Losing in the Champions League final is always something of a body blow. It’s even worse when you’re beaten by a domestic rival. And when that team has already snaffled your best player too? Well, that’s just piling on the misery.
Of course, this unfortunate series of events occurred in the final weeks of Borussia Dortmund’s season. They lost key man Mario Gotze to Bayern Munich, just a couple of weeks prior to losing the UEFA Champions League final to their great domestic rivals too.
For a club that has experienced nothing but highs in the past eight years, all those associated with Dortmund would have been feeling unfamiliarly low as Arjen Robben poked home that late winner. Even their charismatic and innately positive boss Jurgen Klopp cut a downtrodden and dejected figure.
There were some (this writer included) who saw the Wembley final as a ‘now or never’ juncture for this particular Dortmund crop. Gotze – the crown jewel of German football and a Die Borussen lad through and through – couldn’t resist the lure of Bayern and Pep Guardiola. And with another star-man Robert Lewandowski also pushing for a move away, it left many questioning just how many members of this remarkable squad would remain at the Westfalenstadion for the next campaign.
Fast forward to the present day Dortmund sit atop of the Bundesliga with five wins from five games, and memories of last season’s heartache seem long gone. BVB have been a mightily impressive outing in this season’s domestic competition and in their most recent outing took Hamburg to the cleaners, running out comfortable 6-2 winners. It could have been more, as they recorded a staggering 32 shots on goal.
They have shown no battle scars in the wake of last season’s disappointing climax. Quite clearly not intent on wallowing in the loss of Gotze or their Champions League defeat, they swooped quickly to acquire the attacking talents of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Nuri Sahin, a player whose career has stagnated after leaving the club back in 2011, is also back on the payroll and beginning to recapture some form. Die Borussen conducted their business early in the window, and as a result the new players already look up-to-speed with their unique, cohesive, pressing style.
As for the worries that others would follow Gotze out the Westfelanstadion door? Well, Klopp has managed to keep the nexus of his squad together. Worrying for others, the heartbreak of last season has seemingly refocused the Dortmund players, for they look galvanised and hungry. Marco Reus in particular has started the season in sensational fashion. Lewandowski too, despite pining for a move to Bayern, has carried his form from the last campaign into this one. He has a flurry of early goals to his name.
The resolve and tenacity shown by Dortmund to keep Lewandowski in the face of Bayern’s interest is an indicator that this team are going to be difficult to shift from the upper echelons of German and European football. A release clause meant there was not much they could do about Gotze’s departure, but the club is brimming with a desire to build on the good work done in the eight years since they were in financial ruin, not consign it to the history books.
So it begs the question, can they replicate the heights of last season, and maybe even go on to bigger and better things?
In a one off encounter, there is no doubt they can beat any side on the continent. But depth and longevity over the course of an entire campaign remains the issue. The squad is stronger than last season no doubt, and young players continue to be blooded in. But the level of quality doesn’t run quite as deep when compared to some of the European juggernauts. Klopp spoke of this recently in typically eloquent and amicable fashion:
“We have bows and arrows. And when we aim precisely, we can hit the target. It’s only that Bayern have a bazooka!
The probability that they will hit the target is clearly higher. But then, Robin Hood was apparently quite successful”
But the ‘Robin Hood’ mentality is something Dortmund have learned to embrace. It breeds togetherness and festers spirit. A flurry of transfer activity this summer could have upset the unparalleled dynamic that lingers within the squad, and it was crucial that Klopp maintained the essence of this side, whilst ushering in players that will quickly adapt to the Dortmund way of doing things.
If the early stages of this season are any kind of indicator, the former Mainz boss has done this perfectly. Mkhitaryan has stepped into Gotze’s shoes and offers a much more prominent goal threat from the central attacking midfield position; he has already struck three times in the league campaign. Die Borussen’s other high-profile signing, Aubameyang has also shown himself to be a major threat. His blistering pace and composure in front of goal has given Klopp’s forward line refreshed feel; he already has five goals to his name.
Both players fit seamlessly into Klopp’s mantra of high-octane, lateral and incisive football. The manager has always placed huge emphasis on their transitions from defence to attack and vice-versa. The fluidity of these transitions were superb last season, but they’ve cranked it up again this year.
The dynamism of Aubameyang in particular has allowed Dortmund to stretch the game and cut through teams with apparent ease. In addition, when they lose the ball, the energetic manner and precision in which they morph into an unyielding press is nothing short of spectacular. After Saturday’s rout, Klopp described their transitions quite simply as “frightening”.
Should we expect them encounter any problems in the season ahead? Perhaps. Without Gotze’s ingenuity and vision, they may find deep-sitting defences difficult to tackle. There are some concerns defensively too, with both Reus and Weidenfeller expressing their frustration at conceding two pretty soft goals against Hamburg.
“It makes you vomit if you lead 2-0 and then concede two goals out of nothing” said Reus. This despite his man-of-the-match attacking display.
Anyway, these are minor quips amid a sensational start. Especially when you consider they have lost their most influential player. Dortmund kick off their Champions League campaign against Napoli today, and looking at the manner in which the team is playing, they look every inch like potential finalists once again.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball