The first half of the season turned into a disappointment for Borussia Dortmund, including an embarrassing Champions League campaign and a two-month dry spell without a win that spelled the end of coach Peter Bosz.
As they look to turn their fortunes around — starting against Wolfsburg on Sunday — here are three factors fans can pin their hopes on for a change for the better …
When Mario Gotze rejoined in 2016 there was a lot of disagreement among fans about his return. Some felt it was the return of the prodigal son, others still felt a sense of betrayal after Gotze was the first to leave a group of players that had pledged to stay together in 2013. And he went to the Bayern Munich, of all clubs. Many were unsure about the shape of the player that scored the World Cup winning goal for Germany in 2014, yet could not become an integral part at the Allianz Arena.
There was, however, excitement for the reunion with his old buddy Marco Reus. Quite fittingly, the special name for that partnership has a divine ring to it. “Gotze” means “idol” in German and is paired together with the Greek God Zeus. Mythology aside, Gotze and Reus formed an awesome synergy during the 2012-13 season that was a big factor in BVB’s charge all the way to the Champions League final.
Thus far, however, fans have only seen the duo together on the field for 97 minutes, spread over three games. Reus was troubled by an inflammation of the pubic joint in the first half of the 2016-17 season, while Gotze had a metabolic disorder through the second half of that campaign.
Gotze has bounced back impressively this season and was Dortmund’s best player until he picked up an ankle injury in the Revierderby. Yet he had to still do without his partner-in-crime as Reus recovered from a torn knee ligament. The 28-year-old is regarded, when fit, as BVB’s best player and was missed in the first half of the season.
Even if Gotze has transformed from a No.10 into a central midfielder, the joint force of him teaming up with Reus again still has the potential to create a powerful combination stronger than the sum of its parts. It can turn an already dangerous attack into a juggernaut — with the convenient side-effect of taking the pressure off 19-year-old Christian Pulisic.
It’s something for Dortmund to look forward to — as long as both can finally stay healthy for a longer period of time.
2. Peter Stoger
A lot of hope can also be pinned on the 51-year-old Austrian, who replaced Bosz in December and won his first two league fixtures. Bosz’s gung-ho approach may have worked at the Westfalenstadion in a different era but he did not have the right set of players at his disposal to succeed with super aggressive pressing.
The Black and Yellows boasted the best attack (39 goals) in the league in the first half of the season but their leaky defence saw them go winless throughout October and November, as more and more teams figured Bosz’s tactics out.
Stoger, who is following a more pragmatic approach, adjusting his style to the players rather than trying to force through an ideology, has put a much-needed focus on Dortmund’s defensive stability. But it won’t be a complete overall, which would see him park the proverbial bus.
Stoger said: “I couldn’t play unattractive football with this team, even if I wanted to,” but it should be enough to warrant a higher points tally than in the first half.
The former Cologne manager has praised for his great people skills in previous jobs, so Dortmund fans hope he can unite the team and re-inject some self-belief within the group.
This aspect is a legacy of Bosz, who took a moderate approach when it came to building his players’ fitness. Instead of grinding hard throughout preseason in the summer, the Dutch coach believes in gradually building his team’s fitness throughout the season. So it could be that Dortmund are at their highest capabilities while other teams decline sometime between March and May.
The overall fitness can be negatively impacted by injuries and it remains to be seen how BVB deal with a crammed schedule in case of a deep run in the Europa League but at least for now it looks as though the Black and Yellows are yet to show their best from a physical point of view.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.