Borussia Dortmund's defence should get boost from returning full-backs
DORTMUND, Germany -- Before any of the journalists could nag Peter Bosz with their questions at Monday's news conference ahead of Tuesday's cup tie against third-tier side FC Magdeburg, press officer Sascha Fligge himself asked the Borussia Dortmund manager about the personnel situation, knowing the 53-year-old had positive news to announce.
"[Lukasz] Piszczek and Omer Toprak are unavailable," Bosz said, following up with: "[Sokratis] Papastathopoulos will return after his suspension, and if things go well at the final team training today, Marcel Schmelzer and Raphael Guerreiro will travel with us to Magdeburg."
And indeed, Schmelzer and Guerreiro were among the players, including Andre Schurrle, that made their way to East Germany.
Although it will take weeks, if not months, until both Guerreiro and Schmelzer will have recovered to full form, it's vital news the Black and Yellows desperately needed.
The Dortmund manager had struggled -- and ultimately failed -- to find a functioning back line in this past Saturday's 2-2 draw away to Eintracht Frankfurt, as he fielded midfielder Julian Weigl at centre-back next to Neven Subotic, who played his first minutes for the senior team since March 2016. Spain international Marc Bartra was fielded as a makeshift right-back, summing up the coach's predicament due to a barrage of injuries and suspensions that hit the club on Saturday.
In consequence, Frankfurt appeared to have their best game of the season in just looking at their attacking stats. Niko Kovac's side produced 20 shots and a season-high "expected goals" count that accumulated to 2.98 ExpG -- Frankfurt only once managed to accumulate an expected goals value above 2 ExpG this season, which came against last-place Cologne.
On the flip side, that is harrowing news for Dortmund as it means that their defence was the worst Eintracht faced in nine matchdays, including five teams from the bottom half of the table and thus far of a team that wants to compete for the title.
So before anything else, it will be on Bosz to fix his side's defensive woes which saw them concede nine goals in the past five games across competition.
How desperately Dortmund are missing a set of good full-backs once again became evident on Saturday, when Frankfurt forced the guests to an unhealthy amount of long balls down the field -- an issue Bosz had addressed previously after matches against Leipzig and Nicosia but is yet to solve.
When asked about the coach's criticism after the draw in Frankfurt, Nuri Sahin told ESPN FC: "It was three against three in midfield and we were man-marked, which doesn't make things easier. Of course, you still have to try to find spaces. We did talk about that at half-time and I thought that we fared better into the match through our full-backs."
An argument should be made that Dortmund's midfield -- in this case Sahin, Mario Gotze and Gonzalo Castro -- should be able to evade a man-marking scheme due to movement, but a well-oiled ball possession machine will use its fullbacks in the build-up phase in case the centre is too congested in order to pull opposing midfielders out wide and thus open space for the aforementioned central midfielders.
Yet, that is where Dortmund too often seem to hit a ceiling during 90 minutes still, where they find their full-backs without a contingency plan due to a lack of triangles and passing outlets in the middle.
As a consequence against Leipzig and Frankfurt, the ball was moved back to a central defender or the goalkeeper, ultimately followed by a lump downfield. Especially after going up 2-0 away from Frankfurt, BVB should have been able to calm the match by passing the ball within their own ranks but they were not able to, which is why the game was dubbed as "wild." For neutrals, that football is easy on the eyes because it promises excitement, but for Dortmund, who need to get results it is bad news.
To some extent, the Ruhr sides' malaise in the build-up phase explained by the fact that Bosz had to field nine different back line formations in his 14th match, rendering it impossible for the players to build any sort of routine.
On the other hand, there are tactical solutions to gain a numerical advantage in midfield to avoid the aforementioned three-against-three situation in midfield. Yet either way, it will be a massive boost if the Black and Yellows will be able to rely on the experienced Schmelzer and the technically skilled Guerreiro on the left-back position to support an ailing centre in midfield.
The cup tie in Magdeburg on Tuesday could serve as good opportunity to give those two players a few minutes of playing time in a match that is guaranteed to see a whole new starting lineup by Dortmund, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Christian Pulisic, Weigl and Gotze all stayed at home.
Bosz said during his news conference that a win could just be the positive feeling his side needs and with Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig facing each other in the cup on Wednesday, BVB's chances to defend their title will increase as one German heavyweight is bound to exit the competition.
First, the Black and Yellows have to make sure not to make a meal out of their own tricky cup match.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.