Their emphatic start to the season set club and league records, but it has taken just a few weeks for things to reach a critical point for Borussia Dortmund.
A run of two wins from nine games in all competitions has seen them all but eliminated from the Champions League and leaves them in terrible shape ahead of Saturday’s visit of Bayern Munich.
It is a dramatic twist for a team that won six of their first seven Bundesliga matches under new coach Peter Bosz, scoring 21 and conceding two. Capitalising on Bayern’s struggles under Carlo Ancelotti, they were touted as title contenders by the media, but their decline has coincided with the Jupp Heynckes-led revival in Bavaria and they have quickly become a club in crisis.
Captain Marcel Schmelzer let the dreaded word slip out after the 1-1 draw against APOEL Nicosia on Wednesday before trying to take it back. However, that is what it will look like to fans as they find themselves in a battle for Group H’s Europa League spot. After being outclassed by Real Madrid and Tottenham, they are no certainties to secure it over the Cypriot side.
With their place in Europe already slipping away, staying in the domestic title race will become imperative to ensure their season does not become a waste at an early stage, but their bright start gave them little breathing space. Whereas a month ago they sat five points ahead of the reigning champions at the top of the table, defeat this week will see them fall a dangerous six behind.
Dortmund CEO Hans-Jachim Watzke labelled crisis talk “sick” and has stressed several times that they don’t expect to beat Bayern to the title. Even when his side were sitting pretty at the top, he pondered to Bild: "The question is always: what will happen with Bayern? When they recover their form, we have no chance.”
With Heynckes’ men now on a six-game winning run, Watzke updated his point this week.
“Obviously, once the atmospheric problems between the coach and the team have been resolved, they are stable again,” he told Sky. ”If Bayern Munich are stable, then that means they can win everything.”
In Watzke’s view, a three-point deficit may not be too bad at this point. But although he feels FC Hollywood won’t make many more mistakes, the problem is that Dortmund do - and with games against Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke waiting this month, they need to arrest this form soon to make sure they don't submit entirely to Bayern. Drawn with their bitter rivals FCB in the next round of the DFB-Pokal, all hopes of silverware could be gone by the turn of the year.
Amid injuries and suspensions, Bosz has made several changes to his defence which has seen them go from opening with five clean sheets to surrendering goals. Tottenham, Real Madrid, Eintracht Frankfurt and Hannover all eased through their pressing and beyond the high defensive line with quick attacks to threaten them, and Dortmund have proved a danger to themselves with mistakes.
The midfield has started to struggle too. Nuri Sahin, Gonzalo Castro and Mario Gotze have already dipped after bright starts and the remaining stars have been struggling to connect upfield.
Although he has scored 15 in 16 games, that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored in just one of their last five games has become a cause for concern.
“You can see that the confidence is not quite there,” Bosz said on Wednesday. "It's very difficult, because we need a win, we really need it! Confidence is getting lower.”
Their failure to beat APOEL bewildered the Dutchman and his players, who pointed to their 29 shots to the visitors’ four as proof of their dominance, but that they only had eight on target was another example of the inefficiency they have had from the start. They have struggled to create great chances and had some woeful misses recently.
The struggles have seen Bosz’s strict adherence to his high-pressing attacking style become a key topic of discussion and the players have been forced to defend it after losses.
“This has nothing to do with tactics,” Sahin said in midweek. “At the beginning of the season the defensive line was just as high and no one talked about it.”
Elsewhere, Gotze added in an interview with Sky : "It's not about system or philosophy. We started very well and now we’re in a phase where things are not going so well, but I think we are on the way and it’ll get better."
The board are in no doubt that the coach is not the issue and insist there is no reason to fear, as Watzke said in September: “I expect that there will certainly be setbacks this season, but his job will not be in doubt at all.”
After facing such problems early on at Ajax before transforming them into title contenders and Europa League finalists, Bosz is sure he can turn things around quickly.
“The team deserves time in order to truly understand the system and for their development,” he told Sport Bild. "That there would be setbacks was not only common knowledge to us, we in fact said several times that there would be.”
They may not have counted on such a large number of issues turning the state of their season from one extreme to the other, but the rate at which they are coming at the moment has already put Dortmund in a dangerous situation this season.
Another one on Saturday could see them fall to the point of no return.