Down but Not Out: A Half-Term Report on Borussia Dortmund

Clark Whitney@@Mr_BundesligaFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 21:  Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp and assistant Zeljko Buvac look on during a Borussia Dortmund training session ahead of the UEFA Champions League Group F match against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium on October 21, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

In early November, a report on Borussia Dortmund's season would have been very positive. At the time, BVB were just one point behind leaders Bayern in the Bundesliga, alive and well in the DFB-Pokal and with six points from three matches in the Champions League, fresh off their 2-1 win over Arsenal at the Emirates.

Since then, Dortmund's standing has eroded drastically. BVB took just four points from their final six matches of the Bundesliga first round, losing three consecutive home matches for the first time in 13 years.

Their five defeats in the first half of the campaign marks the highest tally in that category since 2007. At the halfway point they stand only fourth, with reason to worry about potentially failing to qualify for the 2014-15 Champions League.

Dortmund have looked weary, jaded and increasingly frustrated over the last month-and-a-half, and to an extent are fortunate their season has not gone awry more than it has.

Although first and maybe even second place in the Bundesliga are too far away to target, the DFB-Pokal is still a realistic target and they are seeded in the Champions League Round of 16 against the entirely beatable Zenit.

Still, if Dortmund are to contend for one or two trophies this spring, they will need to do much better than they did in the first half of the campaign. Results aside, they simply haven't looked as sharp as they did last season.

Only in the DFB-Superpokal (a 4-2 win against Bayern) and in the win away to Arsenal did Dortmund truly show the spark, the brilliance that made them the darlings of European football last season.

Part of BVB's downturn in quality can be attributed to the loss of Mario Goetze, who has been sorely missed not only in terms of goals and assists but in his general ability to operate in tight spaces. His sale has left Marco Reus as Dortmund's only true world-class attacking player with the close control, dribbling ability, explosive burst of speed and shooting technique to reliably create chances.

But although the 24-year-old has been involved in an average of over 4.2 attempts per game, his form and sharpness have waned over the last month as he's looked increasingly weary and weighed by the burden of being so relied upon.

Goetze's absence explains a lack of sharpness in attack, but not the fact that BVB have kept just one clean sheet (against 3. Liga side Saarbruecken) in their last 13 matches. The problem with Dortmund's defense is that they have spent the entire season without their first-choice defensive quartet.

A pair of operations kept Lukasz Piszczek out of action until late November, and the right-back has only been slowly reintroduced to first-team football. Marcel Schmelzer has missed just under two months of action due to a pair of muscular injuries, while a broken foot saw Mats Hummels miss the final month of the first half of the season. Also, Neven Subotic is set to miss the rest of the season after sustaining cruciate ligament damage six weeks ago.


Throw in injuries to at least one of Sebastian Kehl and Sven Bender for the majority of the first round, as well as Ilkay Gundogan from mid-August until present, and it's no wonder why Dortmund have struggled.

They've lacked class in at least a few key areas for the entire season thus far and injuries have meant that Jurgen Klopp has been unable to use a rotation to keep his players fresh—a necessity given the high-intensity, physically demanding pressing system he employs.

Dortmund's blight of injuries can be chalked up to bad luck, but to some extent it results from the extremely physical nature of Klopp's system. As such, it cannot be expected that BVB will have much better luck in the spring.

On the one hand, Gundogan and Piszczek will be like new signings. But even with two more top-class players in their squad, Dortmund are rather short of options for rotating—especially if more injuries are sustained.

Looking ahead to the second round, Dortmund have an uphill battle but one that is nonetheless manageable. Provided Klopp's side can overcome the one-point gap to Gladbach and finish third in the Bundesliga, they can focus primarily on the DFB-Pokal and Champions League.

Klopp has built his team to be best in one-offs, and only 10 games (three in the Pokal and seven in the Champions League) stand between them and a double.

Gundogan's return is eagerly anticipated.
Gundogan's return is eagerly anticipated.Alex Grimm/Getty Images

The German League Cup is a realistic target, although BVB will likely have to beat Bayern, but Dortmund's chances are better in one 90-minute fixture than in the endurance battle that is the league. Last May's Champions League final was close to the very last whistle and a match this spring between the two sides at full strength could go either way, even if Bayern would be favorites.

Success in the Champions League will be measured differently; there's further to go and far more challenging hurdles to face. Dortmund absolutely must beat Zenit, but depending on the draw in the quarterfinals, failure to progress to the semifinals may not be a disaster.

Qualification for the last four, just four matches away, would be outstanding for the Ruhr side as they look to convince big names to join them in the summer and give their current stars reasons to stay.

It's been a tumultuous season for Dortmund thus far, but at the half-way mark Jurgen Klopp's side can feel pleased, if fortunate, to be on target for glory in two competitions.

Whether their season will end a success overall depends on their performance in a select few games. And for a team with the mentality of Klopp's Dortmund, their success remains firmly in their own hands.

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