Borussia Dortmund may have fallen short in their bid to land a first Bundesliga title since 2011/2012, but Lucien Favre's band of Black-and-Yellow brothers deserve immense credit for pushing record champions Bayern Munich all the way in a rollercoaster title race.
This was supposed to be a transitional campaign for Dortmund, who finished the 2017/18 season some 29 points adrift of Bayern, only just scraping into the UEFA Champions League on goal difference. With a new coach in Lucien Favre and a youthful squad featuring only three players in their 30s, BVB were expected to challenge for another top-four finish at best.
"Lucien will not be overburdened with unrealistic expectations," assured club CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke when the Swiss tactician took the helm last summer. "Our objective is to qualify for the Champions League. That'll never change, but that's it for now. We need some time to lay the foundations."
Favre himself warned that patience would be necessary, knowing that his new charges would not adapt to his ambitious attacking methods overnight. "We need to learn to play high up the pitch," he announced. "It'll take some time. It doesn't all happen in a month."
The Dortmund players apparently hadn't read the script. In their very first game of the Bundesliga season, they sent out an ominous warning by romping to a 4-1 win over RB Leipzig, who had emerged as genuine contenders with a second-place finish in 2016/17. The Saxony club remain the best of the rest, having secured third place in the table this term.
After further wins over Eintracht Frankfurt and Nuremberg – who were crushed 7-0 at the Signal Iduna Park – Dortmund topped the table for the first time on Matchday 6, displaying a champion's mentality by coming from two goals down at half-time to stun Bayer Leverkusen 4-2. They would remain top of the pile for over five months, until Bayern's 6-0 demolition of Wolfsburg on Matchday 25 put the Bavarians back in the driving seat on goal difference.
Favre's magic formula has been a potent mix of youthful exuberance and dogged experience, with streetwise additions like Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney stoking the BVB midfield engine. English teenager Jadon Sancho has taken the Bundesliga by storm, meanwhile, reaching a level few could have predicted in 2018/19, while supersub Paco Alcacer has found the net time after time, setting a new record for goals by a Bundesliga substitute. And bringing it all together has been talismanic captain Marco Reus, the Dortmund native whose heart surely pumps black-and-yellow blood.
Watch: How Reus has become Dortmund's leader
"We need to look at the the bigger picture," sporting director Michael Zorc said before the Matchday 33 clash with Fortuna Düsseldorf, which Dortmund won to take the race for the title down to the final weekend. "We still have the opportunity to reach 76 points, which would be the third-highest points tally in the history of Borussia Dortmund, and an extraordinary performance. We want to sign off on a good note."
The disappointment will be considerable in North Rhine-Westphalia after Dortmund's close shave with glory, but the BVB faithful should take heart from the fact that their side have outweighed all expectations this term, and will no doubt put themselves in a position to battle for the title again in 2019/2020. They certainly boast players who would have been worthy winners of this year's Meisterschale.
Sancho has been a particular revelation, emerging as one of the best wingers in the business at the tender age of just 19. Boasting electric pace, phenomenal footwork and devilish unpredictability, his haul of 14 assists is bettered only by Chelsea's Eden Hazard (15) across Europe's top five leagues, per UEFA coefficient. The England international has also notched 12 goals, and the explosion of his talent this season has transformed him into one of the hottest prospects in world football.
Watch: Sancho under the tactical microscope
Favre has also given regular first-team opportunities to Christian Pulisic, Achraf Hakimi, Jacob Bruun Larsen and Dan-Axel Zagadou, all of whom are under 21 years old, while defensive lynchpins Abdou Diallo and Manuel Akanji are only 23. Even Mario Götze – who broke into the Dortmund squad nearly a decade ago – is still 26, and Reus 29.
At the other end of the scale is elder statesman Lukasz Piszczek, the squad's oldest member at 33. A two-time Bundesliga champion under Jürgen Klopp in 2011 and 2012, the seasoned right-back has given his younger teammates the benefits of his considerable experience, although injuries have limited his involvement on the pitch.
In fact, Favre has had to deal with injury problems at the back throughout the campaign, coming up with no fewer than 16 different defensive combinations. That Dortmund should still boast the league's fifth-best defence and have come within a whisker of the title is astounding, given that fact.
Zorc and the club's recruitment staff certainly had a successful dip into last summer's transfer market, with new recruits Witsel, Delaney, Alcacer and Diallo all becoming key first-team players. Witsel and Delaney make up one of the strongest double-pivots in the Bundesliga, while Alcacer's 18 league goals helped to power BVB's title charge. The fact that 12 of his strikes came off the bench – an all-time record in the German top flight – speaks volumes about the Spaniard's significant impact.
And the question that has plagued Dortmund fans for years – what would their side look like with a properly fit Reus? – was finally met with a resounding answer this term: like genuine title contenders. In his most prolific season since 2013/14, the charismatic captain has been a true leader for BVB on and off the pitch, scoring 17 goals and setting up another nine. Who knows where they might have ended up if minor niggles and a suspension hadn't kept the Germany star out of draws against Hoffenheim, Nuremberg and Werder Bremen?
It has ended up being anything but a transitional season for the five-time Bundesliga champions, who were simply unable to match their own incredible tempo from the Hinrunde during the second half of the campaign. Bayern have taken an extra eight points in 2019, demonstrating the implacable nature of a national and international powerhouse that is geared towards winning every match, every trophy, every season. Their 5-0 dismissal of Dortmund in early April felt like a decisive moment, and so it proved.
As they prepare for another summer of plotting Bayern's downfall in 2019/2020, Dortmund should still reflect with pride on a campaign that exceeded all expectations, and forced the record champions to win 18 of their last 22 games to lift a seventh successive title.
Favre's young side already had the talent and the heart, and 2018/19 will perhaps have given them that crucial dose of experience required to one day wrest the crown away from Bayern. The 28-time champions would do well not to rest on their laurels, because they can expect to face a better, brighter and bolder Borussia next time around.