Europa League exit exposes Borussia Dortmund's shortage of confidence
DORTMUND, Germany -- Borussia Dortmund crashed out of the Europa League on Thursday night after not being able to overcome a 2-1 deficit from the home leg against Austrian side FC Salzburg.
The Black and Yellows were tasked with an uphill battle at the foot of the Alps, having to score at least two goals in order to have a chance of progressing. Petrer Stoger's team, however, did not create a meaningful scoring chance in Thursday's scoreless draw before the hour mark -- and tellingly lost 1.45 to 1.10 expected goals by ESPN FC's model.
In summary, the Ruhr side won only one out of 10 European ties this season and were the worse team in both meetings against Salzburg, a team that on paper they should have easily swept away.
Yet, Dortmund were shown that the 2-1 loss at the Westfalenstadion to Salzburg was no fluke and that individually inferior teams can inflict severe damage with tactical finesse.
Of course, the Ruhr side now have the luxury to fully recuperate between Bundesliga match days. They will have more time to work on their deficits on their training ground, which could give them a boost. But what are the ramifications of this European campaign with a sobering exit, for a team that was openly talking about winning the Europa League just a few months earlier?
"Talking about the title was maybe the problem," Marcel Schmelzer told reporters on Thursday night in Salzburg, adding, "You have to take every match and every round seriously. This is something I cannot comprehend."
The Dortmund captain himself, though, alleged in November that Dortmund still were No. 2 in Germany after the club had fallen from first to third place within the course of weeks. That assertion has become very much up for debate by March.
Schmelzer, then, pointed to BVB's consistency over the course of seven or eight years and made the statement with the self-confidence the club had built over that period. It is a self-confidence that also prompted his teammates to speak of the Europa League title as if it was within reach.
Now, after Dortmund exited the Europa League in thoroughly embarrassing fashion, the collective self-confidence has -- rightfully -- taken a hit.
"We are observing that we are not reaching our level on a regular basis," sporting director Michael Zorc told Ruhr Nachrichten on Friday, speaking out a general warning that nobody could feel safe about his future in a Dortmund shirt. "We have our eyes wide open and will watch very carefully what will happen in the last months [of the season] and the coming weeks on the pitch."
On the one hand, the hard landing may have been vital for Dortmund's future, as it provides more clarity about the state the team is in and might make decisions to make much-needed changes easier for the likes of Zorc and Hans-Joachim Watzke.
But on the other hand, Dortmund have lost yet another piece of "winning" DNA, which can have negative effects on a team that has been going from rough patch to rough patch. Bayern Munich are a prime example of self-assurance. They have a habit of deciding matches late despite not having played particularly well, just by trusting in their own ability and not losing their heads. And BVB's rivals Schalke also have built a lot of confidence in recent weeks -- Saturday's 1-0 victory over Wolfsburg marked their fifth consecutive league win.
The Royal Blues have not stormed to second place by dazzling the world with super-attractive football under Domenico Tedesco. On the contrary, their last three wins have been 1-0 matches that were rather uneasy on the eye. However, Schalke play with a low block in front of their own box over great periods in a game because they have a lot of trust in their setup and their individual class to somehow snatch a winner up front.
When Dortmund host Hannover on Sunday, chances are that they will not have a deep trust in their own approach and its ability to dismantle an inferior rival if they stick to it. Instead, they will play with the knowledge that every phase of dominance in a match has been followed up by collapse in recent months. And negative thoughts during a game can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy on the pitch.
Over the years, Marco Reus has often said that Dortmund are extremely hard to beat if they manage to implement their style of play. This season, however, the 28-year-old is yet to say anything like that.
Ultimately, that also falls back on his coach, Peter Stoger, who is yet to mould a variety of individual talents into a functioning collective. After the Europa League exit, the future of the Dortmund coach is as doubtful as it has ever been.
The 51-year-old Austrian has often cited BVB's unbeaten record in the Bundesliga since he took over, but the Black and Yellows are yet to deliver a convincing win in 2018. The overall trend is showing downwards, as the Westphalians have managed only one win out of the last six games across competition -- a 3-2 win over Eintracht Frankfurt last week that required Michy Batshuayi's last-minute winner to secure all three points.
On Sunday, Dortmund are likely to be without Reus and Omer Toprak, who are nursing muscular problems, as well as Christian Pulisic, who missed Thursday's match with a cold. The questions is: Who can help rebuild Dortmund's crumbling self-confidence during the home stretch of the season? For now, there are no obvious candidates.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.