For teams falling short of their targets, the month of January can seem like an oasis of hope. The chance to freshen the squad with new blood during the transfer window, and to inject new impetus into the season, is welcome. Yet for one current underachiever, an influx of players is probably the last thing they need.
With 10 days of the winter break still to go—though still a game short of the season’s halfway point—Borussia Dortmund sit in a disappointing sixth place in the Bundesliga table.
The league campaign is by no means a write-off just yet. Thomas Tuchel‘s side are only three points short of Hertha Berlin in third—a position synonymous with the final automatic qualification spot for the Champions League. They are just two points behind Eintracht Frankfurt, who sit fourth.
Yet the temptation is to look higher, with leaders Bayern Munich 12 points clear of Die Schwarzgelben, despite a first four months of the season that has featured some very un-Bayern like shades of doubt, sometimes quite ordinary football and a muddled identity on the part of the champions. The problem for Dortmund is that they have suffered more extreme versions of symptoms one and three.
So while some of his counterparts will be spending a large part of the month glued to one telephone while simultaneously charging the spare one, Tuchel will be grateful for a bit of peace and quiet.
That’s not to say that any moves are totally off the table, with fringe players like Nuri Sahin and Adrian Ramos looking at possible exits. Any signings in, like the mooted arrival of Arsenal youngster Gedion Zelalem, as per the Mirror’s John Cross, would be a case of taking a good opportunity rather than seeking out extra bodies.
Yet Tuchel‘s welcoming of the winter break will have been for an entirely different reason. Finally, after a dizzying summer window and hectic first half of the season, he is getting a chance to do what he likes best—spending time working with his players.
It has felt like Dortmund were being weighed down by the intensity of their schedule before Christmas. Strictly speaking, they have played less matches than at this point last year—two qualifying rounds needed to be negotiated just to arrive in the group stage of last season’s Europa League—but the difference in energy required for Europe’s premier club competition and its little brother has rarely been so clearly underlined as it has by Tuchel‘s team in recent months.
Marco Reus’ goal at Cologne avoided another frustrating post-Champions League defeat.
In autumn 2015, they breezed through the Europa League group stage. In fact, they cruised all the way to the quarter-finals before that extraordinary tie with Liverpool, but that’s a different story.
The return to the Champions League has undoubtedly drained Dortmund, physically and mentally. In the games directly following group-stage matches, they have lost at Bayer Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt, drawn at Cologne thanks to a late Marco Reus equaliser and escaped an embarrassing loss at Ingolstadt with an even later Christian Pulisic goal. Their two post-Champions League wins were against lowly Darmstadt and Hamburg.
The level of that drop-off has been frustrating for Tuchel. He has bubbled with irritation in front of the media on a number of occasions this season, and rarely more so than after November’s reverse at Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena.
“It was a performance, from the first to the last minute, that merited no points, starting from this week’s training,” he said after the match.
Going into the squad’s lack of focus before the game had even started was a pretty damning indictment of his players as a group—there were eight changes to the XI that had beaten Legia Warsaw for the Eintracht match, so they could hardly blame physical fatigue.
Tuchel bristled with a barely concealed rage as he delivered the words, with his team’s sloppiness characterised by their conceding the opener to Eintracht‘s Szabolcs Huszti less than a minute into the second half.
So quickly, in fact, that Tuchel missed it, as he was still making his way from the dressing room to the touchline.
“The manner in which we came out of the changing room,” he added, “I would have been surprised if we hadn’t conceded a goal.”
The extenuating circumstances for these problems, of course, is that high turnover of personnel. Seven new signings have made Bundesliga debuts for Dortmund this season (not including the returning Mario Gotze), and even if the squad is stuffed with talent, experienced campaigners as well as good players went in the shape of Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Michael Probst/Associated Press/Associated Press
The experience of Ilkay Gundogan, Mats Hummels and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been missed.
That Andre Schurrle and Sebastian Rode, both 26, are the oldest of those tells us something, too. Players with an abundance of quality still need guidance, and it has often felt that Tuchel has been struggling to find the time to really give it to them.
The play has been intermittently dazzling—notably from youngsters like Ousmane Dembele, Raphael Guerreiro and the rapidly emerging Pulisic—but this is a team that is still in formation.
So the training camp in southern Spain is exactly what this squad, and their coach, needed. Gotze hinted this week that the players are really feeling a renewed connection with their leader, calling Tuchel “a very special coach,” as per ESPN FC’s Stephan Uersfeld, and praising his attention to detail. Sometimes it’s been lost in the noise so far this season.
The real tests will come quickly enough, with a trip to face improving Werder Bremen first up when the Bundesliga campaign resumes for Dortmund a week on Saturday.
At the start of February, a home game against RB Leipzig (who, at the very least, are a direct competitor for a Champions League spot) is followed four days later by a DfB Pokal last-16 match against Hertha. The Champions League tie against Benfica is a tougher draw than many think.
By that time, in mid-February, they should at least have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back in their ranks post-Africa Cup of Nations, in which he will lead the line for host nation Gabon. The 27-year-old, who was this week voted as the Bundesliga‘s best player of the season up to the winter break in a survey conducted by Kicker (as reported by the Bundesliga‘s official website), will have a key role in the tournament and will be missed by his club, of course.
In the meantime, Dortmund have the talent to cover for him and, it appears, a renewed focus. If this training camp has gone to plan, we could see a very different Dortmund, at home and continentally, in the second part of the campaign.