Saturday’s win over Bremen kept Dortmund on course to become the Bundesliga’s most dominant team ever. But their coach says the squad isn’t that gifted. So why, then, are Dortmund so darned good?
There's been no end to the celebrations for Dortmund
A win against Frankfurt this Saturday is all Borussia Dortmund, who are currently on 43 points, need to break the record, set by Bayern Munich in 2005, for the most successful first half of a season.
Moreover, the overall season record of 79 points, achieved twice by Bayern between 1971 and 1973, appears well within Dortmund's reach. Extrapolated over the whole season, Dortmund's current form would have them earning a sensational 90 points and make a case for this being the greatest Bundesliga team of all time.
Yet surprisingly, their coach doesn't seem to think they are all that good.
“We're not naturally more gifted than other teams,” Juergen Klopp said in a Bundesliga interview before the Bremen match. “We have to make up for it by working harder.”
That's no explanation, of course. There is little evidence that Dormund run more or tackle harder than, say, Cologne or Gladbach. The worst of all sports cliches notwithstanding, no one is physically able to give more than 100 percent.
Nor is Dortmund's form down to luck: The team’s average margin of victory in their 14 wins has been more than two goals, and only four of their 43 points have come thanks to last-minute strikes.
So are Dortmund, in fact, more talented? The answer is yes and no.
Playing in the other guys' half
The ever excitable Juergen Klopp is the architect of Dortmund's success
Keeping possession and winning challenges are two factors often credited for teams' abilities to win games, but Dortmund's record this season in these categories is only slightly better than average.
Where Dortmund do have a striking advantage is in shots on goal, both for and against. Klopp's men have sent the ball toward the opponents’ goal 14 times more than the next-best team in this area, Bayern Munich. And they've allowed the opposition 21 fewer opportunities than their nearest rivals Leverkusen.
Dortmund have mastered the fine art of pressing, as was on ample display in the Bremen match.
In the first half, Bremen actually had slightly more possession and won more challenges, but the overall impression was that Dortmund were dominating. Much of the game was played in Bremen's half, regardless of which team had the ball.
As a result, Dortmund got up close and personal with Bremen keeper Tim Wiese on several occasions, while Bremen managed a grand total of just one shot on goal over the first 45 minutes.
Dortmund have been getting four or five men into opponents' penalty areas all season, and not surprisingly, they're the league's most potent offensive force. But if you think forward pressing only pays dividends on attack, think again.
Keeping foes at bay
Dortmund get a lot of players forward
With only nine goals conceded, Dortmund are the best defensive unit in the league by far. Much of the credit has rightly gone to their fantastic center-back duo of Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels, but Klopp's system itself is also a major factor.
Pushing the game into the opponent's half extends the amount of territory that has to be covered on counter-attacks and forces opposing strikers to play out of position.
Against Bremen, for instance, Werder striker Claudio Pizarro spent much of the match around the half-way line, looking for all the world like a man searching for a mobile phone that had dropped out of his pocket and mysteriously disappeared in the grass.
Productive pressing, of course, requires precise positional play. When Dortmund double up on an opponent with the ball in his own half, the other players have to fan out and cover the space theoretically opened up for long passes.
Led by midfield general Nuri Sahin, who's become arguably the smartest player in the German game, Dortmund do this exceptionally well.
Klopp's men also keep their shape at the back
And defending in opponents' halves has another benefit. Dortmund have picked up only 21 yellow cards and have yet to have a man sent off. That's because the sorts of fouls pressing teams usually commit aren't those that lead to bookings.
Dortmund haven't been racking up wins because they run harder and win more challenges, but because they run to the spots on the pitch where games are usually decided and take the ball off opponents in positions where it's relatively easy to generate shots on goal.
Whether the ability to do this is more a matter or nature or nurture is probably a question best left to neurologists. But one thing is clear as the men in yellow bid to make history: This is a very well coached team with a knack for doing the little things that win a lot of games.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Turner