All it took was a towering header from a Croatian substitute and a nifty finish from a Japanese cult-hero and, just like that, history was created; Borussia Dortmund’s inimitable yellow jersey changed forever.
The change will be tiny, almost infinitesimal and the untrained eye might easily slip past it without registering even a flinch. But for the 80,000 cramped into the roaring Westfalenstadion on Saturday night and the many, many others watching at home, the extra star over the club crest on the badge from next season will the sweetest reward for a season of toil, hunger, sacrifice and glory.
The rise of Jurgen Klopp’s men from tetchy upstarts to serious title contenders to repeat offenders and a genuine second force in German football can best be chronicled through the medley of Uli Hoeness comments made over the last two years.
But while trudging through internet history locating pearls of Hoeness‘ wisdom’ might be a fool’s errand, appreciating Jurgen Klopp’s ‘passion for total football’ certainly isn’t.
At the risk of blowing our own horn, we at the Bundesliga Fanatic cautiously predicted a Dortmund triumph when previewing the season. Typically, our bold soothsaying initially threatened to leave us with egg on the face when Dortmund made an awfully shaky start to the season, learning the hard way to cope with the rigors of European competition. Lucas Barrios donated his fitness to the Copa America and Shinji Kagawa looked to be suffering classic second season syndrome as Dortmund used the opening months to patch up a frontline by pairing him with a certain Polish forward.
Robert Lewandowski took a lot of time to settle, but settle he did and when Dortmund lifted the crown last Saturday, they owed much to his goals, assists and overall link-up play with the gifted Japanese star. The Polish striker has been so successful that he has rendered Barrios almost a spectator and the Paraguayan is expected to set sail for new frontiers very soon. How quickly life changes.
The key for Dortmund said the critics would be to cope with the loss of Nuri Sahin. But as it turned out it was a harder job for Nuri Sahin to cope without Dortmund. Initially using the bright Ilkay Gundogan in the Sahin role and pairing him with captain Sebastian Kehl seemed like the perfect on-paper solution. In reality that proved increasingly difficult as Gundogan struggled to impose himself on games leading Klopp to pull him and use a double pivot of Sven Bender and Kehl. That then required a change in playing style, encouraging center-backs Neven Subotic and particularly Mats Hummels to be more adventurous in their passing.
The ploy worked and despite their acrimonious exit from European competition, Dortmund adapted in less than half a season stringing together an unenviable run in the second part of the campaign. What is more admirable is that they did it partially not just without Sahin but also without Mario Götze, the other jewel in their crown. The precocious Germany star missed most of the second half of the season with injury, but in Kuba and the Dani Alves-lite Lukas Piszczek, Klopp had two players who covered with aplomb. Marcel Schmelzer also proved himself, growing as a player, adding a certain finesse to his all-action style.
As a team Dortmund are still more Cristiano Ronaldo than Lionel Messi – less a fluid sensation than a ubiquitous staccato beat of brilliance. They still play the percentages, exploiting turnovers to devastating effect, prioritizing quick transition to possession. And they still press like Barcelona in disguise.
But they have also learned to adapt and perhaps that is the key to their success. For Klopp, it seems, has forged a unit that is classic in the German virtue of the ‘team being the star.’ Individuals may come and go, but Dortmund’s adaptability and devotion to the virtues that bought them success is single-minded, as is their belief in needing to tweak it for their own benefit.
Klopp is a cult hero at the Ruhr, and he will be Dortmund’s for a long time coming. With two consecutive titles in the bag and a scheming Bayern Munich in the south, the gauntlet is very much thrown. It will be intriguing to see who wins this game of thrones.
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