Stoger's pragmatic approach could be the tonic Dortmund need to recover
This weekend will mark the last round of Bundesliga action before the winter break. After going winless in eight consecutive league fixtures, and plummeting from first place to eighth within the same time frame, Borussia Dortmund picked up their first league win since Sept. 30 in Mainz on Tuesday under newly appointed head coach Peter Stoger.
Sixth-placed Dortmund will look to leapfrog fifth-placed Hoffenheim with another win on Saturday. A duel that will pit Stoger against Julian Nagelsmann -- the most buzzworthy candidate to be appointed the next BVB coach in the summer. As Stoger was only outfitted with a deal until June 2018, those rumours have been fueled even further.
Though the 51-year-old Austrian had very little time to comment on such rumours at Thursday's news conference, telling reporters: "Julian Nagelsmann is doing a super job and that's all there is to say."
Stoger's focus is fully consumed by the task of stabilising a defence that had shipped 21 goals in the eight league games before his appointment. "Thus far, all I've seen is the training ground and my hotel room," he said pointing out that 24 hours a day were not enough for his workload and that he has to carefully choose his battles.
Yet within the short time he has been at the helm in Dortmund, Stoger has indicated that he could be the right man at the right time.
At least in theory, Peter Bosz should have been a great fit for the Ruhr side. Given that the club enter almost every league match as heavy favourites, they needed to appoint a head coach whose philosophy is founded on possession football. Combined with a penchant for aggressive counter pressing far up the pitch, Bosz's vision should have worked out perfectly for the Black and Yellows. Sporting director Michael Zorc repeatedly told reporters that Dortmund wanted to see exactly the kind of football that former Ajax coach preaches.
In practice, however, Dortmund did not possess the squad to translate Bosz's plan into reality. The defenders lack the individual skill to play in a high line that depends on a lot of successful one-on-one duels while the midfield lacked the pace to close down gaps.
CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke explained at Ruhr Nachrichten's Der Schwarzgelbe Talk on Wednesday, that talking to players, he got the idea that they were not entirely convinced about the aggressive pressing system.
"Maybe this is why not everyone defended with complete resolution," Watzke said, adding: "Even in the games we won, we never had the sense of security that we would leave the field as winners."
If Watzke's observations are true, sacking Bosz was inevitable. Players need to believe in their coach's ideas, even more so when it comes to an aggressive pressing system that depends on a cohesive team exuding pressure on its opponents -- otherwise gaps will open up that are next to impossible to defend. Bosz and Dortmund learned that the hard way.
BVB were far away from setting off fireworks in their 2-0 win in Mainz on Tuesday but Stoger's small adjustments have helped the team to keep the first clean sheet in 10 games across all competitions.
Instead of running riot from the first whistle, the team took a more cautious approach, applying a midfield press with players being quick to get behind the ball. Sure enough, the first 45 minutes were dull to watch but it helped Dortmund's players to gain security in their own game.
The Ruhr side came out from the break more adventurous and scored the go-ahead goal via a set piece 10 minutes into the second half. Interestingly, as the game progressed, Dortmund could turn the screw on a tiring Mainz team. For the Black and Yellows, who had looked flat around the hour mark under Bosz, this was a novelty.
Also on an individual level, Stoger helped some players to find their footing. Right-back Jeremy Toljan and defensive midfielder Julian Weigl, who had looked lost in a more advanced role under Bosz, were the best examples on Tuesday night.
Asked about Weigl showing the sort of performance that had earned him a call-up to the German national team, Stoger explained to his news conference: "As a coach, I've never tried to think up my own footballing vision and tried to enforce it because you depend on what your players can implement. I believe that when Julian Weigl plays that a [deeper position] suits him well."
It's that sort of pragmatic approach that can allow Stoger to excel at Dortmund. The squad, at least, has proven under Bosz that they are not able to play an ultra-aggressive style while maintaining long-term success.
Though it remains to be seen whether Stoger's quick adjustments also yield a win against Hoffenheim. A weak Mainz side may have come just at the right time to act as slump busters and boost the team's confidence, but even with a more conservative approach, Dortmund's players still committed too many defensive errors for comfort.
Hoffenheim are a team with more tricks up their sleeves, as they are comfortable playing either possession or counterattacking football. Their tactical flexibility is one reason why Nagelsmann is so sought-after. However, the team from Baden has struggled with the added strain of the Europa League and thus only registered two wins on the road thus far.
Hoffenheim will have to make do without the suspended Dennis Geiger in central midfield as well as star striker Sandro Wagner, who is ruled out due to injury.
Having played against Hoffenheim with Cologne, Stoger has already analysed Saturday's opponents. On Thursday he quipped: "We knew what their strengths are yet could not avoid defeat," but also noted that he has different weapons at his disposal in his first home match with Dortmund.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.