Bottom-of-the-table Paderborn looked to have struck the decisive blow, the floor-punch on Lucien Favre. The Swiss’ job security as Borussia Dortmund manager had been far from certain for a number of weeks, months even, and a 3-3 draw at home, which could have been a defeat having trailed 3-0 at half time, to the worst team in the Bundesliga was widely expected to be Favre’s final act.
The mood around the Westfalenstadion since then has changed somewhat. When the 2019/20 Bundesliga season resumes on May 16 after a 10-week hiatus due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, the Black and Yellows will find themselves back in the midst of a title race, just four points off Bayern Munich at the top of the table.
Dortmund have won 10 of their 13 Bundesliga fixtures since that home draw against Paderborn. A run of six victories from seven before the coronavirus shutdown saw Favre’s side leapfrog Borussia Monchengladbach and RB Leipzig, repositioning them as the primary challengers to the reigning champions from Bavaria. What changed?
Goals, goals, goals ...
Most obviously, they now have Erling Haaland. The Norwegian striker has given Dortmund the sort of cutting edge they previously lacked, scoring nine goals in his first eight Bundesliga outings following his January arrival from Red Bull Salzburg. Indeed, Haaland’s impact has been profound, effortlessly taking a step up from the Austrian Bundesliga to continue his goalscoring exerts in the real thing.
Such an upturn in form cannot be solely attributed to the goals the 19-year-old is scoring. It’s about more than that. It’s about the way the Norwegian has given Dortmund an attacking apex to play off and into. Favre has possessed an array of creative talent from the moment he arrived at the Westfalenstadion two summers ago, but nobody to make the most of that creativity.
Jadon Sancho isn’t so much Dortmund’s next big thing, but their big thing in the here and now. The Englishman is behind only Thomas Muller for assists in the Bundesliga this season, contributing 15 in 23 games, and has scored 14 himself for good measure. Nobody has had a direct hand in more goals in the German top flight this season than Sancho.
Then there’s Thorgan Hazard, seemingly ready to step out from underneath the shadow of his more illustrious, and until now successful, older brother. The 27-year-old is also in double figures for Bundesliga assists (10) this season and has wasted no time in striking up an inherent relationship with Haaland. Julian Brandt also warrants a mention for his recent performances.
Achraf Hakimi is in the second season of a two-year loan stint from Real Madrid, but the Moroccan full back’s contribution must also be acknowledged even if he isn’t technically Borussia Dortmund’s player. With seven goals, four in the Champions League, and 10 assists for the season, there are few full backs like Hakimi in the European game right now.
Emre Can’s January arrival might not have made as many headlines as Haaland’s, but the former Liverpool player has bolstered a midfield that needed some extra structure and fibre. Having become a peripheral figure at Juventus, it’s almost as if Can has revelled in the opportunity to remind everyone of his elite level quality. And that he’s still only 26.
Even in the likes of Marco Reus and Axel Witsel, comparative veterans, Dortmund boast players of genuine pedigree. Until a few months ago the accusation made against Favre was that he had no plan to get the best out of them. Fans and pundits alike claimed, with some justification, that he was underachieving with a squad good enough to at least compete for honours.
A special kind of chaos
For all the undeniable progress Dortmund have made since the turn of the year, there's still a certain fragility to them. They have managed to bottle a special kind of chaos, but that chaos comes with the risk that they won't always be able to control it. Look at the manic 4-3 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen in early February. And the 5-3 away win over Augsburg just a few weeks before that. At any moment, against any team, there's potential for high-flying destruction as well as spontaneous self-combustion.
There is therefore no guarantee that Dortmund will be able to maintain their consistency and momentum until the end of the season. What's more, there remains a sense that Favre has an expiry date as manager. The thought of a truly top tier coach in charge of this group of players might prove irresistible in the end regardless of what is achieved this season. Thomas Tuchel’s departure from Paris Saint-Germain, for example, might convince Dortmund that there are better managers out there and available.
For now, though, Dortmund must stay focused on what can still be done under Favre. There has been no flow or rhythm so far to the 2019/20 Bundesliga season and in that there may well be an opportunity for the Black and Yellows to claim the silverware. Bayern Munich are far from untouchable with concerns over their aging squad. Nothing exposes weariness like youthful exuberance – something Dortmund have plenty of.