Augsburg Draw Perfectly Encapsulates Borussia Dortmund's 1st Half of Season

Lars Pollmann@@LarsPollmannFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2016

Augsburg's Dutch defender Paul Verhaegh and Dortmund's Spanish defender Marc Bartra vie for the ball during the German First division Bundesliga football match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Augsburg, in Dortmund, western Germany, on December 20, 2016.  / AFP / PATRIK STOLLARZ / RESTRICTIONS: DURING MATCH TIME: DFL RULES TO LIMIT THE ONLINE USAGE TO 15 PICTURES PER MATCH AND FORBID IMAGE SEQUENCES TO SIMULATE VIDEO. == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE == FOR FURTHER QUERIES PLEASE CONTACT DFL DIRECTLY AT + 49 69 650050
        (Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

Borussia Dortmund closed out 2016 with another disappointing match on Tuesday, drawing 1-1 with FC Augsburg in front of their own fans.

It was the fourth draw in a row across all competitions and the third in the Bundesliga, where the Black and Yellows will now likely spend the winter break outside of the Champions League spots.

If 90 minutes can ever be enough to represent half a year's worth of Bundesliga football for the Ruhr side, Tuesday's match did just that. The game against Augsburg offered a microcosm of what has been a rather disappointing first half of the domestic campaign for Dortmund.

The greater issues that have kept head coach Thomas Tuchel busy over the first months of the season were all present against the Swabians, as the 43-year-old admitted in his post-match press conference: "Today's match epitomises the first half of the season."

Thomas Tuchel was once again left wondering where things went wrong for his Dortmund side on Tuesday.
Thomas Tuchel was once again left wondering where things went wrong for his Dortmund side on Tuesday.PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

It starts with a selection dilemma following the latest injury crisis. Without defensive leader Sokratis Papastathopoulos and starting right-back Lukasz Piszczek, Tuchel was again forced to change his back line.

Sven Bender only returned from a lengthy absence himself on the previous matchday and was thus not an option to start again, with Tuchel saying including him in the starting XI "would have been completely irresponsible." 

It left an inexperienced back three of Matthias Ginter, Marc Bartra and Mikel Merino, who made only his second start for Dortmund. Summer signing Bartra was tasked with being the middle man, usually the spot for the leader of the back line, who organises things and provides an anchor for the other centre-backs to hang on to when the going gets tough.

Unfortunately, the Catalan was overwhelmed by the responsibility and played arguably his worst match of the season. ESPN FC's Stefan Buczko rated his performance at three out of 10, and one could argue that was generous. As the Dortmund-based writer noted, Bartra "cleared the ball almost as often to the opponent as he did to his own players."

Tuchel realised he had asked too much of his 25-year-old signing from FC Barcelona after the match. "He is not used to the intensity of the training and the matches in the Bundesliga," the Dortmund boss said. "It's an adjustment process that takes time."

"We need to acknowledge that he is not used to playing every three days and carrying absolute responsibility for the game," he concluded.

The fact he brought on Bender for Bartra at half-time spoke volumes in itself, but the damage was already done. With one of his many nervy attempts to create some forward momentum, Bartra had telegraphed a pass towards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that was easily intercepted.

Centre-back Martin Hinteregger rumbled forward for Augsburg, receiving escort from four or five Dortmund players who failed to put in a challenge or commit a foul to stop the transitional move. Merino took the ball from the Austrian defender, but it spilled towards Jan Moravek.

Augsburg's players could hardly believe how easy it was to score against Dortmund.
Augsburg's players could hardly believe how easy it was to score against Dortmund.PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

The midfielder played a simple pass to former BVB flop Dong-Won Ji, who scored with his second attempt after Roman Weidenfeller could barely deal with his first.

Inexplicably, Ginter had failed to cover Ji's run and arrived late at the scene, while Bartra tried to play the South Korean offside instead of covering the passing lane.

It was a chaotic mess and another absurdly cheap goal Dortmund have given away against far too many teams in the first half of the season.

It was the seventh time in a row they had gone behind to start the game, too, a fact that was not lost on Tuchel. "The reactions are great every time," he said, referencing his side's comeback qualities, "but we could do with taking the lead from time to time or winning a match 1-0."

Having kept just three clean sheets in the Bundesliga this season, that remains a pious hope for Tuchel. The maddening thing about that, though, is that one of the clean sheets came against Bayern Munich, indicating they can shut down even the best opponents on a good day.

Their defensive frailties have been a recurring theme over the last months, but they are not the only issues for Dortmund, far from it.

On Tuesday, they also lacked precision going forward, as it was again obvious they need a natural central midfielder to structure the team's attacking moves and take control in the buildup phase.

Mario Gotze did admirable work, but he does not possess the most strategic of football minds and still has some work to do to be in optimal shape. Buczko wrote: "Gotze is on track to become an unsung hero for the Black and Yellows, although expectations dictate different output up front."

Shinji Kagawa had a forgettable match next to the 2014 World Cup winner, providing the assist for the equaliser and little else in what could well be a farewell performance at the Westfalenstadion, with the transfer window looming large for the Japanese playmaker, who has fallen out of favour with Tuchel.

Ousmane Dembele has been a bright spot in the first half of the season.
Ousmane Dembele has been a bright spot in the first half of the season.PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

The team's only consistent source of danger comes through Ousmane Dembele, who has been Dortmund's best player towards the end of the calendar year. Buczko argued "the Black and Yellows are starting to become overly reliant on the skills of the 19-year-old," and he has a point.

The Frenchman often has to start his runs in deep midfield zones, meaning he has a lot of ground to cover to get into the dangerous spots on the field. That he manages to get there more often than not is testament to his astounding qualities as a dribbler and improved decision-making. It is not, however, a formula for success for the entire team.

It was only natural that he scored the equaliser with a smooth piece of skill, receiving the ball on his right and slotting it past Marwin Hitz with his left foot in one fluid move.

That goal came in the 47th minute and heralded the best phase of the match for Dortmund, but they rarely came close to a winner and ultimately failed to dominate a tiring opponent who clearly struggled due to not being used to playing midweek matches.

Of course, things may well have changed had Dortmund not been denied a fourth blatant penalty in as many Bundesliga matches. Paul Verhaegh clearly fouled Kagawa around the hour mark, with referee Guido Winkmann in perfect position but waving play on.

While it is always a bit cheap to point at refereeing decisions as an excuse for a team's shortcomings, it is no stretch to say that Dortmund have been on the short end of calls for much of the first half of the season, exacerbating their other issues even further.

It is hard to comprehend how Dortmund can be so up-and-down in their league performance this season.
It is hard to comprehend how Dortmund can be so up-and-down in their league performance this season.PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

Ultimately, though, they have no one to blame for their disappointing first months of the season than themselves.

Regardless of their personnel situation, refereeing decisions and other circumstances, a squad of Dortmund's quality has to be expected to win more than seven of 16 Bundesliga matches to this point.

The championship has been out of sight for weeks, and it is only by luck that no one has emerged as the clear-cut third-best team in the division to this point.

The Black and Yellows will have every opportunity to qualify for the Champions League over the second half of the season, but, given their level of play since the summer, no one should take that as a fait accompli.

                       

Lars Pollmann also writes for The Yellow Wall. You can follow him on Twitter.

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