By Daniel Flaherty
Borussia Dortmund is back, but not as we know it. The team which shot onto our television screens when winning the Champion’s League in the mid-90’s has slimmed down and tightened up, and the result is that a round of games after the German Christmas break, it now sits at the top of table, 12 points clear of its nearest challenger, Hanover 96.
It has been a strange season in the Bundesliga. The big clubs, like Bayern Munich, Schalke, Stuttgart or Hamburg, have all struggled, and less fancied sides, like Mainz, Hanover 96 or Freiburg, have found themselves at the top of the table. The Bundesliga is usually unpredictable, but this is taking it to a new level.
The main beneficiary of this has been Borussia Dortmund, almost a decade out of the limelight and in financial difficulty. After almost going bankrupt in 2005, the club has since then seen a change in ownership, the sale and rent-back of their stadium, and the introduction of a new policy for purchasing players: young, cheap, and if possible, German.
The result of this, luckily for Dortmund, has been spectacular. With young coach Juergen Klopp and his young Truppe, the side has scorched away from the rest of the league, leaving the rest trailing in its wake. Bayern, for example, is 16 points behind.
Dortmund has in fact been so good that the rest of the Bundesliga must have spent their Christmas break wondering what exactly had just happened. This team of youngsters with an average age of under 24 has gone from being seen as potential challengers for a Europa League spot to outright title favourites in the space of a few months, and have shown the hunger, talent and determination of would-be-champions in the process. Where other teams have been inconsistent, mediocre or lacklustre, Dortmund has been both machine-like and unforgiving, giving up only 7 points from 50.
But how has this happened? Juergen Klopp, the tufted-blonde south German manager, must have something to answer for in this regard. He is an eccentric, extroverted and charismatic man, who can often be seen passionately making big gestures on the sideline. Think Ian Holloway, with blonde hair. However beneath this exterior lies an incisive football brain seen by German football supporters in his job as a television pundit, a strong-willed determination, witnessed in his expressions of his will to win on the sidelines, and a down to earth quality, seen in his easy interaction with players and media alike.
However Klopp, who has already been linked to both the Liverpool and Bayern Munich jobs, could not have done it without his players, some of which were bequeathed to him, but many of which were astute signings of his own. The rocks of the central defence, like many of the team, likely stars of the future, are Neven Subotic and Mats Hummel. Both are in their early 20s, and both cheap signings of Klopp’s. The midfield is made up of home grown talent, from creative playmaker Nuri Sahin, to skilful and energetic wingers Kevin Grosskreutz and Mario Goetze. Lucas Barrios, another signing, is a reliable finisher who plays just in front of Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa, one of the buys of European football this season, cost just 350,000 when he was signed from Japan in the summer. His easy technique, creativity and finishing ability have added another layer of quality to Dortmund, and at least a few millions onto his transfer value.
This season German supporters have witnessed a team grow before their eyes. Youngsters, previously of mid-table quality, have begun to dominate the sides they play against. Dortmund hasn’t just won games; it has controlled them, and has played in a determined way: when the players are without the ball, they press the opposition all over the pitch, and when they have it they attack with direct running, fast movement and quick passing. Mentally they appear to have grown stronger, seen in how they have come back from conceding early goals, like beating Freiburg 2-1 in November, the way they have closed out games, as against Nuremburg away in December (0-2), or how they have performed in high profile fixtures, like against then-league leaders Mainz in October, winning 2-0 away.
Will this continue? In the eyes of most German fans, the smaller clubs at the top of the table can only hold on up there so long before things fall into their ‘natural order’ again, and in this vein, Bayer Leverkusen, one of the few clubs actually playing to last season’s form, is viewed as Dortmund’s greatest title rival. But is Leverkusen, perennial bottler on the big occasion, really up for the job as serious title rival, especially when it has already given up 13 points on Dortmund? And with Dortmund already beyond the horizon for the rest of the big clubs, with Bayern already conceding the title, there has never been a better time for Dortmund to strike and seize the championship. Klopp maintains that his side are starting after Christmas from scratch. Whether his side believes this or that they have already won the league, we will see in the coming weeks and months. In the topsy-turvy world of the Bundesliga, just about anything can happen.