Speaking two days before Borussia Dortmund’s 4-0 home defeat by Bayern Munich, Marcel Sabitzer was wise not to make any big predictions about the way his club’s season is unfolding.
“There’s no time to think about that,” the midfielder tells The Athletic. “But we do know that the next few weeks are very important, they will decide which direction we’re going. When you play for Dortmund, you want to compete for all the trophies, that’s no secret. We can’t afford too many off days.”
While Saturday’s disappointment can still be rectified over the course of the campaign — Dortmund had gone 17 league matches unbeaten before — there’s less room for error in the Champions League, where they host Newcastle United on Tuesday.
Dortmund have given themselves a decent chance of progressing from the competition’s trickiest group, thanks to a 1-0 win at St James’ Park on October 25 that smacked of resilience and calmness, two qualities that haven’t always been associated with Edin Terzic’s team.
“It went back and forth but in the end, we got it over the line with a bit of luck,” the 29-year-old says. “But the spirit and attitude, the control in the build-up, the way we managed the lead… It was a mature performance and a very important win. We have truly arrived in the group stage with that result.”
Sabitzer, a polished central midfielder with attacking instincts but also a feel for slowing things down at the right time, was an important factor in Dortmund’s excellent performance two weeks ago.
Unlike his uninitiated team-mates, he also had the distinct advantage of previous experience playing in Newcastle, having lost there 2-0 with Manchester United in April (during his loan spell from Bayern Munich). “We sunk without a trace there, we didn’t have a chance,” he recalls. “I told the team about the noise, their amazing supporters, the atmosphere (before the game). I knew that there would be moments when Newcastle would get on top. And then you really feel the crowd pushing them forward. I love grounds like that.”
Sabitzer admits that you can’t really prepare for such an occasion as a player; you have to be there and feel it for yourself. Perhaps that’s why Terzic didn’t bother to put up loudspeakers blasting out Blaydon Races at Dortmund’s training ground. The 41-year-old Dortmund manager did, however, find a few soft spots in the Newcastle set-up, Sabitzer says.
“We analysed them before the game and developed a plan. The coach said to us, ‘Do this and that, then this and that will happen’. And it happened exactly like that. I don’t want to go into details, but we had looked at a couple of clips to see how we could press them and create spaces, and there were some moments that worked out exactly like that.”
Few things impress players more than their manager being able to predict the opposition’s playing patterns and offering up reliable remedies. Terzic hasn’t got a reputation for being the league’s most tactical manager, but his successful tweaks after a poor start with two draws in three games suggest that he’s very good at finding low-key answers for big problems. Sabitzer agrees. “He showed us a few tactical things. Sometimes, it was about a lack of intensity, but there were also certain processes on the ball that needed to be better.
“He told us not to get impatient when the opponents circulate the ball. You can’t always put pressure on opponents, you need to be willing to chase the ball and get active in the right zones of the pitch. He communicated very clearly to us, where and how he wanted us to do that. The team and him are totally on the same page, you see that on the pitch.”
Dortmund’s decent spell since the September international break (seven wins, two draws, two defeats in all competitions) has not just been down to Terzic’s interventions though. Sabitzer reveals that there was a team meeting following their lacklustre start to the season, in which players exchanged frank views and reminded each other of their duty to the club.
“We’re not sitting in the changing room thinking: ‘It doesn’t matter what happens, we get paid anyway’. Everyone was made aware of what it means to play for Dortmund, what you have to put into it. Everyone said their bit, and we all agreed on the things we needed to improve. The whole thing worked out well. It brought us closer together.”
Pressed to name specifics, Sabitzer explains that, unlike the public, which has often questioned the team’s mentality, the players were more focused on tangible matters. “There are always moments in the game when you can’t get into the duels. It looks as if you don’t want it enough or don’t have the right attitude in those moments but sometimes it’s more about spaces, coordination problems and intensity. We spoke about the need to press at a higher tempo and be more compact, to be on the pitch as a team.”
Sabitzer will never be a like-for-like replacement for Jude Bellingham in Dortmund’s engine room. But there’s no doubt that he’s been a very useful addition, helping Dortmund to become more flexible, especially in possession. “My role is slightly more attacking (than at Bayern Munich); that suits my game well,” he says. “I feel that I’m at 100 per cent right now.”
Part of that has to do with him growing as a player, after coming through one and a half difficult years in Munich — where he couldn’t dislodge the Joshua Kimmich-Leon Goretzka partnership in midfield — and a rejuvenating six month-spell with Manchester United last season.
“I went straight into the deep end after that tricky time at Bayern,” he says about his time at Old Trafford. “I felt very good on the pitch and regained my confidence, I realised that I still had it and, despite not having that rhythm that comes with regular starts, I showed that I could still do it at that level. It helped me a lot. Physically, mentally and football-wise, I’m very happy with how the last 10, 11 months have gone.”
Sabitzer’s time at United coincided with a decent run that delivered the Carabao Cup, a third-place finish, and the runners-up medal in the FA Cup. It was “a positive, very calm atmosphere,” he says. “The team and coaching staff could focus on what mattered. There was a feeling that United were coming back to where they belong.”
It hasn’t escaped his attention that things are a little different now of course. “I feel very positive about my time there and still talk to a couple of people. You ask yourself, ‘What’s going on?’ There’s a lot of noise, results are not good, they’ve had defeats at home, which almost felt unthinkable last season. And there’s still the unresolved situation of the ownership. You can see what that does to a team. I feel sorry for them because they’re all good guys, and extremely hungry for success.”
Pushed to come up with an explanation for the difference in results compared to last season, Sabitzer believes the high number of injuries has derailed United’s campaign.
“Casemiro, Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez — they are leaders that provide structure and stability to the team. Erik ten Hag comes with up very specific match plans and patterns of play. But if you have too many important players missing and too many changes as a result, things get lost between the tactics board and the pitch. The rhythm of players coming isn’t right, processes aren’t right.
“In the Premier League and Champions League, you need your best players available. Everything feels a little laboured and uncertain now. They need their big guys to show up and change the course of the season, but I believe things can change quickly once they get important players back.”
Sabitzer enjoyed working with Ten Hag, “a man obsessed with details”. “You can wake him up at 3am, he’d tell you his whole match plan by heart. He’s very knowledgeable about football and tactics — a very hard worker, a perfectionist. And he’s very straight with you. When I had a bad game, he showed me some situations and told me how to do it better next time. I liked that. You knew where you stood with him. He never threw you under the bus. Instead, he told players to go out and do better in the next game. I learned a lot about football working under him. He’s a very good coach.”
Sabitzer would have liked to stay at United after playing 18 times for them but a badly timed knee injury at the end of the season “and a few other things” conspired against him.
“I already picked up the injury two weeks into my stay and then played through the pain because I wanted to make it work,” he clarifies. “But at one point, I couldn’t go on any more and had to have surgery.” But there are “no regrets” over how things worked out for him, he insists. “I couldn’t be happier at Dortmund and feel that I’m exactly at the right place right now. I feel the support of the whole club. You need that to perform well.”
Dortmund, in turn, will need another mature, focused performance to overcome Eddie Howe’s side on Tuesday. “It’s an open game and it’ll be end to end because they’re going to go for it with many players of top quality,” Sabitzer says. “But we’re strong at home and we’re built to work tactically as a unit. We know what we’re about. We are a collective and that’s what makes us strong. I’m convinced we will win.”
They’d better do so, too. After Saturday’s big defeat against Bayern, making it out of the group stage would go a long way to showing people that they’re still heading in the right direction.
(Top photo: FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)