Borussia Dortmund’s bipolar season

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Marco Reus has been sending covert messages lately, using the oft-neglected method of communicating via goal celebration. The future of the lithe, impossibly talented German is the subject of much debate, with a buy-out clause in his current contract believed to be somewhere in the region of €25 million. Over the last few years, Jurgen Klopp has suffered the annual trauma of seeing his best players leave, usually for Bayern Munich, and Reus is an immaculate footballing specimen, a flaxen-haired, delicate and beautiful soccer-sprite, and a player worth significantly more than the amount it would take to snatch him away from Dortmund. That alone is reason enough to wonder where he’ll be playing next season. But another reason also has prompted the current speculation, and it’s to do with the remarkable season Dortmund are currently fighting through.

It might be a surprise to those who haven’t been following the Bundesliga to find that Dortmund, a team that finished second by seven points in the league last season, are currently occupying the second-from-bottom position. At first glance, it appears that they’re fighting an early relegation battle, with a mere seven points from 10 games, and a goal difference of -6. This is a team that has the privilege of, on top of Reus, fielding players the calibre of World Cup winners Mats Hummels, Kevin Großkreutz, Erik Durm and Roman Weidenfeller, as well as other established stars Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, Shinji Kagawa and Ciro Immobile. This is a team that has won 2 of the last 4 Bundesliga titles, and one that, only two seasons ago, swept away Real Madrid 4-1 in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final, a tie they eventually won 4-3 on aggregate.

This is also a team that, this very season, is undefeated in the Champions League and has already qualified for the knockout stages. They’ve scored 13 goals and only conceded 1 in Europe. Dortmund shoved aside Arsenal with ease in their first match, smashed Anderlecht in their second and have since walloped Galatasaray twice, scoring four times on both occasions. Only Dortmund, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have achieved the maximum points return from the group stage matches played so far. They’ve won with irrepressible confidence in the Champions League, counter-attacking with pace and precision, making very light work of a fairly difficult group. If an alien arrived on Earth, and looked firstly at Dortmund’s results in Europe, they might then glance at the Bundesliga table and assume some that some horrible mistake had been made, or that a case of identity theft is in progress. How best to explain Dortmund’s bafflingly bipolar blundering in the Bundesliga? A bizarre Borussia blight? A bale of bothersome bad luck? The by-product of Bavarian blagging? Something less alliterative?

Dortmund are a team that thrive when offered a footballing environment that allows them to break with speed, and this isn’t often provided for them in the league. Teams, wary of the counter-attack, set up to allow Dortmund the majority of possession, they sit very deeply, and play with a visible reluctance to commit too far forward. This means that Dortmund are constantly tasked with breaking down the packed wall of players that greets them every time the venture into the opposition half, and, stripped of lock-picker Mario Gotze and bayonet striker Robert Lewandowski, they have found it difficult to do this season. It’s also worth pondering just how much of an impact Bayern Munich’s tediously obvious superiority has on Dortmund, and the league more generally. Dortmund players have spoken this season about motivational issues when playing in the league. Speaking to the BBC, striker Aubemayang said:

“I think we are going to have find extra motivation in the league,” he told BBC World. “When you are playing in the Champions League there is no need to have extra motivation because the games are so special … It is true you almost get the feeling we have two faces at the moment. One in the Bundesliga and one in the Champions League.”

Two faces indeed, and the stark difference between each one is comparable to the infamous Batman villain. At this rate, Dortmund could be the first team to win the Champions League and be relegated in the same season. But seriously, Aubemayang might be right; with the spectre of Bayern, already 17 points in front of Dortmund and undefeated, casting a cold shadow over the league, motivation might well be an issue for them domestically. The freedom of the Champions League, and the fact teams are less content to secede possession to Dortmund, must seem like a jolly holiday for Klopp’s side. Although, it’s not as if the whole league is suffering from the same sense of dreary apathy: Borussia Mönchengladbach are arguably the form team in the league, also yet to lose, and are playing some fantastic football. Gladbach are only 4 points behind the leaders Bayern, as are Wolfsburg, who are thoroughly enjoying the presence of Chelsea loanee Kevin de Bruyne. The top four are separated by 7 points, a smaller margin than at this point last season.

It may just be that Dortmund’s selling of their prize assets every year is catching up with them. In the past four season, Dortmund have spent around £37 million on new players. They’ve received close to £52 million in player sales. It is remarkable they’ve been able to compete year upon year doing this, selling stars and replacing them adequately with cheaper alternatives. Losing Lewandowski and Gotze in consecutive seasons however, two of the top 15 players in the world arguably, might just be too heavy a blow to absorb.

There is one individual returning from injury that might just give Klopp’s team the boost they need to kick-start their domestic campaign. Ilkay Gündogan, the central midfielder who missed the first 7 of Dortmund’s league games, and who has been out for more than a year with injury, has recently emerged fit and available again. He came on as a substitute in the 4-1 win over Galatasaray two nights ago, and is a fine player of rare poise, patience and vision. He is able to slow down the play, to direct a measured build-up and to see a way through packed defences. With Dortmund’s break-neck, counter-attacking virtues rendered largely useless against deep-lying, obdurate opposition, Gündogan can offer the team a potent alternative approach. It will take time, to be sure, for the German to work his way back from such a long lay-off, but it gives Dortmund hope that they can turn their league form around, and with that, the extra motivation they seem unable to find for themselves.

If you extrapolate the table as it currently stands, which someone has kindly done, you can see just how large a task it will be for Dortmund to work their way back into the top four. But it isn’t impossible for them. As for the Champions league, Klopp will want them to just keep doing what they’re doing. So far, this season has vacillated so violently for Dortmund, the fans might well be getting the bends.

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