Disaster at Dortmund
Things are looking brighter at Borussia Dortmund. After a horror start to the campaign they have slowly dragged their season back on track. But what were the reasons for such an inexplicable start? Debjan Sengupta reveals all the problems with Dortmund here at Goalden Times.
Lots of newsprint has already been invested on the dismal season of Borussia Dortmund and there is a reason behind it. Borussia Dortmund is one of the last romantic football clubs left in today’s game. Their approach to the game is simple and fierce. They play for the shirt, with a coach who blends into the team and a legion of passionate and crazy fans who assault the senses of their opposition with sheer chants and noise. When Jurgen Klopp took over, he built Borussia Dortmund with a certain philosophy and not money in mind. This was an old and forgotten approach to the game and a calculated move away from the shameless amount of money being thrown about.
The group of young players that Klopp hand-picked then started growing up and developing together, with a shared understanding of Borussia Dortmund’s philosophy of football. The man himself took up the roles of father, mentor, and tutor in his students’ lives. Furthermore, their ever passionate fans—the famous Gelbe Wand (The Yellow Wall)—inspired their game and their commitment to the club.
Dividends started coming in the forms of domestic triumphs and impressive showings in their European Campaigns. Jurgen Klopp started a new era in the history of Borussia Dortmund, and made sure that the club journeyed from bankruptcy to decent mid-table showings. Dortmund won the league in 2010–11 and then again in 2011–12. However, they were runners up for the next two seasons, losing to Bayern Munich by quite a margin. With European competitions to look forward to, it was clear that Dortmund’s high-intensity system of playing football was too robust to sustain itself on two fronts.
When Dortmund won the DFL Supercup last year against arch rivals Bayern Munich, their fans hoped that finally the club from North-Rhine Westphalia would challenge the Die Roten for the top spot in the league. However, few could have predicted the state of affairs that would unfold for Jurgen Klopp and his men in the German Bundesliga. Borussia Dortmund are currently placed 10th in the table (29 points from 24 games) on the back of four consecutive wins in recent weeks. The way Dortmund, Champions League runners up team only a couple of seasons back are struggling to reach even the top half of the table may seem inexplicable to many. However, just a month ago they were fighting relegation with a string of dismal performances in their domestic campaign. 11 losses, four draws, and only four wins; 18 goals scored, 27 goals conceded. Although they are on course for a mini revival with four consecutive wins followed by a draw which has seen them march towards the right half of the table, It is quite clear that something had gone horribly wrong for Dortmund this season.
Many excuses can be given for this year’s particularly dismal performances—injuries, silly mistakes, lapses in concentration, wastage of created chances, and tactical errors by Klopp. One thing, however, is clear. This is not the same team that had been challenging Bayern’s dominance in the Bundesliga for the last six years.
So what exactly went wrong for the club that, at one point, played sublime football? In the past, their speed, technique, passing and team play were matched by few, and they promised the most entertaining brand of football an enthusiast can hope for. Is it because the 4-2-3-1 is perhaps becoming outdated? Or is it because the team itself is performing poorly? However, these justifications do not explain how a team of international and foreign stars have been playing so badly in the domestic league for such a prolonged period of time.
The answer to Dortmund’s entire problem lies in its system. The same system which has sustained Dortmund’s dominance is now crumbling; the players are finding it hard to use the system to the same effect against teams who are also playing a high line, fast, and counter-based football—forcing the opposition to make mistakes. We shall strive to explore the five major points that have perhaps contributed towards Dortmund’s dismal showing for the majority of this year.
No Lewy, Two Problems
Let us not kid ourselves. Adrian Ramos and Ciro Immobile are not even half as prolific as Robert Lewandowski. Ramos can run very fast, Immobile is a hard-working forward, and Aubameyang has alone shouldered the club’s goal scoring responsibilities. Out of the 31 goals (in 24 league games) scored by Dortmund this season, Ramos (two goals, two assists) and Immobile (three goals, one assist) have contributed towards eight, while Aubameyang alone has scored 10 times and given four assists.
Individually, Ramos and Immobile may be fantastic players, but they are yet to adapt to Dortmund’s system that requires a striker to not only be a goal scorer but also a team player. Lewandowski was not as industrious as Immobile or as fast as Ramos, but he was definitely more prolific than both his summer replacements because he preferred a passing game over long balls. His involvement in the final third, his movements around the penalty area, and Dortmund’s triangle passing worked with destructive synchronicity in the past. Furthermore, Klopp has rotated his attacking line up far too often this season, effectively denying any of his strikers an extended run to build on their form.
The Wrong Side of Centre
Klopp’s system of “gegenpressing” (loosely translated as pressing against) is based on the philosophy of trying to regain possession in the opponent’s half rather than falling back or sitting deep in ones half to maintain shape. This philosophy was woven around the tactical and technical genius of Ilkay Gundogan, the man Dortmund has missed the most this entire season. His attributes as a box-to-box player reminds the football world of Patrick Viera.
The high intensity game of Dortmund demands to be orchestrated by a dynamic box to box central midfielder who will double up as the play-maker as well as will be able to screen the defence, tackle for the ball and battle for possession throughout the game. Instead of finding his replacement, Klopp has brought in Nuri Sahin, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Milos Jojic, and, more recently, Shinji Kagawa and Kevin Kampl—none suited for the role of controlling the game.
This philosophy was woven around the tactical and technical genius of Ilkay Gundogan, the man Dortmund has missed the most this entire season. His attributes as a box-to-box player reminds the football world of Patrick Viera.
Sven Bender and Sebastian Kehl are excellent readers of the game, but they are slow and need a fast, agile central midfielder in front of them to sit deep and cover for the extra man in the flanks. The club have not only played without its engine this year, but has also failed to find a proper replacement for its star player in its system.
Pogba would probably be a good buy in this position, and, more importantly, would most likely be effective for the system to prosper and bring back domestic wins. However, for this to happen, the club first needs to stop spending on the wrong side of centre.
Defence! Defence! Defence!
Before the start of the season, Borussia Dortmund boasted of the strongest defensive line up in Germany, if not the world. It is hard to believe that a lineup of Mats Hummels , Neven Subotic, Lukasz Piszczek, Marcel Schmelzer, Eric Durm, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and Matthias Ginter has conceded 31 times in 24 games in the league this season. They have lost 11 games—five on the trot with a star studded defence line—and the only question that remains to be answered is, how?
Let us look at the time and the statistics of the goals conceded by Dortmund in the league so far.
20 goals have come in the second half of the matches (nine of those coming in between minutes 75–90), twice they have fallen behind to a strike on the very first minute of the game and of the 11 games that they have lost, on seven occasions they have failed to score and in the rest, they have been beaten by a solitary error or a lapse in the defence.
This shows Dortmund is not at their killer best. The opponents are making the most of their lapses -putting them under pressure, forcing them to make errors and, finally, scoring in the crucial stages of the game. The failure to score goals themselves result in a loss of confidence and form. Imagine it yourself, if you are playing as a defender and you see your teammates miss every chance to get ahead in the game, your confidence and form will definitely suffer.
Let’s look at the first game of the season. It was a 2–0 loss at Leverkusen (1 minute – Karim Bellarabi, 90+5 minutes – Stefan Kießling) where both goals came at the fag end of the game time. There was also the 2–1 loss to Bayern Munich, where, despite leading the league leaders for the largest part of the game, Dortmund succumbed to two second-half goals [72 minutes – Robert Lewandowski, 85 minutes – (penalty) Arjen Robben]. In the games they have played well, they have thrown away their leads to settle for a point. The 2–2 draw with the newly promoted Paderborn 07 saw them succumb again to two second-half goals (60 minutes – Lukas Rupp, 81 minutes – Mahir Sağlık), despite leading the game for 60 minutes.
Klopp and the entire Dortmund defence are both to blame for this fiasco. The defence has looked wobbly the entire season and the players have been prone to errors and lapses in concentration.
Dortmund has not had such troubled times since 2004–05, which is when the club nearly went bankrupt. Moreover, none of the current players are experienced enough to deal with the situation in order to make it through. Even seasoned players like Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic, who are generally solid and dependable, have floundered under pressure and are directly at fault for a number of goals scored against Dortmund.
Look at Eric Drum for example. Last year he was hailed as football’s best young talent after a string of impressive showings in the left back role, which even kept Marchel Schmelzer out for some time.
This season, however, he has been pathetic, prone to lapses and silly mistakes, misplacing passes, and offering almost no outlet in attack. As mentioned earlier, Gundogan’s absence has meant that there is hardly anyone to soak up the pressure for the defence. Being subjected to intense pressure has forced Dortmund to make mistakes in its own half, ironically giving Klopp a taste of his own medicine.
The tenacious and lung bursting performance that Klopp demands from his men rest essentially on how players carry themselves forward from one game to another. Therein lies the main problem for Dortmund. Successive failures have clearly dealt a psychological blow to the players, clearly affecting the technical aspect of their game.
Why Then Fella?
Every football philosophy demands a solid keeper beneath the sticks to prosper.
When the goal is assured, the outfield players can go into the game with a far more relaxed and composed mind set. Roman Weidenfeller is the team captain of Borussia Dortmund. He is one of the last few remaining players who belong to the pre-Klopp era, he has been playing for Dortmund for the last 13 years, and there have been countless occasions where he has almost single handedly saved Dortmund from losing a game. The 6’3” inch German is solid if not spectacular, has a knack for meeting balls head on, has perfect outings, and his positioning is seasoned with experience. This season, however, he has been anything but solid, leaking goals by being wrong footed and failing to be a vocal organizer of his defence line.
He has made 40 saves in the 19 league games this season, and kept only five clean sheets. This is no doubt the fault of a leaky defence as well. However, one must remember that in those matches the goalkeeper has held six corners and nine crosses, has an attempts–saved ratio of 65.6%, and has conceded 24 times already. The statistics show that age is catching up with Weidenfeller, and Klopp needs a dependable replacement keeper fast. A young, agile, and match winning keeper is often the difference between a draw, a win, and a loss in a league.
Look at David De Gea for example. He has shouldered the brunt of Manchester United’s work almost all by himself this season. The history of football, in fact, is littered with examples of goalkeepers playing in the top level well into their late 30s (e.g., Oliver Kahn, Gianluigi Buffon, and Edwin Van Der Sar). Mattia Perin might be a solution to this problem. The young keeper from Genoa has been spectacular this season and would probably fit into the system of football Klopp demands. A solid keeper is essential for the striker and the wingers to prosper. Dortmund must look to replace the ageing Weidenfeller with a new keeper who is a good distributor of the ball, can be dependable under pressure, and is a match winner in his own right. With another world class keeper in the squad, Klopp can look to rotate Weidenfeller and play him sparingly—taking off a major pressure from the German’s back and easing the pressure on his defence.
Clap For Klopp
There is no denying the fact that Jurgen Klopp has single handedly turned around the fortunes of Borussia Dortmund ever since he took over as coach in 2008. Moreover, he has made all of this possible with a wage bill and transfer budget less than half of Bayern Munich, Chelsea, PSG or Manchester United. In a time when football talent is lured away by ridiculous amounts of money thrown into the modern game, Jurgen Klopp has raised his team like a unified brotherhood, where each player enjoys his football with a purpose and an intent to become better than the last day. He has made Dortmund a club which nurtures talent and skill, honing the finer aspects of a player without thinking about monetary compensation. (In contrast, Manchester City, for example, aims at buying players like food in a closed market.)
Klopp is a scientist. He designs his own practice methods and training sessions, and is also a passionate motivator who can connect with players. Blessed with tactical acumen and a fresh, new outlook to the game, Klopp promises to be one of the best coaches in the world. However, he is not without his flaws.
He has made two fundamental mistakes which have come back to haunt him in this season.
One, Klopp never had a plan-B.
His 4-2-3-1 can at the most be changed into 4-3-3 or a 4-4-1-1. He does not have an alternative to break the game in the centre and play through the middle with the attacking players interchanging positions to ambush opponents. Klopp prefers to make the gameplay narrow, with the ball needing to come to an orchestrator before it goes out to the wings. Playing in a 4-5-1 or 4-2-4 would give much-needed width to Dortmund’s game and make it easier for them to defeat their opponents. 4-2-4 is an unconventional formation in world football right now, but it is a formation that intermingles strong attack with even stronger defence. It aims to use six defenders and six forwards, with midfielders performing both roles and holding together the team as one unit. In this formation, the defence needs to steal the ball, hold it, run with it or initiate an attack. As defence is more involved in the game in this formation, the players may regain their lost confidence if this method is deployed.
Two, Klopp needs to make long-term signings and bring in replacements for the crucial positions.
He needs to identify the spots where his team is weak and look for solid reinforcements to sustain their brand of football. Jurgen Klopp is to be blamed for not bringing in solid reinforcements to strengthen the squad, especially when they had started the season with a list of stars sidelined with injuries.
Every club must look to build on last season’s performance and Dortmund has failed to do that.
The club has let Robert Lewandowski leave for free and has brought in older, rather than newer and adaptable players to suit its system (e.g., Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa).
For this fault, the management, the board and the coach have to take the entire blame. Despite being linked to a host of stars, Dortmund has signed none and the people in power only have themselves to blame for it. Their bizarre market strategy this season has clearly been a point of discussion, and Klopp has done nothing to convince his board to do otherwise.
Realistically, a top four finish or a finish inside the top seven spots (guaranteeing European competitions) seems quite a distance away this season. But let us also not forget that this is Jurgen Klopp and his army of crazy yellow and black men we are talking about—men who have made it a point to defy the definitions of normal and ordinary. Four back-to-back wins just before this week’s goal less draw in the league are signs that maybe Klopp and his men have turned the sinking ship around. A rejuvenated showing in the league and a run of consecutive wins can at least bring Dortmund back to the top half of the table.
Whatever happens, both the idea and the inventor are crucial to the game, and they must be allowed to breathe and prosper. Will Dortmund come back on top again? Demolishing team after team, finishing off opponents with poise, organization and skill, lighting up stadiums with their hard battling and simple passing game? Alas, this is a question that only time can answer.
In conclusion, it can only be said that this romantic story between Borussia Dortmund and Jurgen Klopp should not be allowed to end.
In conclusion, it can only be said that this romantic story between Borussia Dortmund and Jurgen Klopp should not be allowed to end. The man is a genius, and all the good work he has done with an abysmal budget and wage bill should not be overlooked because of one dismal season.
Klopp surely won’t leave, stubborn as he is. He might, however, be fired instead. In the modern era, where every owner wants to take a shortcut to success and glory, coaches like Antonio Conte , Arsene Wenger, and Jurgen Klopp (who still talk about building a team with a shared philosophy) are kind of misfits. Not many coaches around the world would have lasted this long after such a campaign, and many key players whose futures are uncertain may actually leave the side at the end of the season. However, it is true that the world of football needs Dortmund to be back at its scintillating best—playing with purpose and intent, rattling teams triple the amount of the club, and lighting up football stadiums with sweeping moves and fast counter attacks.
It really does not matter who stays or who goes as long as Dortmund keeps on being the beacon of hope for beautiful football to prosper. As they say, “The name on the front of the shirt is more important than the name at the back.”