Saying sorry to the fans. This season, BvB lads do it frequently.
Eighteen months ago, Borussia Dortmund played in a Champions League final against their arch-rivals, Bayern Munich. They narrowly lost that game, but regardless of the result, it was a crowning achievement of that remarkable, unforgettable season. But it wasn’t just about the results: back then, the club seemed to be improving steadily in all areas. Shortly after Jürgen Klopp’s appointment in July 2008, BvB grew from a financially troubled, mid-table side into a force capable of challenging the seemingly untouchable Bayern. Multiple wins over Bavarians both in Bundesliga and German Cup were soon followed by Dortmund’s excellent runs in Champions League, where they managed to beat Real Madrid three times in six matches in the span of two years – not to mention other impressive scalps, such as Arsenal, Malaga or Manchester City. Top Dortmund players suddenly became the hottest deals on the transfer market while Klopp himself would already be a new manager of Barcelona or Manchester United – at least in the eyes of many English and Spanish newspapers.
Nobody expected… this.
Fast-forward to 2015. Dortmund has spent New Year’s Eve in the relegation zone. They’ve earned only 15 points in 17 matches, registered more league defeats than any other Bundesliga team (10) and scored only 18 goals, which was at the time, the fourth worst achievement this season, only ahead of even more futile HSV, 1. FC Köln and Freiburg. To put it in a perspective: during previous season, BvB earned their 15th point on September 14th 2013 and went on to win 17 more points before Christmas break. They’ve bagged their 18th league goal on September 28, 2013, only to score additional 20 that autumn and finish that year as Bundesliga’s #2: exactly the place everyone would expect them to occupy both then and now. On the other hand, their 26th conceded goal of 2013-14 Bundesliga season came as late as on February 22th 2014, against HSV in Hamburg – five games and two months later than the 26th one of this season, conceded against Werder Bremen on December 20th. And not only that: their best league position recently was the #8 spot!
For a long time, I’ve considered this decline to be nothing but an accident. After all, Robert Lewandowski, their leading goalscorer departed for Bayern and the team needed time to accommodate either Adrian Ramos or Ciro Immobile into the role of a lone striker. This problem was combined with serious health issues of Mats Hummels, İlkay Gündoğan and Jakub Błaszczykowski. Additionally, Hummels has been a central figure of a long-lasting transfer odyssey with Manchester United and various media sources involved. Even bigger and more intimidating story was Marco Reus’ mysterious future. One week, this winger and a leading force of the team would be soon departing for Real Madrid; next week, he would join Chelsea or Barcelona; one week more, and Reus was close to prolonging his contract with Borussia and botching the legendary low release clause he had – a clause that attracted everyone else’s attention. All that while Klopp had to work with a group of 13-15 quality players and a virtually non-existent backup; without any second-string footballers who would not weaken the team once they’re put into the fray.
But surely, Germany has worse teams than BvB out there, right?
Yep – it certainly does. Last Saturday, FSV Mainz was one of them. This small club, that’s been Klopp’s last managerial station before arriving to Signal Iduna Park is also known from being the most gentle and kind customer to Dortmund eleven, maintaining a horrible record of 7 losses and one draw against BvB during the previous four Bundesliga seasons. And yet, in front of nearly 80 000 Borussia fans, it was Roman Weidenfeller, who conceded first goal – roughly 55 seconds into the game! Neven Subotić, whose confidence looks massively shot compared to the last season, started the show by chasing a loose ball. Nothing wrong with that: it’s been overall a decent run by the Serbian. However, instead of telling his goalie to come and claim the ball while he blocks the striker behind him, Subotić decided to clear the danger with an overhead kick. It went horribly wrong and Weidenfeller was forced to punch it forward, straight to Elkin Soto. The Colombian saw his chance and fired a long, winded chip that went beautifully in, pretty much opening this game in a typical Dortmunder fashion, as BvB has been trailing 0-1 eleven times already this season, even before Mainz game started. And this time, it was happening against an absolutely mediocre side that spent next 45 minutes sitting back and defending their early lead!
Unfortunately, Dortmund never really stepped up in the first half. It was tedious to watch Şahin, Sokratis and Gündoğan endlessly exchanging meaningless passes in the middle of the pitch, fruitlessly waiting for anyone upfront to at least pretend to make a dangerous run. The counterattacking football BvB was known from clicked only once: eight minutes into the game, Sokratis intercepted the ball from a corner, played it quickly to Reus who ran past Mainz marking and played a perfect, side-foot pass to Aubameyang, whose difficult shot was well parried by Stefanos Kapino. From that point on, the visitors were careful: excellent Swedish full-back Pierre Bengtsson would consistently help out the central defenders and the backline was set up very deep to cut out any through balls or fast breaks. Borussia was pretty much reduced to wing play and various methods of crossing into the box, out of which none really worked. Neither did the long shots from fairly invisible Kagawa or absolutely terrible Kevin Kampl; the lack of long-range threat like Götze was evident. Despite the advantage in all possible departments, the team went on a break trailing against yet another awful opposition.
To Klopp’s credit: it was most likely him, who lifted the team up there and then. I don’t know how many shoes he had to throw at Kampl or how much yelling he needed to land on Subotić’s head – it changed things for better. 120 seconds after the game was resumed, Dortmund players finally hit Mainz where it hurt when Aubameyang won a free-kick in a dangerous area and Reus’ set-piece shot was barely saved by Kapino. The visitors hardly had time to process this warning sign: soon after, Kagawa won a corner thanks to a deflection, Schmelzer crossed the ball in and two loosely marked Borussia players jumped to get the ball played towards the near post. The taller one – Subotić – succeeded and the game was tied with a momentum switching massively in favor of the home side. With much more effort and vigour, Dortmund finally started to find holes between opponents’ midfield and defence to use them. Just five minutes after the equalizer, useless Kampl finally smartened up and cut inside instead of drifting down the wing. He spotted Reus just in time to beat the offside trap and his most famous teammate could not miss this time.
And then, it happened again – Dortmund got punished with a goal that should not have happened. It all started quite randomly, with ball played from the deep that bounced off two uninvolved players before reaching the danger zone. After that, Schmelzer, so far very clean and tidy at the back, made an abysmal decision to run into the middle of his backline instead of marking Malli in the zone he was supposed to cover. Mainz’s attacking midfielder, who’s been standing with his back against the goal, kept tabs of Schmelzer’s movements and instead of touching the ball that was coming to him, he let it slide into the area Dortmund’s left-back came from. Afterwards, it was too late for anyone to do anything: Malli took a powerful shot and although it wasn’t particularly well-aimed, the close distance combined with powerful strike were more than enough to do the trick. How many times you’ve seen a game, where team that’s been thoroughly dominant randomly allows the other team a comeback and gets a result far worse than it deserved? Well, regardless of your answer: in 57th minute, BvB seemed to be exactly that team.
Marco Reus. “How many times do I have to save you?”
Fortunately for them, Reus has decided not to follow the footsteps of his predecessors and stayed. And, more importantly, that day, he was fit to play and motivated to deliver as much as it was needed to win the three points. After he’s been denied many times by the defenders, he finally found his chance when picked up a ball near the left touchline only to pass it splendidly and immediately to Aubameyang. The Gabonese striker may be a poor finisher and an awkward dribbler, but his pace is second to Usain Bolt. This time, he ran into space so comfortable to shoot from that about any kind of finish would work. And the one he has chosen did: instead of using power, he calmly tapped it over goalkeeper’s hands. From him, that was enough; however, Reus wanted more. Soon after supporting BvB with a key pass, Marco’s free-kick shot was mishandled by Kapino and Sahin sealed the deal with a powerful shot that nutmegged the Greek goalie as he was trying to stand up again. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the only difference between a win and a draw in a game that’s been totally one-sided in Dortmund’s favor.
Now, with 22 points, Klopp’s boys are finally out of the danger zone. What’s even more amusing, Bundesliga appears to be such a close race that this win alone makes them only 10 points away from Leverkusen, who are currently sixth and sit on the last spot that provides the European qualification. Considering that there’s still 13 matchdays to come – that’s not the advantage that could not be nullified. But first, a lot has to be done to address this team’s weaknesses. For a long time, Borussia has been playing all-out attacking football with insanely high pressing and the attacking play that used to be lethally quick. Where all those qualities went? Because right now, neither Piszczek nor Schmelzer are making the runs we knew them from; İlkay Gündoğan does not involve himself in attacking play as much as he should either. And if those men are underperforming, what can be said about Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who’s been recently playing so bad that he had to be substituted with Kampl? Yeah… It’s a good thing that Reus and Sokratis are actually very consistent all through this season; otherwise, this team would’ve been easily dead-last.
That being said, it’s Klopp who changed more than any of his players. He doesn’t yell. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t play along with his footballers. He doesn’t jump out of his seat to instruct anyone – and when he does show any emotions, they’re toned down, as if he was a deflated balloon. Maybe his thoughts are already one week away from now, at Tuesday 24th of February? On that day, Borussia will travel to Turin to meet Juventus in Champions League’s First Knockout Round. It is a big date to think of, considering that the Italians are undefeated since October 29th and that Carlos Tevez, Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal, are all in good shape. Theoretically, the Italian champions should expose Dortmund’s feeble backline big time. In view of that, it’s going to be a hectic battle with time to bring Mats Hummels back to full fitness and decent form before the games begin. All things considered: those two games are most likely going to be the only relevant, high-stake matches BvB will play this season. And meanwhile, the supporters’ rage keeps building up…
Borussia must get something from that draw. They owe this to their fans.