It’s official. It’s dark night of the soul time in Dortmund for squad, staff, and supporters alike.
The Englische Woche loss to surging FC Augsburg leaves shellshocked Borussia Dormtund buried even deeper in the Bundesliga cellar: last place on 16 points, two points below slumping Hertha Berlin (17th), entropic VfB Stuttgart (16th), and underperforming SC Frieburg (15th), who are all sitting on 18 points. It’s a truth easy to discern: one (or certainly two) win could vault BVB past these three clubs. Cellar escape is tantalizingly close!
Yet so far, if you found yourself, like me, sitting stunned as FC Augsburg paraded off with the deserved 1-0 victory and as Roman Weidenfeller and Mats Hummels clung to the yellow fence, dividing them from a seething Yellow Wall. You probably saw the video. Although players conversing with supporters is somewhat customary in German footballing culture, it’s still remarkable to see Weidenfeller and Hummels, star players on a star club, do what they had to do, given the miserable circumstances for BVB. There’s something unsettling about the episode.
Even more unsettling – perhaps uncanny? – from the video is Jürgen Klopp’s slack and hanging jaw face. The look of someone in shock, confronting with that which cannot be figured.
I don’t want to ever see this face on the bearded bear again, a reaction intensified for me since his face froze like this for many frames in the video. I mean, the face reminds me of childhood memories of those I trusted, like adults of wisdom and authority, who were just absolutely crumpled by reality. Remember that #KloppWeTrust thing from a couple years ago? Reality just crapped all over it.
Because when things are this bad for an elite club, well, nobody deserves trust anymore. The narrative is irresistible: Borussia Dortmund are in psychic-freefall; we’ve seemingly transcended the football-specific reasons – like tactics, lineups, game states, bad luck, injury issues, etc. – that are trotted out to explain losing. It’s just baffling.
Sure, there are football-specific things to discuss from the Augsburg loss on Wednesday, but it’s worth taking a second to see the narrative arc: BVB just can’t win (or hardly draw) matches. The results and table position are concrete. UCL play in 2015-16 will be a miracle. Even Europa play in 2015-16 seems very, very unlikely. At best, BVB can probably hope for an upper mid-table finish. Regardless, it seems even more likely that the likes of Hummels and Reus will be shipped out without the influx of European money from 2015-16 European play. These things happen in football. I’m clinging to hope they don’t, but the hungry sirens (i.e. the biggest, richest clubs) will be clamoring.
Real damage has already occurred for Dortmund.
Inevitably, Twitter was aflame with its reactive weeping and gnashing of teeth after the FCA loss. Stuff like, “Klopp must go,” “Arsenal fans: still want Klopp now?”, “Surely Klopp’s project is finished now,” “Sadly looks like BVB’s beautiful run is done,” or “Firesale time!”, and “Klopp has clearly lost it.” The Twitter narrative quickly calcified in equal parts mourning BVB’s precipitous fall, and marking down an episode of strange football history.
Of course, it’s not this simple. And I’m confident that BVB’s power brokers know it. Because, just as irresistible as the collapse narrative is, it’s also poisonous. For example, we’ve learned from research that sacking managers usually does no good. Or that cause-and-effect in explaining a “black swan” like BVB’s disastrous 2014-15 is pretty much impossible, since us humans are pattern-hunters and retroactively fit data into narratives that explain the black swan. We can’t help it.
For example, even during BVB’s previous four seasons, a 0-1 home loss to a side as solid as FC Augsburg was imaginable: Dortmund wastes great scoring chances, concedes a 2nd half goal during a moment of defensive chaos, then lob ball-after-ball toward the opponent’s goal as time runs out. After the match, we’d all kvetch a bit about Dortmund, again, wasting scoring opportunities. But, because of the wider context of success, we wouldn’t really fret too much. After all, Dortmund is in second place.
Moreover, we are forgetting just how cohesive and effective this FC Augsburg has become. It’s remarkable. Markus Weinzierl’s side defies our expectations continually, as they now sit at 4th place (on GD) in the table. Watching FCA beat Dortmund, it finally hit me: Augsburg are the most cohesive squad in the Bundesliga right now. Every player knows exactly what his job is. And all the parts click effortlessly together. Of course, most other clubs have more “talent” than FCA, but nobody is playing more cohesively as a unit right now. For example, the interplay between Bobadilla, Werner, Altintop, and Baier certainly transcends the individual skills of these four players. Furthermore, FCA won with an injury-diminished side (e.g. Baba and Callsen-Bracker), not to mention going a man down for half an hour against, essentially, a full strength BVB side. Let us not forget.
I’m not saying that losing to FCA isn’t a big deal. It is, thanks to BVB’s cellar table position. Yet our narrative of doom causes us to over-determine what the loss means, as we scramble to understand the black swam looming before us. And at this point, I fear that Klopp and the squad are buying the narrative, too.
Before I wrap this piece up, I suppose I should say something about the actual match. However, I’m attempting to do this without the over-determination of catastrophizing. First, Dortmund’s game plan looked more BVB-like than the Leverkusen draw. Dortmund owned possession and out-passed FCA, while completing 73% of their passes. BVB’s final third activity was frenetic in volume, as the passing chalkboard reveals:
However, what BVB gained in volume, it perhaps lost in quality, as Stefan Buczko observed. I agree. Traces of the tantalizing – “champagne football” – interlacing final 3rd passing and moving were there on Wednesday, but not sustained. Passes and shots were sometimes rushed, or looked forced. At least Reus looked more menacing.
Defensively, BVB benefited from some FCA wastefulness (Ji’s shooting, especially) and individual brilliance from Socrates, but especially Hummels. Moreover, the latter’s heatmap reveals a centerback playing the role of a deep-penetrating defensive midfielder, if you follow the wide-ranging blue smears on the heatmap:
While Hummels’ extraordinary skill set is an asset in setting up final 3rd play, it can also be a liability as Jon Harding speculated recently, because other defenders must tuck back to defend voids left by Hummels. I wonder if something like this deserves blame for the goal conceded to Bobadilla at 48′?
Regardless, it’s bewildering times for BVBers. Suddenly, homeside SC Freiburg look everything like Dortmund’s equal for Saturday’s match, despite BVB’s previous nine straight wins against SCF. In reality, it’s a relegation fight. Because that’s where we are in Dortmund’s terrifying season. Good luck, Klopp und Startelf. You’ll need it.
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