Dortmund can use international break to reset and restore confidence
DORTMUND, Germany -- Many club football fans view international breaks as pesky necessities that get in the way of their weekly routine of following their team. That notion especially holds true for Borussia Dortmund fans. Looking back, their cause for frustration was what transpired in the last international break.
In the seven games across all competitions between mid-October and early November, little was left of the positive start that elevated the Black and Yellows to the top of a the Bundesliga table with a five-point gap over Bayern Munich after seven matchdays. A 5-0 drubbing of third-tier FC Magdeburg in the DFB-Pokal was the only positive result that stood out in that period.
In the Bundesliga, the Ruhr side took just one point out of a possible 12, while suffering painful defeats at home against direct rivals in RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich. The five-point advantage to their southern rivals turned into a six-point disadvantage and saw Dortmund plummet to third place in the table, now level on points with Ruhr rivals Schalke.
Meanwhile, in the Champions League, two embarrassing draws against minnows APOEL Nicosia meant that chances to remain in the Champions League past the turn of the year became all but theoretical.
The reasons for this truly dire patch of form are myriad. For starters, the schedule in the league subsequently became trickier. Several players started to go off the boil, making BVB look like a very incoherent unit on the pitch.
Peter Bosz's applied pressing lost its grip while the backline was subject to constant changes due to injuries and suspensions. In 16 games of the season so far, Dortmund saw 12 different formations at the back, which makes it impossible to build any sort of routine. Said backline was often criticised for its risky positioning high up the field but was equally prone to individual errors when the 53-year-old chose a more conservative approach.
Until September, Dortmund conceded an average of 0.6 goals per game across all competitions, which was never going to be sustainable throughout the season, but 14 goals in the past seven games display the rapid deterioration in defence quite well.
Up front, meanwhile, the otherwise very prolific Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang only mustered two goals in seven games, which both came against Leipzig. A scoring drought that came at a very inconvenient time but usually is also not sustainable for a striker of Aubameyang's grade.
So will Dortmund turn their form around after this international break and carry some momentum into the turn of the year?
Their schedule doesn't promise any easy wins. Having to play in Stuttgart on Friday is not helpful when five players will return from international duty on Thursday, as Bosz revealed on Wednesday's news conference. Then it's Tottenham, the Revierderby against Schalke, Leverkusen and Real Madrid before things get a little easier on paper with Werder Bremen and Mainz only to see a tough finish with Hoffenheim and Bayern in the cup to round off 2017.
For what it's worth, Bosz was very upbeat at his news conference ahead of the match away to Stuttgart.
"The optimsm is here," he said, "because unlike the international break before, where we trained with four or six players, we actually could train for once. During this international break we had 12, 13 players on the training ground including Aubameyang, Christian [Pulisic] and Nuri Sahin.
"We really were able to train defensive and attacking routines. That was fun. Maybe that is what my good mood stems from."
Indeed, the team should be invigorated with key players like Pulisic, Shinji Kagawa and Aubameyang staying home while players like Raphael Guerreiro, Marcel Schmelzer and Andre Schurrle could use the break to regain full fitness after injuries.
Fitness and freshness obviously are absolutely crucial for Bosz pressing to work effectively. If players only exude pressure half-heartedly or not at all, like Andriy Yarmolenko did in the 3-1 loss against Bayern a fortnight ago, the tactical construct will quickly collapse regardless the formation.
"Against Stuttgart we have to play as a real team," Bosz said. "Stuttgart are well organised, and a cohesive unit on the field. We have our way of playing and we need to exercise that to the fullest extent."
Though next to fitness and freshness, Dortmund also have to find the conviction that has been lost along the way. Not an easy task against a Stuttgart outfit that has won four and drawn one of five home matches this season.
Obviously, BVB are in dire need of three points after going winless in four league matches, just so they don't lose any more ground on Bayern and Leipzig, but even more so because the Revierderby is looming. Things tend get all the more emotional when Schalke are in town and moods -- good or bad -- are amplified in the weeks around the derby.
Bosz said that the headwind was "palpable" as early as after the first league loss against Leipzig but fans may hit the panic button if they find their team below Schalke after 11 matchdays. On the flip side, Dortmund have the chance to regain momentum and leave a torrid streak behind them -- especially from a psychological standpoint.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.