Just over a year ago, the 20th of December 2014, Germany’s sweetheart club from the Ruhr valley was languishing in 17th position.
It was an inconceivable situation for the club faithful and any football on-looker from around the globe. How could a team that was part of the 2013 Champions League final in London be above rock bottom only on goal difference just two years later? After the abysmal Hinrunde ended, the blame game started.
Many blamed Jürgen Klopp’s worn out tactics. Some said that the Dortmund players were suffering from a “World Cup hangover.” Others pointed to the unfilled boots of Robert Lewandowski.
The abysmal table position last December was beyond embarrassing for Dortmund and the Westfalenstadion faithful. Many feared the increasing risk of the unimaginable ten letter word, which haunted the 80,000 capacity stadium with every progressing match: Relegation.
Fast-forward a year to now.
It is early 2016. The Winterpause is here. On the Hinrunde’s final match day, Dortmund fell to a 90th-minute goal from 1.FC Köln’s Anthony Modeste. Just like the previous year’s trip to Bremen, Dortmund have lost 2-1 in the game before the winter break. Moreover, just like in the recent Köln game, Dortmund had lost it late to a Fin Bartels goal in the 62nd minute.
However, the parallels stop there. Instead of languishing in 17th just ahead of Freiburg, die Schwarzgelben are flying high in second in the Bundesliga table, eight points adrift Bayern Munich.
Dortmund has not lost 10 of their 17 games like they had the year before, instead losing only three. Dortmund’s highest scorer before the winter break last year in the Bundesliga was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with four goals (!). A year later, it is again Aubameyang. However, there is quite a stark contrast; the Gabonese has 18 Bundesliga goals. What a difference a year makes.
So what happened?
The reasons are many, but let’s look at four:
1. Thomas Tuchel’s Tactics
In April 2015, the big shock hit Dortmund fans: Jürgen Klopp said it was time to say goodbye after seven ground-breaking years. The successor was named a week later: Thomas Tuchel.
Many thought Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing days were over. Few had very high hopes in the new experienced brogue that was Thomas Tuchel. He had not won a major trophy in his short career, nor had he participated in a European competition. An eradication of the tactics board was expected. However, this didn’t happen. Instead, Thomas Tuchel just refined and fine-tuned the high-pressing, counter-attacking football Dortmund had come to be known for throughout Europe. He did, however, ditch the long-ball maneuver and opted for a better-suited possession-play tactic that has worked wonders in today’s possession-dominated era.
Maintaining possession has become the focal point of teams throughout Europe, as shown by, for example: Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, Everton under Roberto Martinez, Spain under Vincente Del Bosque, and Bayern Munich under Guardiola. Tuchel mixed this tried-and-tested possession-oriented play with Dortmund’s high pressing and added rapid counterattacks and has invented what many call Tiki-Tuchel. And boy, has it worked wonders.
2. Aubameyang’s Form
It is safe to say that Dortmund would not be where they are currently without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The explosive forward has not only notched up an unprecedented 18 goals in the Bundesliga, but also accumulated four assists in the 17 games. Additionally, he has a further two goals in the DFB-Pokal and four in the Europa league, taking his tally to 24 goals across all competitions in the first half of the season. He accumulated 23 goals in the entire 2014-15 season and is the third-highest goal-scorer in 2015 behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
However, it must be noted that Aubameyang could not reach these heights without getting chances. He is also the player who has missed the second most chances in Europe, missing twelve clear chances. This stat illustrates just how many chances the Dortmund midfielders have created.
Nonetheless, Aubameyang’s goal-scoring prowess cannot be undermined as he reaches new heights and enters into his penultimate years as a footballer.
3. The Reinvigoration of Key Players
Shinji Kagawa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Matthias Ginter, Sven Bender, and Marcel Schmelzer all had a 2014-15 season to forget.
First, Shinji Kagawa was signed on deadline day by Dortmund for 10 million euros. He started off brilliantly in a game against SC Freiburg on his return, both scoring and assisting. However, his form significantly dropped off, and by the end of the season, he only managed five assists. However, he is in the form of his life this season, notching up four goals and six assists so far. The possession-oriented play has been a blessing for Kagawa, who has fit in extremely well in the variable 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3 formation that Dortmund play. He has truly rediscovered his form and has made that Dortmund ‘number 10’ position his own.
Second, Henrikh Mkhitaryan was signed from Shakhtar Donetsk for 25 million euros – the club’s record signing. He was to fill the big boots left by Mario Götze. His first season (2013-14) was a mediocre one as he racked up ten goals. Much was expected of him in the 2014-15 season, but he let everyone down and underperformed like most in Dortmund colours. He only managed four assists and one measly goal in the Bundesliga. By the end of the season, reports flurried in that he was on his way to Juventus and was being courted by top clubs all over Europe.
However, Tuchel worked his brilliance and held on to him. He shifted Mkhitaryan to the right wing, and it worked like a charm. The Armenian already has six goals and eight assists and has been Dortmund’s best-performing star.
Finally, Tuchel also worked masterfully when it came to changing roles and positions of other players. He moved Sven Bender to the centre-back position and Matthias Ginter to Right-Back. They both have become vital parts of the team and Ginter has notched 4 assists already. He has also got the most out of Marcel Schmelzer who has become Dortmund’s most consistent player.
4. Summer Signings Success
Before the 2014-15 season started, Jürgen Klopp had huge roster hole to fill; Robert Lewandowski had left to Bayern Munich. Klopp needed to find a goal-scoring machine. He did, however, have time on his side. Lewandowski had announced his departure at the beginning of the season.
Hans-Joachim Watzke and Michael Zorc, along with Klopp, set out on a mission to find a quality striker. On the 2nd of June 2014, the signing of Dortmund’s new ‘number 9’, Ciro Immobile was announced. The Italian striker from Naples had just had a breakout season in Italy scoring 22 goals in the Serie A with Torino. Immobile was destined for success. He also had a new partner in crime in Adrian Ramos who arrived from Hertha Berlin. In total, the duo cost Dortmund 28.2 million Euros plus Julian Scheiber who was included in the deal for Ramos.
No one could predict that this duo would go on and score a measly total of five goals between them in the Bundesliga. Other summer signings that year included Matthias Ginter, who played criminally in the centre-back position. Shinji Kagawa had an abysmal season, and Nuri Sahin was injured for almost the entirety of the season.
This season, Thomas Tuchel needed success in the transfer window. First, he managed to hold onto key players who were destined to leave, primarily Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Ilkay Gundogan. This was an area in which Klopp had failed over the years. Tuchel knew he had to be shrewd with his summer signings and he was. Second, he brought in Gonzalo Castro from Leverkusen for 11 million euros. He then brought in Julian Weigl from 1860 Munich for 2.5 million euros, Roman Burki for a coup of 3.5 million euros, and finally Joo-Hoo Park for 3 million euros. Moreover, he let go of a plethora of dead-weight players, including fan favourites: Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kevin Großkreutz.
Tuchel’s summer signings have excelled. If this report had been written three months ago, Gonzalo Castro would have been labelled as a dud. However, since then he has picked up and outshined a host of Dortmund players, showcasing his versatility by playing out on the wings, centrally, and even at right-back on occasion. He even managed his first Bundesliga goal against Stuttgart. He has managed four goals across all completions and has also notched up numerous assists.
Julian Weigl has outshone everyone. He was considered a youngster who would probably end up in Borussia Dortmund II. However, he has transitioned from one league to another seamlessly. He maintains a 92.2% pass accuracy in the Bundesliga and has only lost possession a mere ten times across 17 games. He has been phenomenal, which has led to interest from clubs, including FC Barcelona, this January. The defensive midfielder has dislodged Sven Bender, Castro, and Moritz Leitner from the ‘number 6’ spot. He definitely will give Nuri Sahin a tough time come the second half of the season. The young German midfielder certainly has a huge career ahead of him.
Keeper Roman Bürki has been a mixed bag. He was destined for the ‘number one’ spot over the ageing Roman Weidenfeller when he was signed from Freiburg. He made the second-most saves in the 2014-15 Bundesliga season behind only Yan Sommer. He has displayed his heroic goal-keeping competence in matches against Mainz and in the Ruhr Derby against Schalke. Nevertheless, he has committed blunders in key matches such as against Bayern in Der Klassiker and in the final match of the Hinrunde against Köln. It seems hard to see Roman Bürki being replaced any time soon, but he needs to step up his game.
They’re back. Borussia Dortmund has become a force to be reckoned with in Germany and across Europe.