A rockstar manager like Jurgen Klopp, plenty of international players and possibly the best fan base in Europe can’t stop Borussia Dortmund from falling to the last place in the German Bundesliga, coming in complete contrast to their success in the Champions League group stage this season.
In 2011 and 2012 Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga title. In 2013, they made it to the Champions League final and finished second. They started slipping last season as teams around Europe and Bayern Munich themselves started chipping away at their best players. Still, 2014 was another top 4 finish and among the last eight in the Champions League. The foundation was healthy, and Jurgen Klopp’s system seemed to be working.
This season? An utter disaster. A weird one. It’s no longer just about the plague of injuries. It has to do with the players he has signed to replace those who have left. It has to do with a tactical system that still works in Europe, but has been studied by most of the teams in Germany, no longer trying to win possession against them. The best way to stop a counter attacking team is not give them the option of counter attacking. That’s why Bayern’s record against Dortmund is so poor: They keep on playing the same way, which makes it easy for Dortmund to improve their head to head record.
Among the 32 teams in the Champions League group stage, there are only three clubs ranked 10th or lower in their local leagues: Liverpool, Monaco and Dortmund. Dortmund are the only club in the relegation zone, but are surprisingly leading their group, winning their first four matches before a poor performance in London that didn’t really matter. Counter attacking football still works in Europe, where teams are a little less afraid to try and play possession football against them.
Is this an anomaly, or a opening in Klopp’s armor? He looked like a tactical genius leading up to this season, and also someone players love to play for while making himself a loved figure among fans. He still is immensely popular, but with Dortmund winning only three matches out of their first 13 in the league, sympathy and popularity aren’t going to last for long.
The interesting thing about Dortmund is that they went head to head with Bayern Munich but didn’t fall apart like others. They have the financial foundation to make this a lasting rivalry, even with their players getting picked away and taken for large sums of money. However, talent does come at a certain limit, and when you keep losing your best players, it’s getting harder and harder to replace them on short notice.
Qualifying for the Champions League is still an attainable goal – they’re only 10 points below fourth place. However, if there’s something to take from this season is that no matter how good your youth system or scouting system is – when you lose a huge amount of talented players, it’s impossible to replace them without either having a lot of patience or simply spending a lot in the transfer market, something Dortmund can’t do on the same level Bayern or other European giants are doing.