Borussia Dortmund overcame the trauma of a bomb attack on the team bus to build a side that is aiming to take the Bundesliga title away from Bayern Munich
On Friday, the Bundesliga wakes from hibernation, tying a modern record. It was the joint-shortest winter break in four decades – just 26 days, same as last season. However, a year ago there was a very good reason for such a brief respite: the World Cup. But in 2019 there’s no major tournament for Germans to take into account, so why the haste?
Well, maybe the simple reason is that nobody can wait for the season to resume. After all, for the first time in seven long years, a team other than Bayern has gone into the winter break as league leaders and stands a decent chance of finally breaking the Munich giants’ stranglehold on the Bundesliga.
That team is, of course, Borussia Dortmund. Their lead over Bayern is not overwhelming – just six points that could dwindle early, considering Dortmund’s first game of the year is daunting: away at Leipzig. And yet the stats don’t look too good for Bayern. Sixty-nine per cent of the teams that went into the winter break in first place eventually lifted the league title. What’s more, no Bundesliga club that held a lead of more than three points at the halfway mark has ever been overtaken.
Which begs the question: how did Dortmund do this? After all, we’re talking about a club that has gone through four coaches from four countries in barely one year, went two months without a league win last season and has lost both its best goal scorer (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) and brightest young star (Ousmane Dembélé). Well, as is always the case with such success stories, many factors come into play. However, rarely as many as you’ll find here.
To understand what has happened at Dortmund, you first have to cast your mind back roughly 21 months, to April 2017. At the beginning of that month, a rosy future seemed to lie ahead for Borussia under highly-respected coach Thomas Tuchel.
Yes, Bayern were running away with the league title, but Dortmund were still in contention for the cup (which the club went on to win) and were favoured to reach the Champions League semi-finals against a strong but not overpowering Monaco team. Then came the bomb attack on the team coach – and nothing was ever the same again.
The question of how to deal with the aftermath of the bus bombing not only soured the relationship between the coach and the board, leading to the sacking of Tuchel only days after he won the cup, it also marked the end of a promising team as a working unit.
Although it stands to reason that such a traumatic event must have grave effects on a group of people, the club were very reluctant to publicly speak about this matter. It was only a few weeks ago that chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke openly admitted: “After the attack, nothing was the same. Not just concerning the relationship between the men in charge and the coach. Especially the players who had been at the rear of the bus were not the same anymore.”
Of course this was not the only explanation for a turbulent season that culminated in the derby against Schalke at home, a match in which Dortmund couldn’t hold a four-goal lead. But it did play a crucial role and forced the club to act. Within only a few months, the majority of players and coaches who had been on the bus at the time of the attack left or retired, were sacked, sold or loaned out. In other words, Dortmund built an almost entirely new team from scratch.
This they did expertly. Almost all signings made this summer have turned out to be strokes of genius. Take Axel Witsel, who looks as if he has been playing in this league and for this team for years and years. His presence in midfield is so commanding that you’d think his transfer was a no-brainer. But it wasn’t. Many observers wondered why Dortmund signed a player nearing thirty who had spent the previous six years in Russia and China.
Take Paco Alcácer, who has set all sorts of Bundesliga scoring records in the few months he’s been at Dortmund. The 25-year-old is so deadly efficient in front of goal that he was called up to the Spanish national team in October, two years after his last international appearance. (Of course he immediately scored a brace.) But how the Dortmund scouts knew he would be such an instant hit is a mystery, considering Alcácer hardly played a game since his move to Barcelona in 2016.
Finally, take new coach Lucien Favre. The Swiss knows the Bundesliga well and has had success in Germany before. But nobody could have predicted that he would go four months unbeaten with a newly assembled squad – or that his team would beat mighty Atlético 4-0 with two teenagers (Dan-Axel Zagadou and Achraf Hakimi) at the back.
A major reason why Favre’s young Borussia side played with such consistency and confidence is an element that should not be underestimated – luck. When Manuel Neuer was asked about Bayern’s chances in the title race a few days ago, he replied: “We know that Dortmund weren’t always brilliant. They were also lucky, especially in the early stages.”
It may have sounded like sour grapes, but it was spot on. During the important first weeks of the season, Dortmund won games they should have drawn and drew games they should have lost. It was only in late September that the team really gelled and gathered steam.
Finally, there was another kind of luck. For the first time in three years, key player, local boy and club icon Marco Reus has gone into a season fit and healthy and has not picked up any major injury. In fact, you could argue he has not been this good since he was voted Germany’s Footballer of the Year in 2012. And before you ask: no, Reus was not on the bus.