Likes of Jadon Sancho, Paco Alcacer, Achaf Hakimi and Dan Axel-Zagadou thriving under veteran Swiss
Lucien Favre’s fledglings have Borussia Dortmund firing on all cylinders
Almost as soon as their new manager, Lucien Favre, was taking charge of his first competitive match at Borussia Dortmund, supporters sensed they had boarded a roller-coaster. It was August, the first round of the German Cup, often an occasion where the bigger clubs, still rusty and raw, get surprised by teams from lower down the hierarchy.
Dortmund, who went through two different managers last season and only just scraped to fourth place in the final table, started anxiously at Greuther Furth, of the second division. They fell behind in the 77th minute. By the 90th the giants were facing humiliation against the minnows. Favre needed a remedy, and fast.
Injury-time reached its fifth minute, when the first of Favre’s second-half substitutes, Axel Witsel, on his debut following his summer arrival, rescued the tie with a goal. Now to extra time. The stalemate endured. And just as the contest passed its 120th minute, up popped another substitute, Jadon Sancho, to cross for Marco Reus to score the winner. Dortmund had scraped through to Round 2, where they will meet Union Berlin, also of the second tier, on Wednesday.
In between these two knockout matches, super-subs have become Dortmund's superstars and Favre’s fledglings - they are a conspicuously young team - have taken flight. The yellow-and-blacks sit on top of a Bundesliga whose reigning champions, Bayern Munich, look a little vulnerable, and have taken up their position of command in a style that makes Dortmund look not only plausible challengers for a league title held since 2013 by Bayern but candidates for the unofficial title of most exhilarating team in Europe’s elite leagues right now. In their last seven games, unbeaten Dortmund have struck no fewer than 28 goals.
They have scored at an average of three per fixture for the whole season so far, a standard they exceeded a week ago with the eye-catching 4-0 walloping of Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Champions League. Yes, Atletico, owners of the continent’s most famously mean defence. “Dortmund are a beautiful team to watch,” said a magnanimous Diego Simeone, the Atletico manager.
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You need to watch Favre’s Dortmund right up until the final whistle, too. Since the edge-of-the-seat comeback at Furth, they have established late goals as a speciality. The dynamic influence of players off the bench is regular endorsement of Favre's uncanny ability to read the progress of a game and decipher what might unlock, or break, a stubborn opponent.
From the bench, striker Paco Alcacer, on loan from Barcelona, has been a sensation: Five matches, only two of them in the starting XI, have yielded eight goals. Sancho, the 18-year-old winger who was prised out of Manchester City’s academy by Dortmund’s offer of regular football with the senior XI, is another super-sub. He had five assists and a goal from his first seven Bundesliga games. More recently, he has also made the most of the starts Favre rewarded him with, setting up a goal in the 4-3 win over Augsburg, scoring in the 4-0 win against Stuttgart, and registering twice at the weekend against Hertha Berlin, when Dortmund were, unusually, pegged back, a late penalty earning Hertha a 2-2 draw.
“We were a little naive at the end,” said Reus of that fixture. The 29-year-old captain regards moments of naivete as the downside of youthful zest. He gees up a team often including two or three players a decade younger than him. Sancho, the full-back Achraf Hakimi, on loan from Real Madrid, and the French defender Dan-Axel Zagadou are in their teens; Christian Pulisic, the gifted USA forward, has just turned 20.
From Favre they gain decades of knowhow. The Swiss, who turns 61 this week, knows the Bundesliga intimately, from his spells at Hertha and Borussia Monchengladbach before he moved to Nice in 2016. He welcomed the opportunity to work with younger players. A busy summer transfer window saw the departure of a number of seasoned Dortmunders, such as Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Gonzalo Castro, Nuri Sahin and Andre Schurrle.
Witsel's arrival, fresh for his bronze medal with Belgium at the World Cup, compensated somewhat, and brought savvy and strength to central midfield. Reus meanwhile links this Dortmund to a glorious recent past, when under Jurgen Klopp, they reached the 2013 Champions League final.
So does Mario Gotze, once the bright hope of German football, now hinting, at 26, he might be coaxed back towards his brilliant best. Gotze, who has suffered injury, illness and a dispiriting spell at Bayern since he scored the goal that won Germany the 2014 World Cup, said at the weekend he feels “100 per cent” again.
And just as there's a defining date on the calendar approaching: Bayern come to Dortmund a week on Saturday.