Lucien Favre lost yet another member of his back line when Frenchman Abdou Diallo pulled up a quarter of an hour into Borussia Dortmund’s 3-2 extra-time DFB Pokal win over second-division Union Berlin on Wednesday. “We’ll have to see if we can rustle up enough defenders for (the next game against) VfL Wolfsburg [on Saturday],” captain Marco Reus later said, in a fit of gallows humour.
The jokes come fast and easy at the Signal Iduna Park these days, just like their wins. Dortmund have a legitimate claim for being the most entertaining team in Europe at the moment, racking up one good result after another, with goals (41 scored) and drama (13 conceded) galore. The fact that their 14-match unbeaten run in all competitions has been achieved in the face of the odd ropey performance at the back has only added to the Black and Yellows’ allure. This team, you sense, would find a way to outscore the Lower Saxons even if they were to line up without any defenders at the Volkswagen Arena.
The man at the heart of this remarkable renaissance is an unassuming 61-year-old who speaks with a heavy French accent that sounds rather droll to German ears. Favre, born in the Swiss mountain village of Saint-Barthelemy, wouldn’t appear the most natural fit for a football club from the straight-talking, proudly blue-collar Ruhr era. His infamous attention to detail, though, has brought this young, creative, dynamic team’s full potential to bear.
Players have had to learn to position their wrists correctly when receiving the ball, to give just one example of the manager’s micro-coaching. He’s also instructed strikers to open up their bodies quicker — in order to be able to take earlier shots — and given substitutes maps for finding openings in opposition defences. “The basic elements (of football) are at the forefront of every single training session,” sporting director Michael Zorc has said.
Having worked similar wonders at Hertha Berlin and Borussia Monchengladbach before, Favre was expected to bring Dortmund’s form and results much closer in line with the sizeable qualities of squad, especially in attacking position. But the extent and speed of the improvement has taken everyone by surprise. Every single one of the new recruits, from Spanish striker Paco Alcacer to Diallo, a €28 million signing from Mainz 05 and on-loan full-back Achraf Hakimi from Real Madrid, has hit the ground running, and almost every single one of the already established players has upped their game considerably.
Captain Reus, in particular, has performed at consistently effective levels last seen when he broke through as a youngster in 2011-12 — under the guidance of Favre at Gladbach, incidentally. In a crowded field, the 29-year-old has been Dortmund’s most important attacking outlet, notching up 12 goals and as many assists. The Germany international looks sharp and plays sharp, aided by fast, fearless teammates like the fabulous Jadon Sancho, mercurial Danish winger Jacob Bruun Larsen and U.S. prodigy Christian Pulisic, who all move in preconceived patterns to create space and maximum chaos.
In contrast to his defensively minded predecessor Peter Stoger, who largely left the forwards to their own devices, relying on sparks of creativity, Favre comes up with specific ideas and solutions for the final third. That’s his distinctive ability — and the main reason why players are happy to accept so much guidance. “For a player, it’s always good when a manager has plan,” Reus told Tagesspiegel last week. “Lucien Favre has a new plan for every game, and it’s always a good one.”
Favre is under no illusion that some frailties at the back will continue to dog the team for a little longer, because of the defenders’ relative inexperience. “It’s okay to make mistakes,” he said after his team had disappointingly dropped two points against Hertha, which allowed champions Bayern Munich to half their deficit to two points in the table. The majority of Dortmund’s supporters have not yet allowed themselves to get carried away with dreams and trophy aspirations. But on the pitch and off it, their club appear to have unexpectedly stolen a march on the Bavarian giants.
CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, manager Favre, sporting director Zorc, new team manager Sebastian Kehl and external consultant Matthias Sammer make for a formidable combination, and a joint-up transfer policy has both added muscle in midfield, courtesy of Axel Witsel, great prospects at the back and even more bewildering movement up front. Their 4-0 destruction of Atletico Madrid already had the hallmarks of a statement performance, but the key test will be Bayern’s visit in 10 days’ time. If a defensively depleted Dortmund manage to play their own, well-planned-out game against the faltering giants, a first championship in seven years will become a realistic possibility.