On Saturday, Jurgen Klopp surpassed Ottmar Hitzfeld in becoming Borussia Dortmund's most successful coach in the Bundesliga. BVB's 4-0 victory over Frankfurt marked their 111th win in the German top flight under Klopp's tenure, putting him one ahead of the Swiss trainer.
Dortmund have come a long way since Klopp's tenure began on July 1, 2008. The team he inherited was one struggling to find their identity after flirting with bankruptcy not long before; BVB finished the 2007-08 season 13th in the Bundesliga. And then began the Klopp revolution.
Klopp swapped Mladen Petric for Mohamed Zidan at €4.5 million profit, which he used to bring a 19-year-old Neven Subotic with him from Mainz. Thus began a policy of signing young, burgeoning talents, often from second-division teams, on the cheap and transforming them into stars. Mats Hummels, Sven Bender and Kevin Grosskreutz followed a year later, then Shinji Kagawa and Moritz Leitner came in 2010. Ilkay Gundogan and Mustafa Amini were signed in 2011, before Leonardo Bittencourt and Marian Sarr came in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
Not all of Dortmund's young signings succeeded. But many did, with some greatly exceeding expectations. Dortmund finished sixth in their first season under Klopp, then fifth the following spring. In 2010-11 the club experienced a shocking and altogether unforeseen explosion of class as Kagawa, Hummels, Nuri Sahin and Mario Gotze in particular emerged as superstars of the league. Dortmund were crowned champions in 2011 and won the domestic double a year later.
The players should be credited for their performance, but at the very heart of Dortmund's success was their managerial trinity of Klopp, CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and Sporting Director Michael Zorc. Although each executive plays a unique role, Klopp is especially important due to his being the medium between the board and the players. He has to be rational and strategic enough to make the right calls regarding transfers and the club's direction, yet emotional and passionate enough to motivate and invigorate his players.
The good thing for Dortmund is that Klopp is a complete package, one who remains committed to the club for the long haul. As he said at a press conference following him signing an extension that will see him remain at BVB until 2018 (via Uefa.com), the "most exciting and emotional football story" in recent history is far from finished.
And he's right. The first phase of Klopp's time in charge is now over, the club having earned two Bundesliga titles, a DFB-Pokal and a shock trip to the Champions League final. Revenue has skyrocketed: Deloitte ranked BVB as the 11th-wealthiest club in the world last season in terms of non-transfer earnings. Now established as a strong club with long-term potential, Dortmund have entered a whole new phase in which they face higher expectations and more competition for star talent.
In Klopp's early years, Dortmund were free of the burden of any expectation other than to avoid being relegated. The team that won the 2011 Bundesliga consisted of six players who either came from the academy or were signed on free transfers; the rest of the first XI cost just under €15 million, combined. Klopp turned ordinary players like Grosskreutz, Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszczek into stars and got the very best out of the likes of Kagawa and Gotze.
Few coaches could have dreamed to have won the German league with a team of unproven players, but Klopp used his team's inexperience to his advantage. His high-intensity and extremely demanding gegenpressing system required selfless players, the impressionable type that would take his word as gospel, that hadn't yet developed into self-centered, egotistical types who couldn't be bothered to press. Klopp's tactics were so successful that they revolutionized German football and were later emulated by Joachim Low at Germany and Jupp Heynckes at Bayern.
Expectations grew, and with them came problems. In the fall, BVB were drawn into the Champions League with Olympiacos, Marseille and Arsenal—all were seen as manageable opponents at the time. But in what was a debut season on the international stage for nearly the entire BVB team, they crumbled. The departure of Nuri Sahin had been a substantial blow, but Dortmund as a team struggled especially after taking just one point from their first two matches. They finished a humiliating fourth, which cast a dark shadow upon an otherwise impressive season that saw them win the DFB-Pokal and Bundesliga with a record 81 points.
In the next and most recent season, BVB were drawn into the so-called Group of Death with Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax. Klopp's side had set the bar near-impossibly low the year before, and facing two of the most expensive squads in the world along with the four-time European champions, little was expected. Free from any burden, BVB topped the group and went on to lose in the final. Curiously, when they were expected to beat Malaga, Dortmund struggled, needing two goals at the death in the second leg to secure passage to the semifinals.
Since the summer, everything has changed at Dortmund. Mario Gotze shockingly became the third key player in as many years to leave, joining Bayern Munich. Before him, Robert Lewandowski was expected to move to Bavaria as well, but BVB managed to prevent him from doing so—at the expense of a transfer fee—for a year; his move was officially confirmed in January. Backup defender Felipe Santana also left as Schalke met his buy-out clause.
Having finished runners-up in the Champions League but 25 points behind Bayern in the Bundesliga, Dortmund had the expectation of putting up a fight in the German league in 2013-14. This meant adding depth; the club spent approximately €50 million on new signings, an unprecedented figure in the club's history.
Dortmund's "small club" status had until last summer protected them from Europe's big financial players. But with Gotze and Lewandowski having established themselves as quality players in the Champions League, Bayern jumped at the chance to sign both. Shakhtar used BVB's desperate need to sign a Gotze replacement to extract every last penny they could for Mkhitaryan, who cost a club record €27.5 million—substantially higher than his market value.
The case could even be made that Jose Mourinho specifically blocked Kevin de Bruyne's move to Dortmund (Bild's Jorg Weiler [in German] had in May reported an agreement between player and club on a five-year contract) to avoid BVB becoming too strong after the Portuguese trainer's former Real Madrid had been humiliated by Klopp & co. Dealing with financial powers proved an altogether different experience from negotiating with lower 1. and 2. Bundesliga sides for their reserves.
Klopp and Dortmund have learned through experience that young, up-and-coming players are unreliable at the highest level. Even after a year dominating the Bundesliga, Kagawa and Gotze were utterly impotent in their first Champions League campaign; the same could be said of Lewandowski, although he had played a substitute's role in 2010-11. Klopp did the improbable in eventually converting Gundogan from a mediocre playmaker to a world-class holding midfielder, but it took the player more than half his first season to adapt to the role. By the time he was ready, BVB had been out of the Champions League for months.
Thus, Dortmund can no longer be content to trawl the lower leagues for talent. The stakes are higher— they need quality players who will be ready to compete at the highest level immediately, not in six months or a year. That means keeping those who are reliable stars, an increasingly difficult task as Europe's vultures circle, and/or investing significantly in bigger names.
Last summer was a first step for Dortmund, although the signings of Mkhitaryan and Sokratis only covered the losses of Gotze and Santana. The only addition of squad depth came in the form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Speaking with Sport-Bild (h/t Four-Four-Two) in January, Watzke pledged to invest significantly in the squad this summer. Thus far, however, Sunderland reject Ji Dong-Won is BVB's only confirmed signing.
The summer of 2014 can mark the beginning of a new chapter in BVB's history or be the turning point as things turn for the worse. Much like a year ago, Dortmund face a squeeze on the contracts of two absolutely essential players: Gundogan and Marco Reus. Negotiations with the former have yet to result in an extension of his current contract, which expires in 2015. The latter's deal runs until 2017, but Bild reported (h/t Goal.com) days after his initial signing that Reus has a buy-out clause in the amount of €35 million that will take effect in 2015.
If Dortmund can agree to new deals with Gundogan and Reus, without exit clauses, 2015 could mark the first year since the 2011 title that BVB did not lose a key player. And it would be a signal of intent to predatory clubs.
Otherwise, there is the obvious dilemma of replacing Lewandowski. And especially given the number of injuries that have blighted the central midfield and defense this term, plus BVB having in consecutive seasons been eliminated as title contenders in the Bundesliga by mid-season, squad depth is an absolute must.
Klopp will not be the key man in contract negotiations, but he will be extremely important as part of any package to convince Reus and Gundogan to extend and to bring outsiders to Dortmund. The coach is well aware of the allure of a respected manager—when Gotze's move to Bayern was announced, he attributed the player's decision to the fact that he'd be playing under Pep Guardiola. In a press conference (via ESPN) he said: "I can't shorten myself by 15cm and start speaking Spanish."
If Klopp can lead his team deep into the Champions League for a second consecutive season, that—along with his recent commitment to stay at BVB until 2018—can go a long way towards ensuring a deep squad with all the necessary components.
The obvious challenge for Klopp ahead of next season is to integrate the newcomers and achieve the kind of chemistry that has characterized his successful Dortmund teams. But additionally, he may have to adapt his system.
Dortmund played 52 competitive matches last season and were thoroughly exhausted by the end of May. The strategy of gegenpressing, especially with such a thin squad, seems to have taken its physical toll on players. Gundogan and Piszczek each missed almost the entire first half of 2013-14 with debilitating injuries, while Schmelzer, Bender, Hummels and Subotic have all had to endure lengthy absences.
To his credit, Klopp has already taken action to limit physical load when games have been under control. For example, only Sebastian Kehl clocked in at over 12km run (via the Bundesliga live ticker) in Saturday's 4-0 win against Frankfurt; the previous week, only Henrikh Mkhitaryan exceeded the 12km mark in a 5-1 rout of Bremen. Not every match will be a rout, though, and Klopp will have to be especially careful next season given that most of his players will be on short rest due to the World Cup in Brazil.
Klopp and Dortmund's next step is to maintain what BVB have in terms of player quality and sporting success, and to build on that with more depth. The exact details of Dortmund's activity this summer will be crucial to the club's long-term aspirations. In the mid-term, and with the aid of Watzke's checkbook, the trainer will need to convince players to stay in the long term to develop a consistent level. He will still have to turn burgeoning talents into star players, but perhaps with help from other teams—the recent loan of Moritz Leitner and sales of Leonardo Bittencourt and Koray Gunter with buy-back options are good to start. And Klopp will have to be more mindful of the dangers of playing with a fatigued team.
Klopp has done the seemingly impossible time and time again, and if there is any coach in the world who can lift Dortmund to permanent status as a global power, it is him. And the trainer's confidence shone forth at the press conference following his most recent extension: "We [Klopp, Watzke and Zorc] are all still a little bit in love with the club and how things are being done here. Together we have written an exciting story, maybe the most exciting and emotional football story in recent years. I just don't feel like we've entered the final chapter yet."
Whether Klopp remains BVB coach for four years or decades, the preamble to his final chapter at Dortmund begins now.
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