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Going into the winter break Borussia Dortmund sit fourth in the Bundesliga standings after collecting 32 points from the first 17 games. They are twelve points adrift of the defending champions Bayern Munich who have a game in hand. Even at just the halfway mark of the season, the title race appears over with the runaway leaders Bayern Munich seven points clear of Bayer Leverkusen having played a match less. Even with a managerial change, Bayern have simply continued from where they left last season.
In fact, they appear even stronger with the Catalan maestro Pep Guardiola at the helm. It wasn’t too long ago when Bayern faced their German rivals at Wembley for the ultimate European glory, in the Champions League final, a closely fought game that was decided by an Arjen Robben goal in the dying minutes.
It’s a remarkable statistic that with their last league defeat against Hertha Berlin, Dortmund has now lost to all other five teams that make up the top six in the Bundesliga table. So, what has gone so wrong at Dortmund that they are struggling to hold on to the last qualifying spot for the tournament in which they finished runners-up six months ago?
The answer among other things primarily lies in the squad depth. Having achieved phenomenal success with a relatively small squad in the last four years which included the back to back league titles in 2011,2012, DFB Pokal in 2012, German Supercup in 2013 and finishing runners-up in the Champions League in 2013, the wheels seem to have burned off. Dortmund never had a big squad to begin with, they almost always started their best squad without much quality coming off the bench, with the physically demanding gegenpressing method employed by their maverick manager Jurgen Klopp, the players were going to burn out, it was only a question of when, not if.
The Black and Yellows started the season without the services of their prolific right back, Lukasz Piszczek, who after suffering a long-term injury since February finally decided to undergo hip surgery after the Champions League final which effectively ruled him out for the whole year. His injury meant the epitome of a utility player,Kevin Großkreutz started at right back, he filled the void admirably and was among the team’s top performers at the beginning of the season but of late his form seems to have tapered off, his link up play with the Pole Jakub Błaszczykowski hasn’t been the same since Kuba suffered his own blip.
Ilkay Gundogan, the midfielder par excellence, who dazzled everyone with his performances in Europe so much so that he was linked to almost all the European heavyweights, has started only the first league match of the season, side lined with a long-term back injury, his return date is still uncertain. It was always going to be an uphill task for anyone to fill the void left by Gundogan, the chief conductor of the Borussia orchestra from midfield, and the loan returnee Nuri Sahin hasn’t been the same player ever since he left for the greener pastures of Real Madrid.
November turned out to be the harbinger of sorrow for the Schwarzgelben when Neven Subotic suffered a devastating cruciate ligament tear which ended his season early. Their misery was compounded when both Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer returned from national duty with two and one month injury layoffs respectively.
The last two injuries ensured that none of Dortmund’s starting back four was available for the crucial game against title contenders Bayern, which forced Klopp to sign Manuel Friedrich on a free transfer to somehow have a line up against the runaway leaders, youngster Erik Durm started at the left back in place of Schmelzer. Yet the makeshift back four put up a stiff fight, it was the genius of Guardiola that ultimately decided the match in Bayern’s favour. Well aware of Klopp’s attackers pressing his defenders in Bayern’s defensive half, the man devoted to his ideal of tiki-taka didn’t shy away from changing his strategy, instructing his defenders to hit long balls. Later, as Dortmund started to tire he introduced the short passing exponents Mario Gotze and Thiago Alcantara to poke holes in Dortmund’s back four. They did. The match ended 3-0 with two late goals.
This match handed the initiative to the German champions, but Dortmund did all they could with their limited resources, till they couldn’t muster any more. The late goals were a result of tired legs unable to keep up with Bavarian attacks. Klopp had no one to call upon to avert the inevitable.
At the start of the season Klopp brought in hugely talented Henrikh Mkhitaryan for a Borussia record 30 million Euros to fill the void left by Mario Gotze. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was bought from Saint-Étienne to ease him into the side anticipating their prolific front man Robert Lewandowki’s imminent departure. Back up centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos was the only other signing whose purchase was necessitated by Felipe Santana’s transfer to the arch rivals Schalke. Mkhitaryan was quick to adapt to the new climes, he was the stand out performer early in the season. Aubameyang, even though has scored goals (9 so far) hasn’t quite adjusted to the style of his new team. Sokratis has done well in his role. But he is no Hummels or Subotic.
Dortmund did well to top the Champions League group of death, sealing their qualification to the knock out stages in the dying minutes at Marseille. Finishing atop the group that featured Arsenal and Napoli amidst the injury crisis is a laudable achievement; what’s more is that they topped the group despite home losses to Arsenal and dropping points away to Napoli as well . With some of their first team back by the time knock out stage begins, they should go further, how far, only time will tell. Borussia will surely fancy their chances against Zenit St Petersburg in the round of 16.
Coming from the brink of a near collapse in 2006, the team is still conscious of big money signings and unrestrained wage structure which has forced them to sell their best players. They still do not have the financial muscle to keep a heavily stacked bench a la Madrid, Bayern, or Manchester City. These days having a strong squad has become essential to a team’s success since fatigue and injuries can’t be ruled out in a long season especially if a team aspires to go far in Europe.
But with continued success things will change for the better. Till then, the 1997 European Champions will have to make do with what they have. With injuries issues resolved, and Bundesliga title seemingly out of reach chances are they will give their all in Champions League, a rollicking European ride like last year can’t be ruled out.