Short-handed again, Dortmund aim to end year on winning note vs. Augsburg
"A nine-point gap sounds frightening," Thomas Tuchel said at his news conference ahead of the clash with Bayern Munich on Nov. 19th. At the time it seemed to be a six-pointer, as the Black and Yellows would have fallen nine points behind Bayern and RB Leipzig had they lost on Matchday 11.
Back then, Dortmund looked very much on track as they cut down the gap to their Bavarian rivals to three points via a 1-0 home win. Since then, the scenario Tuchel described as "frightening" has become a bitter reality for his team, as they trail both Leipzig and Bayern by 10 points going into the last match of 2016.
If the Ruhr side beat 12th-placed FC Augsburg on Tuesday night, they will make sure that the gap to the second place team of the Bundesliga is at least shortened to eight points, as the top two face each other on Wednesday night at the Allianz Arena. But that is little consolation for BVB, who are not playing any part in the dynamic of the clash at the Bundesliga's top.
Yes, the German top flight has a title race narrative close to the winter break for the first time in many years, but Dortmund have no part in it -- mostly due to their dire away form. On Tuesday, they have the chance to finish the entire calendar year unbeaten in all three competitions at the Westfalenstadion -- not counting the Supercup, mind you.
But while the home ground has seemingly become a fortress for Dortmund, they have only managed to win two out of eight road matches in the league. One has to look no further than Wikipedia's list of sports clichés to find a fitting one for the Black and Yellows. "Offense wins games, defense wins Championships." With 34 goals they boast the second best attack in the league, having scored just one less than Bayern and three more goals than Leipzig, but there are also eight teams in the league that conceded fewer goals than them.
Often enough this season, the defence had been beaten before the offence could win the game. The Black and Yellows trailed in 11 out of 23 matches across competition and now consecutively in their last six games.
"Of course I'm concerned," Tuchel said at Monday's news conference when asked about the negative run of going behind first. "It happened in six games in a row, and a couple of times within those matches, as we went behind twice in Frankfurt and in Hoffenheim. It obviously makes things even more complicated for us.
"However, there is no one explanation. Sometimes it was completely against the run of play. Partly, we were lacking awareness and it times it felt like only going behind would give us the necessary grit," the 43-year-old mused.
In Friday's 1-1 draw against Hoffenheim Dortmund played with the 22nd and 23rd individual combination of players at the back -- as they switched from a back three to a back four at halftime with the inclusion of Sven Bender, who made his season debut.
23 different combinations for the backline alone is a vast amount in 23 games. The Dortmund coach has had to reshuffle his defensive setup due to injury, often forced to do so within matches.
Against Augsburg on Tuesday, the Dortmund coach once again will have to make do without his best centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos and right-back Lukasz Piszczek. Though on Monday, he seemed more irritated about the suspension of Marco Reus, who had been unrightfully sent off with a double-booking against Hoffenheim.
"It's absurd. It's like you're in a store and the security guard says that you shoplifted. And although all videos prove that you didn't steal anything, you're still going to jail for a week because the guard accused you of shoplifting," Tuchel vented.
After several players had to be substituted due to foul-inflicted injuries in the last two matches, the 43-year-old went on a longer rant, rendering the physical style opponents choose against his team as beyond a "toughness within means."
"When you address the issue, you're the one who whines."
"Our team has been fouled more often than the most unfair team of the league has fouled."
Tuchel's men have been unfairly stopped 279 times this season; Hamburg, the league's leading bullies, have committed 267 fouls.
"However, we won't change our style. We'll continue to dribble, we'll continue to play attacking minded and we'll continue to want to have the ball more than the opponent," he said.
The managers discontent has merits in many ways. The high amount fouls on his team not only results in injuries but also stifles his team's build-up play. It is a welcomed tactical measure to disrupt Dortmund's attacking flow, and often enough the only measure to stop skillful attackers like Ousmane Dembele.
The French international was arguably the best player on the field on Friday but had to be taken off after suffering too many knocks, yielding more frustrations from the Dortmund camp.
Team captain Marcel Schmelzer had similar sentiments to his coach, stating that players like Dembele need to be better protected by the referees.
The 19-year-old is set to play against Augsburg on Tuesday, which is one silver lining in the wake of Reus' suspension and the continued absence of Raphael Guerreiro who is expected to re-enter team training at the beginning of January after yet another setback.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.