Eras changed after Saturday’s DFB Pokal final. Rarely do we get to consciously witness such changes. In my experience, eras change haphazardly, indirectly, or gradually. But not for Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. One era abruptly ended, while another began.
Did you even notice?
I tried to reflect on this momentous event while watching the Pokal final in Berlin. My reflections were fragmented. Appropriately, my attention was drawn back repeatedly to the match. After all, I was watching a Pokal final. Silverware opportunity! Trophy visions! And our beloved BVB gegen-whatever-pressing-machine! Superlatives, man.
Speaking of Saturday’s actual match, I have no plans to say much about it in this bulletin. Others (here and here) have already done so. Water has passed under that bridge. So I’ll let a few paragraphs on the Pokal final suffice.
Somehow, the match was oh-so-typical of 2014/15 for BVB: frustrating, frantic, but ultimately fallow. In the aggregate picture, the match looked balanced in terms of shots, touches, and challenges. Tactically, BVB possessed a bit more of the ball. However, they were outdone by space. Although VfL certainly didn’t pack defenders back around the box, the Wolves had a spring-like quality to their play when breaking and transitioning. Having wizards like Kevin De Bruyne, Max Arnold, and Daniel Caligiuri made this possible. These players are pacy, direct, and eager to play knifing longballs. And they got their fair share of these in against BVB. Sure, VfL winning 3-1 can be blamed a bit on Mitch Langerak’s unsatisfactory keeping or lack of spatial awareness or skill (i.e. Erik Durm’s error) from BVB defenders, but in my mind the real culprit was BVB’s own pressing game.
When Wolfsburg beat the press, they seemly had short and direct paths to the BVB goal, soliciting precise clearances from BVB defenders. Why? Space. VfL found it, and, as we’ve seen since February, the Wolves are devastating in open space. Moreover, VfL found space when BVB over-pressed in attack and lost possession. In these scenarios, VfL were clearly the more tactically sophisticated and menacing side. And their starting eleven are simply better than BVB’s starting eleven.
Die Schwarzgelben have lost ground this season.
However, the match was not without positives for Dortmund. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, again, was fabulous, hopefully – and finally – dispelling all nonsense about his alienation and ill-fittedness at BVB, given his sensational string of late Rückrunde matches. Additionally, Shinji Kagawa assisted Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang’s 5′ goal, hit the woodwork once, and generally created havouc for VfL defenders with his deft dribbling and final 3rd passing.
Yes, I’m disappointed that BVB lost the final and must now survive the (mis?)adventure of two rounds of Europa League Qualifying play, but I acknowledge that something more important than a match result happened on Saturday: the end of an era.
What does this mean?
First, seeing something for the last time. Like the whole way BVB plays football under Jürgen Klopp. Seven years of style and tactics ended on Saturday. Although Bundesliga sides, especially this season, adapted very well to BVB’s vaunted gegen-pressing, the style was something to behold.
At its apotheosis – say, 2012/13 – Klopp’s gegen-pressing attempted to solve the problem the game of football inherently presents humans with: namely, a hollow round ball and our set of clumsy feet. On one hand, gegen-pressing strives to transcend (or bypass?) this problem by repossessing the springy and tricky ball as close as possible to the opponent’s goal, thereby reducing the amount of space and time needed for our darned feet. On the other hand, gegen-pressing exploits this problem by counting on the ball’s trickiness and the opponent’s clumsy feet to repossess the ball as quickly as it’s lost.
Bernard Suits defined games as something like the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. And any long-suffering football lover gets this definition. Kicking a round ball around with our feet is a mostly futile activity, laced with many an “unnecessary obstacle.” In my mind, throughout our beloved sport’s history a successful set of football strategies (e.g. Totaalvoetbal, Catenaccio, Brazil’s W-M formation, or Tiki-Taka) attempts to overcome the “unnecessary obstacles” by overwhelming the opponent with even greater obstacles, thus nullifying the inherent difficulty that football itself thrusts at the feet of all participants. Klopp’s gegen-pressing should join the ranks of these other successful historic strategies. A new chapter of Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid begs creation.
Of course I don’t mean that with Klopp stepping down we’ll never see anything like gegen-pressing again. Nope. In fact, the strategy was so successful that countless derivatives of it litter both the Bundesliga and abroad. Pressing has become an integral strategy in contemporary football. And Jürgen Klopp’s gegen-Pressing is one of the majority sources of influence in this development.
But something did end on Saturday. It’s the little things, like Kloppo on the sidelines in ballcap and track suit, or BVB’s “old pair of blue jeans” 4-2-3-1 formation that I can tinker with in my dreams, or heck the footballers themselves. Because who knows which boys will be back next season. Kuba? Schmelzer? Weidenfeller? Kirch? Bender? Gündogan? Ramos? Immobile? When coaches change, philosophies change, and the transfer market cleans up the remainder.
There will be changes.
Which leads me to the new guy, Thomas Tuchel, who introduced himself formally as BVB’s new coach during a Wednesday (6/3) press conference in Dortmund. Tuchel’s clean-shaven face only intensified the man with his hollowed cheeks and terrifyingly focused eyes.
A new era begins. Of course we don’t know yet if this will be the “Tuchel era” or the “Post-Klopp” era. But it’s already here, just days after the Pokal final.
Tuchel crackled with emotion and giddy intensity during the press conference. He said all the right things, like acknowledging the bigness and historicity of BVB. How can you not be excited? The young Tuchel has emerged as the tactical wizard of the German coaching profession, known for his constantly shifting and adapting tactics during matches and trotting his boys out in many many formations. To use a word, Tuchel’s approach is “modern” in the way Modernism expressed its time’s own contemporary status.
Yet Tuchel seemed aware of BVB’s diminished status after the turbulent 2014/15 season, acknowledging that Dortmund it not among the quartet of Bundesliga powers Bayern, VfL, Mönchengladbach, and Leverkusen, although BVB is a contender to rejoin them. Tuchel admitted there’s “a gap” that needs closing.
And there is.
My sense is that this gap will be closed through a variety of means – new players, new and a greater variety of tactics, as well as retooling old players. Like Marco Reus. The left winger had a terrible 2014/15, riddled by lingering injuries and interrupted by long stretches recovering. Reus never seemed settled and fluid during matches, instead looking disjointed with his teammates while forcing his scoring attempts. Reus needs uninterrupted rest and a chance simply to start over. Tuchel should provide this opportunity.
By contrast, I’m excited to see what Tuchel has in store for a guy like Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who really shined during the season’s last weeks and, in a number of matches, was the best man on the pitch. Given Tuchel’s penchant for fast attacking football and fluid positioning, I imagine Mkhitaryan could reveal abilities we haven’t seen yet. I want to say the same for Shinji Kagawa under Tuchel.
Anyhow, time is already falling away. Europa League madness begins around July 30th. Moreover, about 12 BVBers will be away on international duties in coming weeks (stay healthy, guys!). The resulting window for Tuchel to train up his boys is about a month and a half. Not much. So we’ll have to give him time, at least a whole season, to stamp his identity on the team.
But here we are, leaving one era and beginning another.
We leave behind perhaps the club’s most successful era. Danke Kloppo. We leave behind an era of trophies and an unmistakable playing style that electrified the footballing world. My life has been enriched during these past years – enriched in a way that the best literature, art, and performance feeds me. Danke Kloppo.
However, what’s gained during an enriching era sometimes only can be seen – and appreciated – when it’s gone, when I have some distance from the experience of it, and when I have the space to look at it.
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