Unbeaten after nine games and scoring almost at will, Borussia Dortmund are back.
This season is different, though. This time Dortmund are showing real signs of tangible, lasting growth. Under soon-to-be-booted Dutch coach Peter Bosz last term, Die Schwarzgelben raced to a lead in the Bundesliga, scoring freely, but cracks were visible from the outset and they quickly grew to vast chasms.
Hindsight has taught us that a year ago BVB began on autopilot, sweeping aside their early challenges and profiting from Bayern’s poor start under Carlo Ancelotti, but Bosz’s style was not assimilated and dissection quickly grew.
That is not the case under Lucien Favre. Arriving from Nice in the summer, the 60-year-old former Borussia Mönchengladbach coach has vast Bundesliga experience and has already moulded his new side in his image. Dortmund are playing typically thrilling football and currently sit two points clear of Bayern at the top of the table, yet to taste defeat.
Peter Stöger came in and steadied the ship at Signal Iduna Park last term, but he never looked like restoring an identity to BVB. Favre has already accomplished that, with his side displaying intensity and invention by the bucketload.
Dortmund are an intriguing and healthy mix of ages and experience levels at present, too.
Captained by 29-year-old superstar Marco Reus, their attack is complemented by the creativity and verve of 18-year-old Jadon Sancho; the midfield is anchored by summer signing Axel Witsel, also 29, but he is often supported by the energy of 22-year-old Mahmoud Dahoud and 23-year-old Marius Wolf; and 30-year-olds Łukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schelzer rotate in the full-back positions with teenager Achraf Hakimi and 24-year-old Raphaël Guerreiro.
Those who straddle the age brackets are players with points to prove. There is on-loan Barcelona striker Paco Alcácer, 25, whose incredible seven goals from just 127 Bundesliga minutes is showing the Spanish champions were wrong to use him so sparingly before casting him aside; Witsel has returned from the Chinese Super League to show he can still cut it in a major European league; and 27-year-old Danish midfielder Thomas Delaney is getting his first taste of life at one of the Continent’s elite sides.
On the whole, though, BVB are a startlingly youthful bunch, with the likes Julian Weigl and Manuel Akanji, both 23, among the more experienced heads. Of the 20 players to have featured in at least 100 Bundesliga minutes for Dortmund so far this season, only two are aged over 30, 12 are under 25 and five are 20 or younger.
A look at Dortmund’s underlying stats for the season so far might ordinarily give cause for concern. They are presently the Bundesliga’s top-scoring team with 29 goals – 27 of which from open play – from nine games, yet the frequency and quality of the chances they have created thus far amounts to an open-play expected goals (xG) return of just 16.12, the third-best in the Bundesliga.
One would normally deduce that such over-performance is unsustainable and that BVB will eventually regress to the mean. This may prove to be the case but such xG busting is typical of Favre’s best sides. His first season with Nice, for example, when he guided Les Aiglons to a third-place Ligue 1 finish, they scored 56 open-play goals from and open-play xG of just 40.49.
Dortmund have asserted their stance as the Bundesliga’s team to beat by notching four against RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and Stuttgart among others already this season, as well as obliterating Nürnberg 7-0.
But the result that proves beyond doubt that Dortmund are the real deal, and not simply a place-holder at the top of the table while Bayern rediscover their mojo, is their 4-0 thumping of Atlético Madrid in the Champions League in October.
Diego Simeone’s La Liga contenders are renowned as one of the best defensive sides in Europe, but Dortmund dismantled them with alarming ease, with goals from Witsel, Sancho, and a Guerreiro brace.
Simeone was completely bewitched by his German conquerors, effusive in his praise of Favre’s team after the match. “I loved their performance.” The Atleti boss said. “They were practical, dynamic and understood that possession is moving the ball forward, not just keeping it uselessly.
“Hopefully they keep playing like this because it’s so beautiful to watch.”
For the sake of the Bundesliga, Simeone isn’t the only one hoping Dortmund’s fine form continues.