This season, Dortmund have emerged as the darlings of European football. Their focus on youth development, insistence upon keeping a modest wage scale and balancing their budget is a breath of fresh air for many fans who have become weary by the debt-ridden, player-poaching ways of many of Europe's other top teams. And their high-energy, intense pressing and counterattacking system makes the two-time Bundesliga titleholders one of Europe's most exciting sides.
Much can be said for the dazzling skill of Mario Gotze and Marco Reus, but behind all the team's many talents is a tactical genius in Jurgen Klopp. The trainer transformed an ordinary winger in Lukasz Piszczek into an extraordinary right-back, and converted Ilkay Gundogan from an underachieving playmaker to a top-class holding midfielder.
At the same time, Klopp has helped redefine the roles of striker, centre-back and playmaker in his team. And if there's any doubting Klopp's credentials, just ask Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa, neither of whom were ever quite the same after leaving the Stuttgart native's tutelage.
Klopp's system is unique and based on some fundamentals, but in many ways is quite complex. For a full, position-by-position analysis of the trainer's tactics, click "Begin Slideshow."
Tactical use of goalkeepers hardly varies from coach to coach, and Klopp is no exception to this rule. Roman Weidenfeller is a shot-stopper who interprets his role in a traditional sense.
Unlike Manuel Neuer, who is more athletic and aggressive in coming out of his box, the BVB No. 1 typically stays on his line and stops shots. Occasionally he'll claim or punch away a cross, but Weidenfeller tends to let defenders deal with crosses, even though he could claim more than he does.
Weidenfeller, who turns 33 in August, also serves a leadership role in the team. Sebastian Kehl is the team's designated captain when he plays, but given that he is 33 and used in an athletically-demanding midfield, Kehl has seen his minutes cut short this season.
When Kehl is not on the pitch, Weidenfeller is the only player over the age of 27. His experience and leadership are fundamentally important in anchoring and settling the team.
A right-winger for most of his career prior to joining Dortmund, Lukasz Piszczek was signed on a Bosman in 2009 from relegated Hertha Berlin and promptly converted to full-back.
In his current role, the Poland international retains many of the traits of his earlier years. He is a very attack-minded full-back, who runs to the by-line and occasionally will drift inward to the right edge of the box. Piszczek's 10 assists in each of the last two seasons make him one of the more offensively productive full-backs in Europe.
At the same time, Piszczek is of course a defender and has the primary purpose of preventing attacking play on his wing. Klopp's system is full-throttle, requiring tremendous effort from most players, and Piszczek is always a willing runner.
Much like a box-to-box central midfielder, Piszczek effectively plays the role of two positions, from the right side of one box to the right side of the other. As such, it's not uncommon to see him cover more ground than most central midfielders. 12km or more is by no means an unrealistic expectation for Piszczek, who truly is two players in one.
Neven Subotic is for Dortmund effectively a right-hand man for Mats Hummels. His partner is a more effective man-marker and is better both in the air and with the ball, and Subotic accordingly plays a more muted, reactive role.
When the ball comes towards a striker and Hummels is in the area to defend, Subotic moves into position to back up his teammate and fill in any gap that is left. If an opposing attacker makes a run in the centre, reacting to a ball played towards the striker Hummels is covering, Subotic shifts to defend against a potential pass.
Of course if the opposing striker gets away from Hummels (or if he moves far enough to his attacking left that the Germany defender is unable to reach him), it's the responsibility of Subotic to shift and defend directly.
Similarly, if Hummels is pressed by an opposing striker, Subotic will be more responsible for playing the ball out of the back. It's not an ideal situation for Dortmund, but if called upon, the Serbian centre-back is by no means a weak link.
Mats Hummels is a rare type of player in the modern game, a defender who not only can man-mark as well as any, but one who can play the ball with all the skill of a midfielder. He is a very versatile player, whose role has changed with the club's needs.
First and foremost, Hummels' responsibility is to mark opposing strikers into anonymity. This he does exceptionally well, using foresight that borders on the prophetic to intercept. He rarely has to make a rash tackle, and accordingly has never been sent off in his youth or professional career. In 144 career Bundesliga games, he's been booked just 12 times.
This season, Dortmund have faced many world-class strikers such as Karim Benzema, Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Gonzalo Higuain. None scored against Hummels, who last season also shut out Mario Gomez, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Lukas Podolski, Marco Reus, Raul and many more of the Bundesliga's top scorers in all their head-to-head encounters.
Klopp has adapted Hummels to play an integral role not only in defense, but in the build-up. After Nuri Sahin's departure in 2011, which left BVB without a strong distributor in deep areas of midfield, the centre-back would often dribble to the midfield line and pass to the attacking midfielders.
The emergence of Ilkay Gundogan as Sahin's long-term replacement saw Hummels' distribution duties decrease, but he still is used in a similar role from time to time when BVB need a goal. His ability to bypass the defensive midfield and pass straight to the final third allows players like Gundogan to play abnormally high up the pitch, giving BVB yet another threat in attack.
Marcel Schmelzer is, in function, very similar to Piszczek but a bit less aggressive in attack. Willingness and stamina to run up and down the left flank for 90 minutes is paramount to the success of the German international, who makes up for somewhat limited technical skills with heart and aggression.
In previous years, Schmelzer often played in support of Kevin Grosskreutz, who was decidedly a quaternary attacking option and rarely received the ball. As such, Schmelzer's role in attack was more muted and in big games he and Grosskreutz helped mostly in nullifying right-wingers like Arjen Robben.
This season has seen Marco Reus replace Grosskreutz on the left wing, which greatly changed Schmelzer's role. Reus is a much more capable attacking player than Grosskreutz, and has had a lot more touches than his predecessor. As a result, Schmelzer has had to play the ball more often and make more overlapping runs up the left flank.
Schmelzer now plays more similarly to Piszczek than ever before, just with a bit less skill on the ball.
Jurgen Klopp's system above all emphasizes high-intensity pressing in midfield, and for this job there is no better player (except perhaps for his twin brother, Lars) than Sven Bender. The 23-year-old runs his socks off every match, closing on opponents immediately as they receive the ball.
So intense is his style of play that Bender was nicknamed the "vacuum cleaner" in his early years, a reference to his ability to suck up any free space as it appeared.
Bender is more than just a sprinting madman, however. He plays a tactical role as well. Schmelzer and especially Piszczek often attack up the flanks, and when they do, Bender is often the man who provides defensive cover if the ball is misplaced.
Bender is not always Klopp's first choice, however, and the trainer often uses Sebastian Kehl instead in defensive midfield. The 33-year-old Kehl is not quite as industrious as Bender, but is very experienced and captains the team when he plays.
Kehl is taller than Bender, and better at defending against aerial threats. He also has more skill on the ball and good leadership qualities. Against teams that press, like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern, Bender is the man to choose. Against teams that play a little less aggressively, especially if the stakes are high, Kehl often is used instead.
In 2011, Nuri Sahin was Dortmund's best and most important player. The holding midfielder followed the ball around the pitch, left, right and centre, at all depths, and served as a distributor, a reliable recipient of passes, and as a ball-winner.
Sahin's playing style was by Klopp's design, and the coach has since moulded Ilkay Gundogan into a similar type of player.
A central playmaker at Nurnberg, it took half of the 2011-12 season for Gundogan to learn his new position. At first, he played much like a No. 10, taking too many risks that resulted in the ball being lost—but instead of conceding possession near his opponents' penalty box as he previously had in an advanced role, he lost it near the midfield line. He was soon benched.
Towards the end of last season, Gundogan reemerged a transformed player. He had all the technical qualities of a central playmaker: a soft first touch, the ability to turn away from defenders and dribble free, a precise pass and supreme vision to pick out where his teammates. However, he had now learned to use these qualities within the framework of a holding midfielder's job description.
Gundogan is a pure, all-round footballer: Just the type that Klopp requires in the most critical area of the pitch. He's brilliant with the ball at his feet, but has developed physically to the point where he can compete to win possession in a congested midfield and hold off defenders.
Now, Gundogan acts as an architect for the BVB attack. His diverse skill set allows him to operate in the deep area where Andrea Pirlo works, or at the edge of the box alongside Mario Gotze. Sometimes Gundogan drifts to one wing or another, but rarely is he found far from the ball. It's no coincidence that Dortmund are winless in the five games in which he hasn't started this season.
Jakub "Kuba" Blaszczykowski may not be the biggest name in the Dortmund squad, but the Poland international produces nearly as many goals and assists as fellow attackers Mario Gotze and Marco Reus.
Kuba is more than just an ordinary winger. His position is more fixed than those of Gotze and Reus, and he tends to be the more conservative of the three attacking midfielders. Because Piszczek is so capable in attack and so readily moves into the final third, his international colleague will often provide cover.
Because of his great physical strength, agility and quickness to the ball, Kuba is often used as an auxiliary third central midfielder who shifts to the wing when in possession. Especially against teams that are strong in the centre of the park, he will move in from the touchline to close down space, press and harry opponents.
When BVB get the ball, Kuba usually plays on the right wing. But, because Gotze and Reus require so much attention and usually have so many touches on the ball, the 27-year-old can often slip away from opponents just long enough to make his impression felt.
He may be the youngest player in Klopp's starting lineup, but Mario Gotze is Dortmund's most important player. The 20-year-old is used as BVB's central playmaker, and has scored or assisted 30 of his club's 90 goals this season.
Gotze has enormous technical talent and a brilliant economy—he knows what he can and can't do, and what his best move should be—and has developed into an impressive athlete to boot. But it is what Klopp's tutelage has done that makes Gotze so unique.
As Shinji Kagawa did before him, Gotze covers a tremendous amount of ground every game. Klopp's system requires synergy and fluidity throughout, and thus, the playmaker is in many ways like a holding midfielder in terms of his proactive approach.
Klopp has trained Gotze to chase the ball, to make himself available as an outlet man even in his own third. The result is a player who has covered 12.4 km per 90 minutes played in the Champions League this season. For the sake of comparison, Uefa's statistics show that Lionel Messi runs an average of 6.8 km per 90 minutes.
Klopp's unique approach means that Gotze follows the ball around the pitch much like Gundogan, but the 20-year-old of course finds himself more often in and around the penalty box.
Gotze's main responsibility is the production of goals, either by playing the final ball or the pass that precedes the assist. He's become increasingly a threat on goal himself, however, and for Dortmund is now very similar in attacking style and value as Messi is to Barca.
Every team needs more than one goal-scoring threat, and for Dortmund, Marco Reus is the secondary option behind Robert Lewandowski. The 23-year-old is a different type of scorer, not the typically large and physical centre-forward, but one who can play as a lone No. 9. At the same time, he has all the natural qualities of a winger.
Although formally deployed on the left, Reus is given as much freedom to roam as Gotze. He usually plays higher, closer to the box, and will often join Lewandowski in pressing when the opposing defenders are in possession. For example, he pounced on a loose pass before opening the scoring for BVB against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium last fall.
Reus usually finds himself involved in a complicated dance with Gotze. The two follow one another left, right, and centre, and rarely are separated by more than 20 yards. The discipline of the holding midfielders, defenders and Kuba allows Reus and Gotze the freedom to probe defenses for weak points, and when they find such a spot, they exploit it mercilessly.
A case in point is when Michael Essien was forced to fill in as a makeshift defender for Real Madrid last fall. Having sustained repeated knee injuries over the years, the Ghanaian suffers from a lack of pace. Reus relentlessly attacked the former Chelsea man to devastating effect.
The primarily role of any central striker is to score goals, and Robert Lewandowski is no exception. But Klopp has taken a player with a strong foundation to do much more and redefined the Pole as so much more than simply a classic goalscorer.
Aside from putting the ball in the net, Lewandowski is a critical player in the support of his teammates both in attack and defense. He is very quick, has a large frame and is extremely powerful. And instead of using this athleticism in the classical sense, picking his moments to sprint behind the defense, Lewandowski harasses opposing centre-backs for all 90 minutes.
Dortmund's high-pressing system requires teamwork, and the central striker is the first point of defense. Lewandowski constantly chases after centre-backs, making no clearance easy and forcing mistakes. He rarely will win the ball, but he very often will force a sloppy pass or a desperate clearance that puts the ball back in Dortmund's possession.
When BVB have the ball, Lewandowski can chase down long clearances from the back and ease the burden from under-fire defenders. His hold-up play is world-class, and he has the awareness to nod the ball on to Reus and Gotze—he did just that to tee up the former for his stunning opener against Real Madrid last fall at the Santiago Bernabeu.
If his midfielders are less harried in possession and can play on the ground, Lewandowski is good enough with the ball at his feet to dribble forward, and knows how to move and get the ball to the playmakers. And when the ball comes in to him in the box, he's typically lethal.