Of all the clichés in all the towns, in all the cities, in all the worlds, the one that always holds true is this – ‘it’s hard enough to get to the top, but it is harder to stay there.’Well, to be honest, this is not always entirely true. Often times it really is much easier staying at the top. Just look across the channel at Manchester United for example. The Red Devils will doubtless tell you that rebuilding a dynasty devastated by the Munich Air Crash was a much harder task than bagging the countless Premiership titles since the early 90s that are on show at the Theatre of Dreams. But then again, what broad-based assertion ever is entirely correct? What statement that hints at such pretension is ever without its fair share of hyperbole? Perhaps Manchester United is an exception that proves the rule, perhaps they are not. But for one team in an industrial town in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, this is a statement that will hold very true this season; Borussia Dortmund are still Bundesliga champions, but the jackals are rapidly closing in.
THE RISE AND RISE OF THE BORUSSIA BEES
Dortmund’s meteoric rise to Bundesliga champions have been an oft recorded phenomenon and I wish not to spend too much time dwelling on exactly how brilliant Die Schwarzgelben were last season. The pressed like Barcelona in disguise, often-times a yellow buzzing of bees that overwhelmed opposition teams into submission. And when they stung, they stung hard. Jurgen Klopp spent two years pushing through his innovative but not revolutionary ideas and finally last season managed to create a team in his image; swift, energetic and one that could never stand still. On the basis of a obdurate yet brilliant defence, marshalled by the perfectly complementary characteristics of Neven Subotic’s graft and Mats Hummels’s class, Dortmund built from the back and proved that ex-coach Ottmar Hitzfled’s oft-repeated mantra, ‘defence wins championships’ was not entirely lost across the years. Up top, the smoke and mirrors play of Lucas Barrios, the effervescent brilliance of Shinji Kagawa and the prodigious talents of Mario Gotze proved more than a match for any defences. There was also the willing running of Kevin Grosskreutz and Marcel Schmelzer while Sven Bendner ate up ground like a monster truck on meth. But to borrow from Adriano Galliani, every team needs an X-factor, and Dortmund’s was Nuri Sahin. The Turkish midfielder finally came of age in a deep-lying playmaking role and rapidly developed into the best player in the Bundesliga. Sahin’s left foot could probably juggle a bar of soap, but culture is not all he has. His intelligence, ability on the ball and even long range shooting meant that last season he was a player for almost all situations. Which is exactly why, come this season, Dortmund’s biggest problem will be finding a replacement for the departed Turk.
THE QUEEN BEE ABSCONDS
Perhaps it was Reza Fazili, perhaps it was Mesut Ozil, or perhaps even it was Jose Mourinho’s personal phone call or perhaps more likely it was just a desire to play for one of the best clubs in the world. But when Real Madrid came calling, Nuri Sahin could not say no. Nor could Dortmund it seemed, as a seemingly inexplicable clause in the Turk’s contract saw the Spaniards snap him up for a paltry ten million Euros. And to think Jordan Henderson cost almost double that. And replacing that very hole in the center of the team will be the biggest challenge that Jurgen Klopp faces this season.
DEMOCRACY, THY NAME IS POWER
There are many Dortmund fans who will now say that Sahin’s achievements last season were a trifle overstated. I don’t entirely agree with that statement, which is to say, I don’t entirely disagree with that either. With the way things are these days, there is always the need to identify one man and romanticise his role in the team. And that is not always entirely correct, at least not from a sporting point of view. A good comparison in this case in my opinion would be to compare Sahin’s role for Dortmund to what Lionel Messi does for Barcelona. I am not suggesting that the players are remotely in the same level but their roles for their teams are somewhat similar. While both definitely add a lot to their team, them not being in the team would not necessarily mean either team lose a great deal either, i.e the styles that both these teams have cultivated is way more about the collective that it is about one single person. And also many Barcelona fans would argue that Xavi is a far more important player than Messi in their system. Dortmund, too then draw their strength from the system they have cultivated and on early evidence this season, they really will not lose too much with the departure of Sahin. The pressing of last season still remains, as does the rapid, inventive counter-attacks, and ofcourse the missed chances.
GÖTZE COMES OF AGE
Which is not to say replacing the Turkish star will be easy. Dortmund have gone against bringing in a like for like replacement, instead choosing to stick to the theme of democracy and distribute playmaking roles across the team. In this regard, the emergence of Mario Götze will come as a major relief for Klopp and bring a smile to many in Germany. Long lauded as a fantastic talent, Götze had a sparkling last season primarily in a right-sided attacking midfield role, supplying goals almost as often as he scored them. Good on the ball, with superb technique and a brain that moves faster than a wasp’s wings, Götze has already started taking on more responsibility for playmaking duties often playing centrally and getting more involved.
But thrusting the hopes and dreams of one club on the shoulders of a 19 year old is never a good idea and Dortmund will thus been reenergized by the return from injury of Shinji Kagawa. They have also been intelligent in the transfer market, a far cry from the heady days of post-millennium years when they broke the bank for oft-injured stars like Marcio Amoroso. This time, in have come Ilkay Gundogan, another pass-master of Turkish origin and from early evidence it looks like he might be the one to step into the Sahin position in the 4-2-3-1 that Klopp looks like he will stick to. Also coming in is Ivan Perisic, a Croatian midfielder from Club Brugge who is good with either foot and a mean presence in the air. But the one player who has impressed me this pre-season and who looks like he will play a big role in the club’s future is Moritz Leitner. Superb on the ball and seemingly very embedded in the Dortmund philosophy, Leitner’s technique and vision are top class and this means that it will not be a surprise if he can make a strong breakthrough this year and really make his impact in this team.
All in all, Dortmund retain an excellent squad and the only challenge that remains is to see whether their high-octane style of play will be sustainable across three competitions this year. It is a fair bet that the Champions League competition will be way to test the waters for Klopp’s young side and while impact in Europe’s premier club tournament might be too much too ask for, finishing amongst the top three in the Bundesliga is a distinct possibility for this Dortmund side. And who knows, if more of these youngsters step up, even the Championship might not be out of reach. In that case they will dispel another oft-repeated cliché; that of Alan Hansen, who once (in) famously said, ‘you don’t win anything with kids.’
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