Borussia Dortmund’s 4-2 win away to Zenit St. Petersburg was perhaps the brightest moment in an otherwise inconsistent and injury-plagued season. While it may not have been their best performance over 90 minutes it showed the team’s versatility and Jurgen Klopp’s ability to adapt and keep a thin squad motivated.
It also proved that there is still a great sense of optimism and possibility in a season that many thought would ultimately end disappointingly and trophyless.
Klopp is Key
Jurgen Klopp said after the Zenit game that it was not hard for his players to get motivated despite the disappointing 3-0 loss to Hamburg just three days prior. Some did speculate, however, that the loss would affect the team negatively heading to Russia, but every player showed exactly the response Klopp wanted.
The Dortmund coach was full of praise of his team’s character after the game, ‘My team are not known to lack character, so it was clear that it would be easy to motivate the boys after the 3-0 defeat at Hamburg and that they would show something.’ (via uefa.com).
Time and time again, Klopp’s player management has been key to Dortmund’s continued success and sustainability, even in a period of recurring injuries like this season. His ability to resonate with his players is perhaps the most important component of what has made Dortmund so successful in his time with the club.
The players clearly trust in Klopp and buy into his football ideas. His passion is evident for all to see on the sidelines, and the players seem to be playing for him. In what would otherwise be a destructive season for many clubs, Dortmund have persevered throughout their many injuries precisely because Klopp’s managerial style gets the best out of individuals.
To keep a large squad of players happy is hard enough. To stay competitive and alive in three different competitions with a paper-thin squad is next to impossible. But Klopp has made it work. Bringing Manuel Friedrich as defensive cover was a controversial move but one that paid huge dividends with Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic’s extended injuries.
Similarly, utilizing Kevin Grosskreutz at right-back in the absence of Lukasz Piszczek throughout the first half of the season turned out such an inspired move that many in Germany are calling for him to be included in Germany’s World Cup squad in that position.
The quick and seamless integration of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has also played a big part in keeping Dortmund afloat, especially after Jakub Blaszczykowski’s season-ending injury. The former Saint-Etienne player already has 16 goals in all competitions.
In fact, prior to the Hamburg game this past weekend, he had scored a goal every 108 minutes in the league, according to bundesliga.de (German), just shy of German legend Gerd Müller’s 105.
Against Zenit, Dortmund were not just up for it to prove a point. They carried out their tactical plan brilliantly. "We were very close to an optimum performance," Klopp said after the game. "We showed great pressing and counterpressing against a really talented team. We reacted perfectly to every goal we conceded."
Sure enough, Dortmund were buzzing around with the guile and energy that got them so many plaudits last season. Despite the criticism Klopp received for his intense training and style of play, the players still showed that they can play at their energetic best under tremendous pressure.
Leave it to Lewa
Of course, Dortmund would not be where they are now without the efforts of Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker scored his fifth and sixth goals of the campaign against Zenit. He is now only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in goals and assists.
His importance to this Dortmund side cannot be stated enough. In the last two seasons only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more Champions league goals than Lewandowski. This year he has scored more than half of their goals in Europe. With his two goals he also became Dortmund’s top goalscorer in the competition, surpassing Stephane Chapuisat, an amazing feat in itself.
When his summer move to Bayern was announced, Dortmund supporters feared Lewandowski’s performance would drop in the second half of the season, but he has been in incredible form and has not let the move disrupt what has been another phenomenal campaign.
From the moment he announced the move he vowed to give his best until the end of the season and the club will need him the rest of the way. "I’m very satisfied with the game, the result and my two goals. But that was not the last you will see from me. We have other games to play," he told bvb.de (German).
This was only the second time Dortmund have scored four goals in an away match in the Champions League. And in the history’s competition, no team has ever come back from a two-goal deficit to advance to the next round.
What this means is that Dortmund are still capable of playing at the highest level without many of the key players who helped them reach the final last year (Hummels, Gundogan and Gotze).
They now have a foot in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, are a game away from reaching the German Cup final and within reaching distance of second place in the Bundesliga. What looked like a grim season a month ago may just turn out to be another shining light for Jurgen Klopp’s men.