Giants of German football are facing the threat of relegation after a nightmare season – but is their enigmatic coach the root of the problem?
Certain teams are unmistakable. Even from a comfortable distance, on a freezing evening at their nondescript training ground in the Westphalian suburb of Brackel, Borussia Dortmund could only ever be Borussia Dortmund. Marco Reus taps the ball to Shinji Kagawa and carries on running. Kagawa plays a long pass along the ground to Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Mkhitaryan flicks it back in to the path of Reus.
Lightning sharpness. Vertical movement. Streaks of yellow and black. One touch, one touch, one touch. Insofar as any club has a distinct visual identity, this is Dortmund’s. “The fans should not only recognise us by our black and yellow jerseys,” coach Jürgen Klopp said when he took the Dortmund job in 2008. “Even if we play in red, everyone in the stadium should think, ‘Whoa, that can only be BVB’.”
The mood is jocular. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and İlkay Gündoğan share a joke as they jog laps of the pitch. At one point, Nuri Şahin clambers on to Mkhitaryan’s shoulders.
Standing in the middle of the pitch is Klopp, wearing a yellow cap and bright yellow socks. Those most familiar with Klopp as a fizzing ball of energy on the Dortmund touchline, and a charismatic presence in English-language interviews, would probably be surprised at how passive he appears on the training pitch.
Klopp very rarely intervenes during technical drills, and only really comes to life during tactical exercises. For the most part, he perches at the centre of everything, silent and motionless, like a boxer before a big fight.
It is no coincidence that one of his favourite words is kämpfen – fight. Klopp describes Dortmund’s style of play as “fighting football”. But for most of the last few months, they have been engaged in a fight they could never have imagined.
Just over a year ago, before Dortmund’s Champions League game against Arsenal, Klopp outlined in typically vivid fashion what he saw as the main difference between him and Arsène Wenger. “He likes having the ball, playing football, passes,” he said. “It’s like an orchestra. But it’s a silent song. I like heavy metal.”
And like heavy metal, for much of this season it looked as though Klopp and Borussia Dortmund were going very swiftly out of fashion. A club that had won two German titles, finished runners-up twice more, and reached a Champions League final between 2011 and 2014, found themselves bottom of the Bundesliga table at the start of this month. At the time of writing they remain precariously placed, just three points clear of the relegation zone.
There is a case for describing this as European football’s most spectacular collapse of the 21st century. Manchester United dropped from first to seventh, and it felt like the heavens had caved in. The relegations of Juventus in 2006 and Villarreal in 2012 are asterisked by substantial off-field problems. Dortmund, by contrast, are the 11th richest club in Europe, with an 81,000-seater stadium, stable ownership and one of the most respected managers in Europe.
So how has it all happened? How did one of “the most interesting football projects in the world”, as Klopp himself put it, go sour? And – perhaps more ominously – what happens next?
NO MORE EXCUSES
Initially, when Dortmund first started losing, few eyelids were batted. Klopp had his excuses prepared. The World Cup had tired out his squad and eaten in to his pre-season. Injuries had bitten hard. They were still going well in the Champions League.
“At the start, nobody was worried,” says Heiko Niederrer, who covers the club for Bild newspaper. “That was one of the problems. People said that they were too good to be relegated. And a lot of the players started believing that.”
But slowly, and then all at one, the cracks started forming. A 2-1 defeat to Bayern Munich left them in the bottom three. They were jeered by their own fans after losing 2-0 to Eintracht Frankfurt in December. In their last game before the winter break, a 2-1 defeat to Werder Bremen left them second bottom.
“We have played the worst half of the season imaginable,” captain Mats Hummels said. “The worries have been there for weeks. The way we have been playing, we deserve to be down there.” Klopp went further, describing his players as “total idiots”.
The stats laid bare Dortmund’s plight. Only Bayern had averaged more possession in the first half of the season, and no team had covered more metres on the pitch. But their average of 17 shots per goal was the worst in the division, and they were succumbing to elementary defensive errors. Teams like Augsburg and Paderborn had copied Dortmund’s style of aggressive high pressing and lightning-quick transitions, leaving them vulnerable to counter-attack. Fans lost count of the number of times their defence was left one-on-one or two-on-two by a quick turnover.
Klopp bristled at one reporter’s suggestion that teams were beginning to work them out. “I’m not looking for a fight, so I will answer even the stupid questions,” he retorted. “If you say we’ve been found out, what does that say about the work of opposition coaches for the last few years? Were they unable to see what our game is?”
Instead, Klopp insisted that his side were physically in pieces. “It’s as if someone has to play the world chess championship after 72 hours of sleep deprivation,” he said. A winter break and a change of scenery, he claimed, would work wonders.
THE MAGICIAN’S POWERS WANING
Dortmund spent their winter training in La Manga, bolstered by the signing of Slovenian midfielder Kevin Kampl. After such a disastrous autumn Klopp, normally so cordial and affable with the media, was beginning to show signs of strain. “There was a lot of tension, especially in La Manga,” says Thorsten Langenbahn of Sport 1. “Klopp reduced the players’ media activities.”
Another journalist, who prefers to stay off the record, claims that the root of Dortmund’s problems may well be much simpler. “Before, Klopp was like a magician,” he says. “He’s very famous for his emotional speeches. But if you hear them again and again, they lose their power. They don’t have the hunger that won them nearly everything they could win. You sometimes have the feeling that the players don’t go in like they used to.”
As Klopp himself put it in a 2013 interview with The Guardian: “You need change to make the next step in the team’s development. If I say go left, they would say: ‘You’ve told us that 200 times – we don’t want to hear your voice any more.’” Klopp was making a case for continually refreshing the squad, preventing it from getting stale. But what if it is Klopp himself, a manager ideologically devoted to a certain style of play, who is holding back progress?
According to the aforementioned source, Klopp’s time at Dortmund has seen him develop a potentially unhealthy level of power. “The club has become all about Klopp,” he says. “He is the face of the club, in a way you will not see at any other club in the Bundesliga. The directors, the players, are all there to serve Klopp’s vision.”
A messianic complex, a strong sense of ideological purity, a pattern of unthinking devotion: is Klopp’s Dortmund beginning to sound like something of a cult? “Yeah, a little bit. He knows his reputation, and he’s playing with it a lot. And he loves the admiration that he gets in England.”
Which brings us to the next move. Klopp has long been linked with a move to the Premier League. But he has signed a deal at Dortmund until 2018 and often boasts that he has never broken a contract. In any case, the suspicion is that he does not want to leave Dortmund in this state. He wants to return them to the Champions League, build another squad, perhaps mount another title challenge. Then, in two or three years’ time, he will seek a fresh realm.
Things would get worse before they got better. Dortmund emerged from the winter break looking tighter and more disciplined in defence, but just as clueless going forward. Against Bayer Leverkusen at the end of January, their pass completion rate was just 44 per cent. Not possession; pass completion. In other words, almost three in every five passes was going astray. A goalless draw left them bottom of the table.
Then, a 1-0 defeat at home to 10-man Augsburg earlier this month saw the first concerted elements of fan unrest. Angry protests took place after the match, and Hummels and goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller walked over to the jeering fans to speak to them in person and appeal for calm.
Slowly, things started looking up. Tying the brilliant attacking midfielder Reus to a new four-year contract was a spectacular and unexpected coup. Meanwhile, consecutive wins have lifted them out of the bottom three, with a trip to Juventus to come on Tuesday night. But with their Bundesliga status at risk, the Champions League holds little interest for Klopp. “We only want to stay in this league, and to make that secure as early as possible,” he said last week. “I’m not worried about anything else.”
He looked tired. And there have been times during this season when Klopp has looked more tired than ever. Seven years in a job this relentless must take its toll. Eleven places and 30 points ahead of them, Bayern Munich are disappearing out of sight, having taken two of Dortmund’s best players – Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski – with them.
The temptation to start afresh in a country that loves him will eventually become overwhelming. But still the inventor of fighting football carries on fighting. “We’ve had a guilty conscience for long enough,” he said ahead of their last game, a 3-2 win over Stuttgart. “Now we have to start playing positively.”
At times during the Stuttgart game, you could see it. Dortmund were still giving the ball away far too easily, but there were flashes of the old magic too. They were winning the ball high up the pitch, just like they used to. They were moving it at speed. And their effortless second goal – Gündoğan, Reus, a back-heel from Kagawa, the finish from Gündoğan – evoked the carefree one-touch kickabout from training earlier in the week.
On the touchline, Klopp pumped his fist: once, then again, and again and again, until finally he was engulfed by his bench, a blur of leaping yellow and black.
Certain teams are unmistakable.