Borussia Dortmund were among Europe’s most celebrated clubs going into the current campaign but have endured a nightmare season. As they prepare to face Juventus in the Champions League, Adam Bate looks at the reasons for Dortmund’s problems and why there is light at the end of the tunnel…
Live UEFA Champions League
Sitting in the press conference at the Emirates Stadium last November, having watched Arsenal have their way with the latest imposters wearing the yellow of Dortmund, it was clear that Jurgen Klopp appeared weighed down by what he’d seen. The question came almost as an apologetic afterthought. How would he turn things around? It was a one-word response: "Arbeit." Work.
For the first time in months there are signs that the work is working. This has been a malaise in the truest sense of the word - ‘a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or unease whose exact cause is difficult to identify’. But after spending much of the season fumbling for form, Friday’s 3-2 victory at Stuttgart means Dortmund have now won three in a row for the first time this season to climb away from relegation danger.
German football expert Raphael Honigstein suggested that the 3-0 win at Freiburg earlier this month was the crucial one with Dortmund at a crossroads. So it was telling that Klopp omitted more than £50m worth of signings from the past 18 months for that game. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shinji Kagawa, Adrian Ramos, Ciro Immobile, Matthias Ginter and Sokratis Papastathopoulos were all excluded from the starting line-up as the manager turned to his most trusted lieutenants.
It raises an interesting question about whether the Dortmund way was a peculiar sort of alchemy. While Nuri Sahin, Shinji Kagawa and to a lesser extent Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski have been unable to hit the same heights away from the Westfalenstadion, recent evidence suggests it is now just as tricky to embed a player into Klopp’s team and retain the Dortmund dynamic.
Part of the appeal of the Dortmund success story - winning two Bundesliga titles and reaching the final of the Champions League - was precisely because of their unique style. Klopp’s team presses high up the pitch in an effort to win the ball back nearer the opposition goal. For them, the key moment to expose a weakness is when the opponent has surrendered the ball.
As a result, possession becomes less important than the moment the opposition loses possession. The more it happens the better. It makes for a high-energy approach that is almost counter-intuitive at the top level of the game. That was certainly the case when Klopp showed his face on the technical study groups. What he heard dismayed him.
"The thing I found back then is that the team that runs the most loses in the end and that was us," he told UEFA. "We ran the most but we lost in the end. When I got back I thought: ‘It doesn’t matter, we’ll try it again.’ Whatever you invest more in is not always rewarded immediately, but it is many times, if you also have quality; and that is what we have, so we will try to continue our path."
Continuing on the same path has been the recurring theme of Klopp’s message this season. He vowed to build a "pressing machine" at the start of the season and ostensibly that’s continued: in the first 22 games of the campaign, Dortmund made more high-intensity runs than any other Bundesliga team and have only been outsprinted three times all season.
But while the physical demands on the players remains high, the mental strain has been showing and errors have flooded into their game. Tactically demanding coaches such as Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola have been keen to move on once the response-levels dipped. "I found it more and more difficult to motivate myself and to motivate the team," said Guardiola of his fourth and final year at Barcelona. "I felt as if I could no longer lift the team." Klopp is in his seventh season at BVB.
As well as the internal pressures, there is also the external risk that they could be found out. Klopp rejects that idea but the statistics highlight a potential problem. Opponents are now ceding possession in the knowledge that allowing the counter-attack is the thing to really avoid where Dortmund are concerned. Tellingly, Dortmund’s possession stats are higher this season (55.4%) than in any of the previous four campaigns in which they finished in the top two every time.
At least the mea culpa has been transparent and not just when reasoning with those among the Yellow Wall for all to see after the defeat to Augsburg. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has called it a "mental issue" and Mats Hummels admits the team "have played the worst half of the season imaginable" so far. Klopp, meanwhile, has taken encouragement from the winter break that has allowed him to work with a squad that includes four World Cup winners in a way that the summer did not allow.
We've now been able to work on so many things that we had no time to go over even once in the summer. We weren't able to work tactically one single time because the lads first had to get into decent shape.
"We've now been able to work on so many things that we had no time to go over even once in the summer," Klopp recently told Bild. "We weren't able to work tactically one single time because the lads first had to get into decent shape." Ilkay Gundogan has been a rare bright spark but with Sahin having found fitness and Jakub Blaszczykowski, a symbol of the successful era, recovering from a long-term injury, there is hope again. Marco Reus’ surprise new deal adds to the optimism, especially given that he has scored in all three of the recent wins.
It’s not easy to play the Dortmund way but with a few more leaders back in the team, the benefit of a winter break to help relearn how to make it work and the confidence that comes with seeing it get results, there is finally something to build on. Klopp’s men never really went away. But as Juventus prepare to face a test unlike anything they’ll have come across in Serie A, the Italian champions could be about to find out that Borussia Dortmund are back.
Watch Juventus v Borussia Dortmund live on Sky Sports 1 HD from 7.40pm on Tuesday