Bundesliga: Can Borussia Dortmund dethrone Bayern Munich?
Whisper it, but we might have a proper Bundesliga title fight on our hands. Bayern Munich looks as vulnerable as it has in some time, and that coincides with an uptick from a refreshed Borussia Dortmund.
Dortmund's strong start to the season has made fans dream of a proper scrap at the top
"Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, Bayern Munich always win the title." Gary Lineker's famous quote (one better known in Germany than in England, by the way) about the German habit of winning against England has been given a Bavarian slant in recent years. Few have doubted Bayern's chances of winning the Bundesliga title in the past five seasons.
But that's changed. After Dortmund's last home win, confident chants rang out loudly from the Südtribune: "Who'll be German champions? BVB Borussia. Who'll be German champions? Borussia BVB."
At least in Dortmund, people have regained belief in themselves, and in the chances of a title fight worthy of the name — for a change.
The recipe for success? 'Run, run, be aggressive'
Seven league games, no defeats and just two goals conceded - BVB, not the all-conquering Bayern, are currently the Bundesliga's benchmark. There's euphoria to match at the club itself, something that even Marco Reus seems to have tapped in to as he tries to recover from injury. "Borussia Dortmund will win the Bundesliga," he said recently.
"Run, run, be aggressive. Score goals, don't concede any." Nuri Sahin's description of Dortmund's recipe for renewed success in a recent Sport 1 interview could scarcely be simpler. But even Dutch coach Peter Bosz can't have expected the players to settle into his new system so swiftly. Bosz even appealed for patience when he took the reins. Yet results are flowing earlier than expected, including some statement victories — like the 6-1 demolition of Borussia Mönchengladbach on matchday 6.
"This is a continual process. It will never be finished," Bosz still cautions when asked about his team's development. Bosz's tactics are somewhat reminiscent of Dortmund's successful spell under Jürgen Klopp, when high-octane football won them back-to-back Bundesliga titles and a German Cup.
Calmness returns to the dressing room
But it's not just the results, calmness is returning to the Dortmund dressing room after an unusually turbulent half-year. First came the premature and rather messy separation from Thomas Tuchel, in which neither side exactly covered themselves in glory. Before the split, two considerable egos (Tuchel and CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke) had been increasingly at odds.
Now, at least since the departure of young star Ousmane Dembele, who refused to play and then got his desired big-money move to Barcelona, BVB has found its way back to calmer waters, putting a turbulent summer behind them.
What's more, commercial manager Michael Zorc evidently kept his head during the transition, finding the perfect replacement for Dembele in Andriy Yarmolenko. "Both at club level as well as in service of Ukraine's national team, Yarmolenko stands for top-drawer football," Zorc recently said of the 27-year-old. Given his often spectacular early showings at BVB, several fans are starting to share this opinion.
Andriy Yarmolenko has proven a shrewd addition to the Dortmund attack
More depth, more quality
Dortmund's squad is also deeper than it has been in recent seasons. That means Bosz can rotate without too palpable a loss in quality, which is an absolute necessity for his intensive game-plan. Besides Yarmolenko, new attacking signing Maximilian Philipp has also made a real impact. The former Freiburg forward already has four goals to his name, while new central defender Ömer Toprak (formerly of Bayer Leverkusen) has contributed considerably to Dortmund conceding just two league goals to date. Even Mario Götze, after his lengthy illness, appears to be finding his feet again.
Heynckes: 'A lot of work ahead of us'
And what of Bayern Munich? The preseason title favorites have had a tough start to the campaign, prompting the inevitable cries of "crisis" on Säbener Strasse. Inconsistent performances, no obvious playing philosophy, a symbolic thrashing against Paris St. Germain in the Champions League and a five-point gap to Dortmund in the Bundesliga all conspired to cost Carlo Ancelotti his job last month.
Now, with successor and Bayern rescue-expert Jupp Heynckes, matters are supposed to improve: "I do believe that a ripple will go through the team," Heynckes said after his appointment. But he said that the most important was "that players regain confidence in themselves."
"There's an awful lot of work ahead of us," Heynckes said. "My first task is to restore order."
During Heynckes' last temporary stint at a Bayern in "crisis," he ended up winning the treble — Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League. Asked about his goals for his fourth stint in charge of the Bavarians, the canny Heynceks opted to praise his rivals instead: "Dortmund lead by five points after seven match days. The way they're playing, it's going to be very hard to displace them. Setting targets won't achieve anything at this point."
Heynckes' last 'rescue mission' at a Bayern in 'crisis' turned out rather well
Dortmund will need support
Even the opening few weeks of the season have shown that Bayern are no longer unbeatable. Julian Nagelsmann scuppered the Bavarians on match day 3, while Wolfsburg and Hertha Berlin also managed to pick up draws. Clubs like Hoffenheim, and indeed RB Leipzig, could provide Dortmund with just the assistance they need. Both appear good enough to at least give Heynckes' Bayern a game, although of course the same applies in reverse when they face Dortmund, as Leipzig will this weekend.
Unless Bayern continue dropping points elsewhere, Dortmund could struggle, because they're by no means the finished article yet either. Defensively they look particularly vulnerable at times, allowing an above-average number of shots on Roman Bürki in goal. If that trend continues, an undefeated season seems highly improbable. Not least if you consider the relatively weak Bundesliga opponents they've faced so far, and how their Champions League games against Tottenham and Real Madrid went.
Do Leipzig still have a part to play? This weekend's game against BVB is the ideal opportunity for them to make a statement.
A title race with more than two horses?
Whatever happens, Dortmund are surely better placed now than in any of the past five seasons to challenge for the title. Plenty of things are running smoothly at BVB, plenty aren't at Bayern.
But for Peter Bosz, it's still too soon to be talking about a potential two-horse race for the Bundesliga title: "I do not believe that we should only be looking to Munich," Bosz told the Bild am Sonntag weekly recently, saying that Hoffenheim was playing tidy football and that RB Leipzig shouldn't be written off so soon. "There really are several teams [to watch]."
A real title fight in the Bundesliga, perhaps involving multiple teams? Most fans would be delighted if Bosz was proven right.