Lucien Favre: bringing Dortmund back to their best

Favre’s approach and tactical versatility are guiding Borussia Dortmund in the right direction

As Axel Witsel played the perfect weighted pass to Paco Alcacer to start a breathtaking counter-attack that led to Borussia Dortmund’s third goal against Bayern Munich, Lucien Favre watched, from the sidelines, the moment that would win the match for his team.

The backheel to Witsel, the run from Alcacer and the perfect pass from the midfielder, together with the striker’s coolness and quick thinking to change the pace and take Manuel Neuer off balance are big attributes of a brilliant counter-attack. After the ball touched the back of the net, Favre joined the celebrations from the Yellow Wall, the hysteria of the moment that would keep Dortmund’s winning run going.

Bayern Munich’s domination in the Bundesliga is standing for six years and despite changes in the managerial front — Heynckes, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and Heynckes again — the Bavarian giants have been able to maintain their winning mentality and smart management to build a dynasty that was unlikely to fall.

Since Jürgen Klopp left the Signal Iduna Park after an exhausting last season, changes in the managerial front of Borussia Dortmund have proved to be far from enough to get them back to winning days. Tomas Tuchel appeared to be heir from Jürgen Klopp, amassing a record of points in Dortmund’s history in his first season, even though it didn’t stop Bayern from winning the title.

However, the complexity and perfectionism from Tuchel side were the main arguments for a lost dressing room and the German left after two seasons, winning the DFB Pokal in his last. In his place came Peter Bosz.

A flying start from the Dutchman wasn’t enough to keep him away from the sack and four months into the season, Borussia Dortmund opted for a managerial change once again. Former Koln manager Peter Stoger was the chosen man to finish off the season. Despite achieving Champions League qualification, Dortmund knew that change, drastic change, and renovation were needed and Stoger left.

Three managers in the space of three years don’t mean stability, and in days where the pressure on managers is even bigger, stability is a very welcome thing. Lucien Favre is a well-known manager in Germany, having managed Hertha Berlin — guiding the club to a surprising top-four finish — and Borussia Monchengladbach, where Favre developed a style of play that was great to watch and known for being entertaining.

Before signing Bosz, Dortmund enquired about Favre, who was then Nice manager, but his club didn’t want to see him leaving. However, a year later, Dortmund paid the £2.6m release clause to get their man, and they are not regretting it so far.

Born in Switzerland, Favre was an elegant and skilful midfielder, who played his trade for Swiss clubs Lausanne, Neuchâtel Xamax and Servette, together with a stint with Toulouse in Ligue 1. After a horrendous injury ended his playing career, the abilities and traits Favre had as a player were carried as his main philosophies as a manager: beautiful and elegant football.

A successful spell at FC Zurich, winning two league titles in a row, was enough to earn Favre a move to the Bundesliga with Hertha. In the capital, Favre had a great second season, guiding the club to fourth, but left in 2009, after two years due to a bad start.

Joining in 2011, at Borussia Monchengladbach, Favre was able to turn the club from relegation candidates to a top-four contender, qualifying to the Champions League twice, playing a brilliant brand of counter-attacking football and developing the talents of Marco Reus, Granit Xhaka and Marc-André Ter Stegen.

When Favre came back to France with Nice, his team played entertaining football and competed with the likes of PSG and Monaco, with Nice finishing third, their highest in years. Despite a mediocre second season, Favre did a very good job in France, playing good football and developing talent with Jean Michel Seri, Wylan Cyprien and Dalbert as good examples, while also dealing with strong personalities in Mario Balotelli. Developing talent and creating an identity that emphasises great football are two standard philosophies to Favre.

At Dortmund, it’s a different job and expectations to deal with. Behind Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund is Germany’s second most successful club in recent history. Not so long, Dortmund were able to break Bayern’s hegemony and compete at the very top of the European game. Of course, after those successful years, the club want to keep the values that got them to glory, while competing for silverware every season.

Rejuvenation

The development of Jadon Sancho is one of Dortmund’s highlights this season (Photo: Borussia Dortmund)

Last season’s disaster was enough to open Borussia Dortmund’s eyes regarding a rebuilding process. While the key players to the squad were maintained — Marco Reus, Lukasz Piszczek and Christian Pulisic— Dortmund were able to acquire players that would fit into Favre’s complex system and improve the quality of the squad.

In came Thomas Delaney on the back of a great season with Werder Bremen, together with Marius Wolf from Frankfurt, Abdoul Diallo and Axel Witsel, whose return to European football was seen with an optimistic look from the majority of the Bundesliga followers. The loanees of Achraf Hakimi and Paco Alcacer — whose move was made permanent recently — were two smart and quality piece of business.

With all the incomings at the squad, selling was also a vital part of the rejuvenation job Favre was expected to do. Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Gonzalo Castro, Andriy Yarmolenko and Nuri Sahin were all known names that left Signal Iduna Park, together with Andre Schurrle leaving on loan to the Premier League.

Even though the transfers became great additions to the squad, Favre’s more important job in this regard was working with what he already had — in short, develop the great talent at his disposal. During all Favre’s career, he is a master in the developing young players, with Marco Reus as one of the biggest examples in his time at Borussia Monchengladbach.

Borussia Dortmund is a smart destination to young players seeking first-team football, with Jadon Sancho’s signing last season a big proof of this. The young Englishman has taken the Bundesliga by storm this season, being one of the biggest hopes to the future of English football.

Last season, the former Manchester City winger made 12 appearances under Peter Bosz and Stoger. This season, with Lucien Favre, Sancho is a starter at Dortmund, hacking up 18 appearances so far this season, and being a key part of Favre’s tactical season.

Sancho is able to take on the opponent with his skill and quickness, while his mind is very mature for a young player, he’s well ahead of his age. His development tends to continue under Favre, who will likely add even more attributes to the game of the talented winger. Jadon Sancho already won the Bundesliga Player of the Month award in October and if he continues his form, will likely end up being one of the best this season.

Another great job Favre has done is with the defence. The sale of Papastathopoulos left a question mark regarding his replacement. The arrival of Abdoul Diallo from Mainz was more than enough to supply the needs Dortmund had on their defensive side. With an average age of 23,5, the experience and maturity of Lukasz Piszczek, together with the youth of Hakimi, Akanji, Zagadou and Diallo, makes Dortmund’s defence the second best in the Bundesliga, with 13 goals allowed.

It’s worth mentioning that the job Favre has made with academy graduates has been remarkable. Jacob Larsen has become a starter for Favre, together with Christian Pulisic, that despite not featuring much in the starting 11, is becoming more and more a great and technical wide player.

The resurgence of Marco Reus

Marco Reus is the key part of Favre’s plan for Borussia Dortmund (Photo: Bundesliga)

The relationship between Marco Reus and Lucien Favre started a few years ago, back at Borussia Monchengladbach. Then, the club was a relegation candidate and struggling to have good campaigns in the Bundesliga. Marco Reus had the talent, but wasn’t able to show it regularly.

With Favre at the hot seat, Reus developed and became on the best wingers in Germany. Favre brought qualities to Reus’ game that made him one of the best for club and country. The result were Reus’s best goalscoring season, call-ups for the Germany national team and a big move to Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund.

The reunion between Reus and Favre ended up being great for both. When the news came that Favre had signed with Dortmund, here’s a bit of an interview Reus gave to DFB:

I’ve had quite a few club coaches and among them, Favre is probably the best I’ve ever had.
Of course a lot of time has passed since we worked together at Gladbach. It was great to see back then how much in detail he could work as a coach.

Injuries were a major setback in Reus’ recent career. The winger missed the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euros due to injury, together with a lot of games in the Bundesliga. So far, it seems that Reus will remain fit and Favre has been able to revive and resurrect confidence in a player that we know is brilliant.

Reus scored eight goals from 6.34 expected goals (xG). On the top of that, Reus contributed with four assists from 3.45 expected assists (xA). Favre has been able to improve Reus and make him the key player in the squad. Despite being 29, there’s always room for improvement. Reus is great, but Favre is making him even better.

Bringing attractive football back to Signal Iduna Park

Favre is reconstructing the identity of an attractive style of play (Photo: R. Orlowski/Reuters)

After seven years under Jürgen Klopp, it is fair to say that the Yellow Wall become used to watch “Heavy-Metal” football. Although this identity was slightly deconstructed under Thomas Tuchel — that opted for a more patient style of play — bringing back an attacking and incisive football was a priority.

The official Bundesliga website hailed Favre’s style of play as a “Modern Jazz”. “There is always room for improvisation and individual expression, but it’s within a well-defined framework that ensures all pieces fit harmoniously”, they said. Jürgen Klopp’s team were known for playing aggressively, but often leaving spaces on the back, even though these issue has been fixed recently at Liverpool.

Lucien Favre system is able to play with a high-line, pressuring the opponent and playing on the high tempo, but keep a consistent defensive shape and settle the tempo when needed. Favre’s is known for being eccentric, too perfectionist. However, the complexity of his systems need work and when he pushes players to their best, the results come.

As an example, Borussia Dortmund have an expected goals against (xGA) of 15.21, but have the second-best defence in the Bundesliga conceding only 13 goals, while also keeping four clean sheets. This is due to the great season that Dan-Axel Zagadou, Manuel Akanji, Abdoul Diallo and Lukasz Piszczek are having so far. Zagadou and Piszczek, for example, are in WhoScored’s Bundesliga team of the season.

On the attacking front, Dortmund are very effective. With 35 goals, their attack is the best in the league. Dortmund have the third best expected goals per shot (SQ), with 0.146, while they are of the best teams in creating shots from open play, scoring 27 goals from 17.61 xG.

This is all due to the formation Lucien Favre opted to use. When at Nice, Favre’s favoured formation was a 4–3–3 that saw Nice score a total of 116 in two Ligue 1 seasons. At Borussia Dortmund, Favre utilized a 4–2–3–1 for 921 minutes, while the 4–3–3 has only been used for 181 minutes. The formation Dortmund play for the majority of the time create opportunities for the wingers to make explosive runs, give freedom for the midfielders to create opportunities, and it’s great to set a quick and explosive counter-attack, but it’s also very solid defensively.

Paco Alcacer is Bundesliga’s joint top goalscorer with nine goals, with Marco Reus right behind with eight. Jadon Sancho has contributed with 10 goals, scoring four and assisting six. Favre is bringing the best of the attackers and his style of play that emphasizes the tactical and technical cleverness is one of the biggest reason.

The perfectionism Favre is known for often pays off. He is great to recognize what needs to get better on his team and when given an opportunity to fix things, he often does. 24 of Dortmund’s 35 goals have come in the second half, with 11 being scored after 76 minutes. The resilience together with the persistence of scoring and changing the pace when needed is one of the biggest qualities of this Dortmund team.

Under Lucien Favre, Borussia Dortmund look almost certain to mount a very serious title challenge. The performances have been consistent and entertaining, two musts when talking about Dortmund. We still don’t know if Favre’s personality will be an issue, but the way he is improving the club in every aspect is promising and surely will see plenty of debates.


For this piece, we used stats from Understat, WhoScored and Between the Post’s brand new Stat section.