DORTMUND, Germany — When Borussia Dortmund players left the field in Leipzig on March 3, their bodies were aching. They had achieved a 1-1 draw after coming from behind in a hostile setting against a direct competitor for the sought-after Champions League spots in the Bundesliga. Peter Stoger’s side did not necessarily play their best game of the season but they were more than up for the fight, throwing themselves into every challenge.
For a very short time, the game inspired belief in Dortmund that the team had finally internalised what is necessary to compete for results and that they were ready for the upcoming big games in the Bundesliga and on the European stage. The question was whether they could reaffirm the impression with which they left Leipzig five days later against Salzburg.
A humbling 2-1 loss Thursday against the Austrian league leaders later the answer is: They could not.
The experience of being outplayed at the Westfalenstadion by a side that is individually inferior was a very sobering one in the first loss of the new year. Marco Rose’s team came to Dortmund with a clear plan, and executed it with a level of cohesion that left many BVB fans reminiscing about the good old days when it was their team that beat more talented, financially more powerful opponents with a forceful combination of passion and tactical superiority.
The tie against the Austrian outfit can still be turned around, but it left a scar. After the repeated no-shows on the international stage, it’s become clear that this current Dortmund side lacks a winning mentality. It was not the first time this season that this observation could be made, but after the tussle in Leipzig, the contrast was particularly harsh.
“We could have had it so much easier if we only had played with half of the passion and energy that we invested into the match in Leipzig,” Marcel Schmelzer barked into reporters’ microphones Thursday, after Dortmund’s fifth loss on the European stage this season.
“Not enough movement in our attacking department,” Schmelzer said. “Christian [Pulisic] was on song for the first time in many games, which was an important takeaway for coming weeks.”
The 19-year-old Pulisic wasn’t in the mood to sugarcoat the situation, either, telling reporters, “We weren’t tuned in 100 percent for the whole game. We just kind of were in for parts of it, and that’s not going to be enough against this team.
“We have to be in it for the full 90 minutes. It’s something we need to work on. We have to come out with the right attitude, be ready to play every single game.”
The U.S. international is starting to sound like a broken record, having maligned the lack of his team’s “readiness to play” on an almost weekly basis.
“The efforts we showed today in our movement, especially in our attack, were very sparse,” Stoger said Thursday, adding: “You can’t just outplay a well-organised team, which maybe sees this match as the game of the year. You can’t just wait for chances to develop from doing little work.”
Once again, the alarm bells should be ringing, as Stoger was describing the status quo that eventually led to Peter Bosz’s firing in December.
“Maybe not every player bought fully into [Bosz’s philosophy of] aggressive forechecking and thus didn’t apply it with the fullest ardour,” Hans-Joachim Watzke said during Ruhr Nachrichten’s “19:09” talk after Bosz had been sacked.
It painted a grim picture of the team’s work ethic back then, and now, three months into his tenure at the Westfalenstadion, Stoger is publicly questioning the work rate of his players again.
It has also hasn’t gone unnoticed in the stands that this Dortmund team has lacked the basic virtue of a fighting spirit on too many occasions. Loud whistles at the half-time break and again at full-time have become a regular feature again; it’s something that hardly ever happened in the past decade because the team rarely went down without a fight.
This Dortmund team has lost a lot of the credit built up with fans over recent years.
“It used to be an earmark that the team and the fans battled together out of a tough situation,” Schmelzer said Thursday night. “We have to get back to that unity by showing people that we are willing.”
Fans can be hopeful that the issue will be addressed sooner rather than later, as Watzke has seemingly identified the problem. In an interview with FAZ in which the club boss talked about a necessary overhaul for the coming season, he said, “We must re-establish an optimal balance between technically high-quality football and a winning mentality.
“The team that won the title in 2011 and 2012 were, in footballing terms, definitely not as good as the current team. But they had the best mentality you could possibly imagine. In the summer we need to adjust the squad, perhaps significantly.”
However, when one peels away the layers, one finds a complex set of circumstances that have led to the situation. It’s very hard to grasp how much of a factor April’s gruesome attack on the players was, but it would be absurd to assume that there were no ramifications.
The lack of movement of Stoger’s front four in Thursday’s loss to Salzburg is even somewhat understandable, considering that Marco Reus, Andre Schurrle, Mario Gotze and Michy Batshuayi either came off long-term injuries or didn’t see much playing time before playing seven matches in four weeks. Injuries to Andriy Yarmolenko, Maximilian Philipp, Shinji Kagawa, Jadon Sancho and a sizable dip in form for Pulisic had meant that Stoger lacked alternatives during such a crucial stretch.
On Sunday, when BVB host another direct competitor for the Champions League spots in Eintracht Frankfurt, Stoger will have more options at his disposal, and changes are to the starting XI are to be expected. However, after a night of little sleep in the wake of Thursday’s loss, the 51-year-old sounded very sombre when talking about the rest of the season.
“We are dealing with human beings after all,” he told reporters. “You have to understand not everything is going optimally.
“We have to accept that it’s a bumpy season and in all likelihood, things won’t be smooth against Frankfurt or anyone else until the end of the season for that matter. I’m mentally prepared for this phase to continue until the summer, and we will have to wait and see whether it is possible to reach our goal of qualifying for the Champions League.”
The Dortmund coach has realised that all the talent on his team might not be enough because of his team’s character — and that is a harrowing outlook for the rest of the season.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.