With two matchdays remaining in the Bundesliga season, Borussia Dortmund — who face FC Augsburg on Sunday (11:30 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) — are in contention for the German championship, trailing just one point behind Bayern Munich. Only once since 2012 have Dortmund had the chance to win the domestic championship on the final matchday.
Prior to the World Cup in Qatar, Dortmund didn’t look like a true title contender. Head coach Edin Terzic struggled to stabilise his team defensively, while key players such as Marco Reus and Emre Can were nowhere near top form. The winter break, however, gave Terzic and his players the necessary time to regroup, tweak things and have a fresh start into the second half of the season.
Immediately after the restart, Dortmund strung together a 10-game win streak before losing 2-0 to Chelsea in the return leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie. BVB went through a slight slump afterward, suffering defeats to Bayern in the league and RB Leipzig in the German Cup, but managed to regain form and even temporarily reclaim the lead in the Bundesliga.
Talking to sources inside and close to the club, several factors have contributed to Dortmund’s resurgence under manager Terzic.
Stiff competition in the squad
During the first half of the season, established players did not fear losing their spot in the starting XI, regardless of their performances. During the winter break, the likes of Can, Karim Adeyemi and Donyell Malen worked hard to get into form, fully embrace Terzic’s tactical approach and thus present themselves as valid options for the starting lineup.
Can, in particular, gave his all to show he is still the player Dortmund once paid a €25 million transfer fee to Juventus for, after he had brutally honest talks with Terzic and Dortmund’s executives about his performances during the fall. The fact that Can is able to fill the No. 6 role in Terzic’s 4-1-4-1 has helped Jude Bellingham tremendously, because the young England midfielder can focus more on the attacking part of his game, knowing that Can will cover the space behind him.
A true revelation of the past months has been Adeyemi. Dortmund signed the fast winger from FC Salzburg for a €30m fee last summer, but Adeyemi struggled to justify that sum at first. However, sources claim that Dortmund’s executives expected the now-21-year-old Germany international to need time to acclimatise to the team and the Bundesliga. Recently, he has become one of the most dangerous attacking players in the league, beating opponents on the outside thanks to his pace and then finding perfect spots to shoot directly or assist one of his teammates. Terzic subsequently adjusted his tactical system so that Adeyemi would be brought into isolated one-on-one situations where he can take advantage of his extraordinary athleticism.
Meanwhile, players who struggled in the first half of the season were largely relegated to the bench. The most prominent example is Reus, who not only had to deal with injuries throughout the campaign once again, but also has shown clear signs of aging. Last month, the 33-year-old agreed to a one-year extension with Dortmund, but he has slid down the pecking order nevertheless.
Sébastien Haller shows off skills on stellar back-heel goal
Sébastien Haller has an incredible back-heel goal from the center of the box.
Haller’s post-cancer treatment comeback
During last summer’s preseason preparations, Terzic intended to mold his attack around newly signed striker Sebastien Haller, who was recruited to replace the departed Erling Haaland. The idea was to speed up attacks by playing long balls from the middle third to Haller, who would then try to convert from his position or lay the ball off to teammates. None of it came to fruition as Haller was diagnosed with testicular cancer in July.
The Ivory Coast international underwent successful chemotherapy and made his return to the training pitch in January. While Haller seemed enthusiastic in the first few weeks after the restart, it became quickly apparent that his body still needed time to regain strength. He has become important to Dortmund’s success regardless. Teammates talk about how Haller in his role as target player gives the team’s attacks structure; they know where the ball can go and do not have to try to “swim” their way through the opponents’ half, as it is sometimes described.
Dressing room intensity
Following a lackluster first half of the season, Terzic as well as sporting director Sebastian Kehl and chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke did not handle their players with kid gloves. Instead, the team sat through multiple meetings in which the coach and his staff showed detailed analysis of previous games, mercilessly pointing out flaws that had to be eradicated. These meetings usually lasted into the late hours of the night and are said to have made a lasting impression on the team.
Terzic himself possesses a more laid-back personality. He usually lets his assistants conduct training sessions, asks a player to give the motivational pregame speech and rarely dresses his team down after defeats. The role of the hard-nosed commander-in-chief has been assumed by Watzke, who, on multiple occasions, went into the dressing room after poor performances and addressed the team with very blunt statements. “What you call quality is only talent,” he once told the team, encouraging them to do more with their skills.
Sources confirm that Watzke entered the locker room following draws against VfB Stuttgart and VfL Bochum in April. The latter game cost Dortmund the Bundesliga lead, which they had just regained the week before. While BVB were the victims of two bad calls by referee Sascha Stegemann during the game at Bochum, Watzke and other club bosses criticised a lack of leaders who would push the team forward even in light of poor officiating.
That lack of leadership has been a talking point since the summer. While Reus wears the armband, he has rarely shown leadership qualities. Deputy captain Mats Hummels has struggled with injuries throughout stretches of the season, although he has been a competent chief defender in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Terzic does not possess the personality traits to lead a team into battle the same way previous BVB coaches did.
The fact that Watzke gave emphatic post-game speeches while Terzic was in the room reveals how the 40-year-old coach is still a work in progress. He has compiled a 40-page dossier with notes about other coaches, writing over time what accomplished figures such as Pep Guardiola said in certain instances in the past, how they addressed the media or spoke about players. On occasion, Terzic has reiterated these statements, which emphasises how he has yet to find his own identity as a coach.
Is this Dortmund’s best shot at the Bundesliga for the foreseeable future?
Dortmund have benefited from a struggling Bayern Munich side who chose to make a shocking managerial change in late March, as Thomas Tuchel replaced Julian Nagelsmann. Moreover, Bellingham will very likely leave BVB, with Real Madrid in pole position to acquire the services of the 19-year-old midfielder.
But by no means are Dortmund without a chance of challenging Bayern again next year or the year after. The club managed to tie up several key players with long-term contracts. Just recently, Julian Brandt, who has become Dortmund’s creative mastermind in attacking midfield, extended his contract until 2026. He changed his eating habits before the start of the season, switching to a gluten-free diet, which has helped his sleep and regeneration. Brandt has looked fitter than ever and should be able to keep his current performance level beyond the summer.
Up-and-comers such as Adeyemi and Nico Schlotterbeck will build the backbone of the team, while experienced players — most notably Reus, Hummels and Niklas Sule — have accepted their roles and should guide the young players. Haller will also have time to regain more body strength and be a dangerous goal-scoring threat inside the penalty area again.
In the meantime, Kehl and Watzke will work on adding new pieces to the squad, with Ajax midfielder Edson Alvarez and FC Cologne midfielder Ellyes Skhiri being two major targets, while Borussia Monchengladbach left-back Ramy Bensebaini is expected to join the team, with his current contract running out at the end of June.
It would be heartbreaking for players and fans alike if Dortmund fall short of winning the championship having now come so close after a 10-year drought and several seasons in which they were not even within punching distance of Bayern. The past several months have brought so much improvement, though, that the recently gained optimism should not vanish after the final matchday — even if they aren’t on top of the table by then.
How have Dortmund become true title contenders in 2023?