After eight straight Bundesliga titles for Bayern Munich and a treble-winning season under Hansi Flick, German football has some questions to ask itself.
While perhaps not top of the list, one of them certainly is what to do to make the league more competitive. Given the club’s current status and public ambition to win the title, much of the responsibility for breaking Bayern’s dominance falls on Borussia Dortmund. But what does this team have to do to win the league?
Last season’s public statement of title-winning intent was acknowledgment that this team is indeed good enough to do so. And with players like Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho and Axel Witsel, club records for most Bundesliga goals (84) in a season, and 21 of 34 league games being won, that much is clear.
Bayern Munich though, continue to be just that bit better. The champions scored 16 more goals and won five more games last season. While there plenty of reasons for the disparity between Dortmund and Bayern, there is one that’s been on show too often in recent seasons which can be remedied.
Marco Reus might not like it, but the trait revealed itself again on the final day of the 2019-20 season. Dortmund, with nothing to play for, lost 4-0 at home to Hoffenheim. At the same time Bayern, equally with nothing to play for, having already won the title, beat Wolfsburg 4-0. The question of Dortmund’s mentality was thrust back in to the spotlight.
Can Borussia Dortmund do anything about Bayern Munich?
Language is key
But what is mentality? Everyone has an idea, and recently it has become a buzzword used for excusing a team or a coach’s poor performance. A simple definition would be mental strength, but it is often used in reference to being a winner. Ultimately, the term remains broad and vague, personal to those who use it. Sports psychologist Dr. Thorsten Leber’s definition is clearer.
“Mentality, as I understand it, is more stable, something that even across different games of a whole season is consistent,” Leber, who has worked with football clubs before, tells DW. “If you want to change or develop this, then at least part of it is team culture, at most club culture.”
If mentality is connected to club culture, then it is fair to ask what Borussia Dortmund’s culture is today. Ever since Jürgen Klopp left, Dortmund have struggled to answer this clearly. Klopp not only used the word mentality regularly, but also brought the concept to life, and has since coined the phrase “mentality monsters” to describe his Liverpool team. Dortmund were left with the concept, one they had clearly fallen in love with, but without the man to deliver it. Words without action have left the on-field mentality of this Dortmund team unclear.
“Then come terms such as will to win, motivation, discipline. They’re nice headlines but the real art is breaking down these abstract terms into concrete behaviors on the field. For example, how can I tell if a player is disciplined and how can I, as a coach, give them feedback?” says Leber, adding that the feedback needs to be regular for this approach to be effective.
Dortmund might preach discipline, focus, and drive, but so does every other professional sports team on the planet. Their motto Echte Liebe (True Love), their working class roots and the connection with their fan base are what sets them apart, but these do not appear to be translating to a tangible on-field mentality.
Sports psychologist Dr. Thorsten Leber
‘Mentality cannot be dictated’
According to Leber, team mentality has to come from within.
“The leadership group of the team or in fact the whole team needs to spend half a day discussing: what does the will to win actually mean for us?” he says. “Then you have included the players from the start so it’s not an announcement from the boss, something that I don’t think works.
“Mentality cannot be dictated. I have to want it. It has to be a part of me and I can only achieve that when I include the players as early as possible, and I give them the feeling that the mentality being created is theirs and not that of the coach. That also requires a coach who is willing to let players have input.”
If players can identify with their own definition and understanding of mentality, then they won’t just run around the pitch just because they’re told to, but rather because they have developed something personal that is a part of them and the team.
“It has to be kept alive, continuously scrutinized and discussed,” says Leber. “It takes a lot of time and nerve, especially at the start, until everyone is in the same boat.”
To create this though, teams must be honest and vulnerable. Above all, they must be self-confident.
“The technical term [for self-confidence] is perceived self-efficacy, or perceived competence, and that means trusting your own ability,” Leber says. “That is pivotal. I think if a team has this ability and can improve on it, then every other topic we have discussed will be absorbed and improved.”
Will it be third time lucky for Lucien Favre?
Leber believes there are two methods to develop self-confidence. Firstly, the collective overcoming of obstacles through experience, such as games, difficult training sessions, friendlies. Key to this is the coach recognizing that everyone must contribute in order for it to be a collective experience. Secondly, the coach’s communication. They must make the team as strong as it can be and develop a culture that allows for mistakes and risks.
Judging by the flair the team often plays with, it seems Lucien Favre has long incorporated such a risk-taking approach. However, like every other Dortmund coach post-Klopp, he hasn’t been able to cultivate a clear mindset for the team on the field.
With a sense of the last chance around this group, perhaps even a last dance for the fragile Marco Reus, a cohesive mentality could be the missing element in Dortmund’s pursuit of the title.