Dortmund may be young and inconsistent but they have the makings of a dangerous cup team



You wait 20 years for a massive result away from home in the Champions League, and then two come along in the space of a month.

Borussia Dortmund’s 3-1 win at AC Milan on Tuesday was just as impressive as their 2-0 victory at Newcastle United at the end of October, perhaps even more so considering the pressure the club, team and coach Edin Terzic had been under going into the game.

Since that triumph at St James’ Park, they had lost two important matches in the Bundesliga, 4-0 at Bayern Munich and 2-1 at Stuttgart, and drawn 3-3 with Eintracht Frankfurt to lose sight of the top of the table. Ten points behind Bayer Leverkusen (and eight behind champions Bayern Munich), BVB’s title race is in acute danger of being run already.

Their inconsistency and mixed returns from the transfer market contrast so unfavourably with Xabi Alonso’s financially less potent Leverkusen that a raft question marks have been unavoidable.

A few days ago, Bild shone a light on the power dynamics between Terzic, sporting director Sebastian Kehl and chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke. Kehl, it’s long been rumoured, is the odd one out in the triangle, up against the strong emotional bond between the other two.

The practical implications of that setup should not be overestimated but it does have repercussions when it comes to the way blame for the stagnation in the league is being apportioned. As long as Watzke’s backing for Terzic is steadfast, the focus automatically shifts to Kehl’s transfer dealings, and to the differences in opinion with the manager that have shaped their summer window. For example, Kehl, a former title-winning midfielder, pushed the case for Ajax defensive midfielder Edson Alvarez, whereas Terzic trusted his existing options.

At the same time, Terzic has not escaped criticism either. His Dortmund team still have not developed a defined playing style and there have been some malicious whispers about his authority in the dressing room being limited. The 41-year-old needed progress in the Champions League to limit speculation over his future during the winter break. Progress in the DFB-Pokal against high-flying Stuttgart next week is also mandatory in that respect.

On top of all of that, Dortmund’s strategy of recruiting high-potential players had been questioned on the eve of the trip to San Siro. Bayern supervisory board member Karl-Heinz Rummenigge last week criticised the club for an “obsession with youth”, and “making too many transfers to create a business model”. Losing Jadon Sancho (to Manchester United), Erling Haaland (to Manchester City) and Jude Bellingham to (Real Madrid) “wasn’t just a loss to the club but a blow to the league’s appeal”, he added.

It’s an easy point to make when you’re €200million (£173m, $220m) better off in organic income every year. It also overlooks the fact the players in question only came to Dortmund in the first place because they knew they would be allowed to develop into stars there. But the accusation of putting money before sporting success has nevertheless stung the Dortmund hierarchy. Watzke, to his credit, did not take the bait. He pleaded for “fair and analytical” press coverage at Sunday’s annual general meeting, reminding his audience that neighbours Schalke and Hamburg are both in the second tier after “losing touch with realistic expectations”.

Winning at Milan was the most emphatic rebuttal to all those contentious issues that he could have wished for. Qualifying from a group featuring clubs with state links and all the wealth that brings (Newcastle and Paris Saint-Germain) and hedge-fund-run Milan with one game to spare has been the sweetest affirmation of Dortmund’s and German football’s ‘sonderweg’, proof you do not have to sell your soul to compete with the big boys.

Dortmund’s fixation on youth, in particular, looked more of a strength than a fatal flaw as Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, the next big thing coming out of English football via Westphalia, destroyed Milan’s captain Davide Calabria to win Dortmund’s penalty and score their second goal. The development of Bynoe-Gittens, 19, has been held back by a persistent shoulder injury, but he showed why his club believe he will be worth €100m before too long. What’s more, Karim Adeyemi, a 21-year-old Germany international whose indifferent form in recent months has fed into criticism of Dortmund’s fundamental approach, came on to score the decisive third goal.

Terzic was unarguably the biggest winner of all, though, as his big decisions were vindicated. Starting Bynoe-Gittens ahead of more seasoned pros Julian Brandt, Donyell Malen or Giovanni Reyna was an inspired choice, and his rejigged back four was mostly cohesive. Instead of adding a third central midfielder, a ploy that helped BVB turn around their form in the second half of last season, he stuck with veteran schemer Marco Reus in the No 10 role and was rewarded with a performance of maturity and creative guile. Reus expertly despatched his penalty after Olivier Giroud’s effort from 12 yards was saved by Gregor Kobel.

Afterwards, Mats Hummels said Dortmund had taken another step towards becoming more resilient. “We’ve often been criticised, justly, for our attitude or mentality but I don’t think that’s happened too often this season,” he told Amazon Prime. “We’ve grown as a team in terms of our will and attitude. We’re ready to work hard as a group.”

Champions League Group F

POS TEAM GP GD PTS

1

Borussia Dortmund

5

3

10

2

Paris Saint-Germain

5

1

7

3

Newcastle United

5

0

5

4

Milan

5

-4

5

Hummels conceded that Dortmund are not yet “at the level of the reality big sides” who are packed with players taking responsibility on the pitch but he said they are “definitely good enough to persist at that level on a good day”. Not consistent enough to negotiate mundane appointments but capable of reaching peaks of greatness? In other words, this Dortmund are a cup side. For Terzic — the man who delivered a DFB-Pokal in 2021 — and the whole club, that should be enough to enjoy a few more quiet weeks before the winter break.

The supporters, meanwhile, can dream. The last time Dortmund were miles off the pace but survived a ‘group of death’ in the Champions League was in 2012-13, against Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax. What happened that year? They reached the final… at Wembley, the stage for this season’s showpiece.

(Top photo: Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images)





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