague, has played spectacularly in Dortmund’s central midfield alongside Thomas Delaney, purchased from Werder, and veteran Mo Dahoud. Right-back Achraf Hakimi leaped into the starting spot of long-time veteran and former captain Marcel Schmelzer, who is currently injured.

STUTTGART, GERMANY - OCTOBER 20: Paco Alcacer of Borussia Dortmund scores his team's third goal during the Bundesliga match between VfB Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund at Mercedes-Benz Arena on October 20, 2018 in Stuttgart, Germany.
Paco Alcacer scores against VfB Stuttgart, October 20, 2018.
Photo by Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images

The man at the head of Dortmund’s offense has been most spectacular of all: Dortmund looked like a headless monster after it proved impossible to keep Michy Batshuayi. But a head was soon found: Paco Alcácer, on loan from FC Barcelona, has scored a whopping eight goals in just five games — and he did not even play in the 4-0 demolition of Atletico Madrid.

And of course Marco Reus is like a man reborn: now captain of the team and healthy, Reus has seven goals of his own and another seven assists on top of that. Add to the mix the incredible play of Jadon Sancho, acquired from Manchester City last season (three goals and a team-high eight assists) and Hakimi, who has a goal and five assists in the five games he has played since Schmelzer went down (just one assist in seven games), and Dortmund’s offense is on fire.

In brief, the squad is young — 24.7 years old on average — and hungry, and Dortmund have in Lucien Favre a coach whose teams have consistently outperformed their “expected goals” (xG) for years. Of course, Peter Bosz led Dortmund to its third-best start and 26th overall just last season, going 6-2-0 before the wheels fell off, but no one expects the same to happen to Favre. This team looks like a serious contender for the Bundesliga championship, and perhaps even more.

What does it mean for Bayern Munich?

In a word: trouble. Bayern Munich has been underwhelming by most measures. Bayern currently is in fourth place in the Bundesliga with a good, but not great, 5-1-2 record and is tied with Ajax Amsterdam for first in its Champions League group with a 2-1-0 record and a 5:1 goal difference.

Goal-scoring in general is Bayern’s most serious concern and most troubling omen: Bayern has managed only a 15:9 record in the Bundesliga thus far, significantly worse than its consistently strong showings since 2011 (21:1, 26:2, 15:3, 21:2, 28:4, 20:4, 21:7). Prior to that run, Louis van Gaal’s 2010-11 team had a miserable goal difference of 8:8 and ultimately finished third — van Gaal was eventually fired.

This season, Robert Lewandowski has scored five goals, but those include two penalties. James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben are the two next-highest contributors with three apiece. James further has an assist, and Müller has two goals and two assists. But even Bayern’s overall assist numbers are mediocre: 13 versus Dortmund’s 23. Robert Lewandowski is not scoring many chances from open play — and neither is anyone else.

The fundamental problem is not hard to pinpoint: two thirds of Niko Kovac’s starting wingers, Franck Ribery and Serge Gnabry, have not scored, and both have just a single assist. Until help arrives next year — whenever Kingsley Coman recovers and Alphonso Davies joins the team — Bayern has the smallest and oldest squad in the Bundesliga: 23 players an average 27.3 years old, and the oldest players on the squad also happen to be regular starters.

In marked contrast to Dortmund, Niko Kovac did not receive any of the humble reinforcements he requested during the summer transfer window. Bayern contented itself with transactions that had already been made: Juventus finalized Douglas Costa’s transfer, Leon Goretzka joined from Schalke on a free transfer, Serge Gnabry’s loan to Hoffenheim ended, and Renato Sanches likewise returned from Swansea. If Kovac obtained anything, it was that Jerome Boateng stayed. Despite the latter’s poor form, that may have been a wise decision, given the uncertainty of finding a last-minute replacement.

Looking ahead

As matters stand, Bayern and Kovac have turned a corner with a solid victory over Wolfsburg and a workmanlike performance against AEK Athens in the Champions League, but chugging along without a dramatic improvement in offensive production may spell doom for Bayern’s Bundesliga aspirations. While Bayern’s defense has been virtually as good as anyone’s (conceding only nine goals, whereas eight is the current best mark), an inability to score more in an inherently low-scoring game raises the chance of losses and ties. And that is fatal to a successful campaign.

Dortmund have a young team with multiple young forwards and consistent service to their striker. They are beating teams by multiple goals and blowing away weak opponents, and sometimes even strong ones. It will be a tall order for Kovac to catch his rivals. A swing of six points will be on the line in two weeks, when Bayern visits the Signal Iduna Arena in what will be one of the most significant matches of the year for both teams. That game alone may decide Bayern’s season.