When Borussia Dortmund take the field at the Allianz Arena late Saturday afternoon, both their manager Jurgen Klopp and his team would be forgiven for feeling incredibly apprehensive and anxious ahead of meeting their unbeaten rivals. And yet Klopp will feed off this apprehension and ensure his players do too.
Games against their fierce competitors seem to galvanise Klopp and Dortmund, and while they will go into this weekend’s game as big underdogs, you get the feeling that they will not mind that one bit. Given current form against ‘inferior’ opponents, Dortmund will welcome a game that they can go into with little to lose.
That said, the current situation is very serious. There is surely nobody who predicted that nine games into the season that the two favourites for the Bundesliga title would be experiencing such different fortunes. Heading into ‘Der Klassiker’, Bayern have so far enjoyed an unbeaten start to the campaign. On the domestic front, they sit top of the pile with 21 points. They have scored 21 Bundesliga goals, while only conceding 2 so far, making them statistically the best team both in attack and defence. Their form has transferred into the cup competitions too and recently the giants of German football have been insatiable, scoring 20 times in their last five games in all competitions, including last weekend’s 0-0 draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach. It will be particularly hard for Dortmund fans to stomach that two of Munich’s leading lights so far have been players the club were powerless to see leave the club for their bitter rivals. Mario Götze currently sits top of the goalscoring charts with six goals, with Robert Lewandowski not far behind him on four.
The irony is certainly not lost on Bayern fans.
For Dortmund it has been a very different story. While they have matched Bayern’s achievements in Europe and in cup competitions, their league form has seen them head into an abyss. Currently on seven points, they sit one place above the bottom three. Already 14 points behind Bayern, a title challenge is already beyond Klopp’s men, and now there is a real fear over the battle they will have to face to gain a Champions League place. This is of particular importance if they want to maintain any chance of retaining star players Marco Reus and Mats Hummels, both of whom are among the most sought after talents in European football. The troubles Dortmund are facing in the league are very serious. BVB have lost more games (six) than any other Bundesliga outfit and they are shipping goals left, right and centre, with only four sides having a worse defensive record. Dortmund are now very much beyond suffering a dip in form. A blip has become a full-blown crisis. This, combined with facing an unstoppable looking Bayern, suggest that this weekend could be a very embarrassing one for Borussia Dortmund.
But this might not be the case.
Indeed, there are reasons for Klopp, his team, and their fans to be both fearless and cautiously (or perhaps foolishly) optimistic. Dortmund’s struggles in the league are based on the fact that the opposition has worked out the best way to play against them. Throughout the Klopp era, Dortmund have let teams attack them, while pressing with a quite ridiculous intensity before dealing blow after blow on the counter attack. On this campaign’s evidence though it seems sides have worked out that the best way to play against Dortmund is to sit back and let them have all the possession. This opposition strategy has seen BVB struggle massively in the league, with the midfield and attack running out of ideas in the final third, and the defence unable to deal with opposition counters. The same fate is yet to fall upon them on the European scene because the large majority of teams are incapable of just sitting back, with their attacking nature playing into Dortmund’s hands, as was very much the case in their dismantling of Arsenal.
Bayern are much more likely to deploy the tactics of Dortmund’s Champions League opponents than their domestic foes, and while they are admittedly better than any of the three sides in Dortmund’s Champions League group, this dynamic is likely to assist the visitors on Saturday.
It is unfathomable to think of a Guardiola side doing anything other than attacking at pace, a tactic that will certainly allow Klopp to send his side out playing their more natural reactive game. While both teams were playing different XIs to those that will start Saturday’s game, such a situation was apparent when the two teams faced each other in the Super Cup, the curtain raiser to the German season. On that occasion Dortmund outclassed their opponents, winning 2-0. For a short while, it seemed that they really would give Bayern a stern test in the Bundesliga, before it all went catastrophically wrong nine seconds into their game against Bayer Leverkusen. Should Guardiola send the league leaders out with quick attacking in their minds, it is not unthinkable that this will play into Dortmund’s hands.
A further reason for optimism among the Dortmund faithful is the improvement of individuals on the team. It was always going to take time for the injured players to return to fitness and form, but there is a sense that the likes of İlkay Gündoğan are getting close again. Additionally summer signing Ciro Immobile is beginning to get to grips with his role and will be buoyed by his goal and assist in the midweek victory over St. Pauli.
Dortmund will also seek positivity from the fact that they have proved very difficult opponents for Bayern Munich in the past, and there is certainly no chance of the Bavarians taking this weekend’s task lightly. Thomas Müller was quoted this week as saying that “Dortmund are always an uncomfortable opponent”, and while current form rightly has Bayern as the outright favourites for the match, there is a sense that for this game form goes out the window.
There is no doubting that whatever happens on Saturday, Klopp and Dortmund retain the unwavering love and devotion of their supporters. Even last weekend, as the team sunk to yet another low, the players showed their appreciation to a loyal fan base. Indeed the loyalty of the fans was displayed in strange fashion this week when a caterer in a Dortmund apron told Klopp at his press conference that “You have taken us to success and now we take you through the crisis”. In typical Kloppo fashion, the manager responded comically, stating, “If such declarations of love are necessary, then the s*** has really hit the fan”. In truth it probably hit the fan a couple of weeks ago. And yet this weekend, heading into what on paper is the hardest game of the season, there are some reasons for Dortmund to feel optimistic.
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