The last week must have felt familiar to Dortmund fans. They started the Bundesliga season perfectly, not only keeping Bayern Munich in their sights but even pulling ahead of the Bavarian giants on goal difference. Then, last Wednesday, BVB faced a tough battle from high-pressing Hoffenheim and emerged with just a single point from a 1-1 draw.
On Sunday they battered Darmstadt at home but a late breakdown on a set play cost Dortmund three otherwise deserved points. They recorded their third consecutive draw on Thursday, in Europa League against PAOK.
When Dortmund travel to the Allianz Arena for Sunday's match with Bayern, it will be to rescue their title hopes rather than to make a statement in a close race. But they're perfectly capable of pulling that off.
Last season, Dortmund struggled to rack up results, and it might seem that this last week shows those struggles are not behind them. However, BVB's underlying statistics this season are excellent, and even last year the numbers suggested that improvement was just around the corner. This can be seen with the use of expected goals, a statistical estimate of the quality of chances created which takes into account the location of the shot, the type of assist pass, the type of attack leading to the chance as well as a variety of other factors. In 2014-2015 BVB scored just five more goals than they conceded, but by expected goals that gap was about plus-24.
This is a huge difference. In the last six years, among teams competitive in the top half of their leagues, Borussia Dortmund in 2014-2015 were the worst underperformer of expected goals . And if you look at other clubs with similar numbers, the same story repeats itself. These teams fight back to the top of their leagues.
Marseille jumped from ninth in Ligue 1 to second the next year. Atletico Madrid went from fifth to third and established themselves as potential title contenders. Liverpool improved from seventh to second and almost pulled off their own miracle run to the title. Sevilla won the Europa League the next year and Manchester City the EPL title. The only club on this list that fell off in the following season was Malaga, who were gutted after receiving a ban from UEFA for failure to pay their debts.
Based on the evidence of history, a big season for Dortmund would be far from unprecedented.
Still, they need to perform. And through seven Bundesliga matches, despite two recent unexceptional results Dortmund have been dominating matches and running opponents off the pitch. The following graphic displays chances created, with the size of the marker representing the expected goals value of the chance. Pink boxes are goals.
The only other teams in Europe's top leagues with expected goals difference better than plus-10 are Real Madrid and, of course, Bayern Munich.
It's pretty cool how new manager Thomas Tuchel and Dortmund have pulled this off. They did not try to find a new identity or discard the style of play that really did work last year—the traditional Dortmund press has not let up at all. To measure their "gegenpressing" style, I go through the stats and count new open-play possessions in midfield, and then I track how often this new possession is broken up in five seconds or less. Last year BVB were second in Germany in gegenpressing percentage at 54 percent (behind only Bayer Leverkusen at 58). This year they are still second to Bayer but the gap is smaller (57 percent to 58 percent). They still break quickly to goal, and their 20 shots off counterattacks are fourth in the Bundesliga.
Instead of discarding what worked well, Tuchel has added improved possession attacking and positional play to the side's arsenal without diminishing their strengths. (For more on Tuchel's "positional play" style of attacking, see this analysis from Tom Payne.) While Dortmund only drew with Hoffenheim on Wednesday, the club's one goal exemplifies what Tuchel has added. With Hoffenheim trying to sit back and defend a precious one-goal lead, Dortmund strung together multiple passes, switching the point of attack and then finding a way through Hoffenheim's back line for a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang big chance.
These sorts of attacks, where Dortmund create chances from established deep possession, are new. I created a stat for chances off established possession, tracking attacking moves to see if a club completed four passes within the final 40 yards without passing the ball out of the attacking zone. Under Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund tended to be in the upper-middle of the pack in shots from established final 40 possession. Suddenly this year Dortmund are elite.
In the last five years, the only Bundesliga club that has consistently created this many chances from this kind of established deep possession is Bayern Munich. Now Dortmund are matching them in creating dangerous chances from established possession, and they haven't lost the bite in the counter-press. By maintaining what worked from last year—which, despite results, was quite a lot—and making a key improvement to the club's play in possession, Dortmund are looking like one of Europe's best sides once again.
But then there is Bayern. Simply being one of Europe's best sides is not enough when you spot four points to a super-club. While Dortmund have posted an impressive plus-11 expected goals difference, Bayern are at plus-16. Their expected goals allowed number is just under three. Only two teams in the past six years have started the season with a stouter defensive record. The first is last year's treble-winning Barcelona side who did not even concede a single league goals through seven matches. The second will perhaps be heartening for Dortmund fans. It is Bayern Munich from 2011, who started that season with 18 points from 7 matches, a plus-20 goal difference and just 1.8 expected goals allowed. Despite that hot start, and despite a few early stumbles by Dortmund, Klopp's side tracked down Bayern and defended their league title.
They will need some good fortune, and they will probably need a result on Sunday, but Borussia Dortmund have what it takes to challenge Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga.