Borussia Dortmund bowed out of the Champions League on Tuesday, but not without putting up a valiant fight. Last year's runners-up pushed Real Madrid to the limit and nearly overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit, winning 2-0 at the Signal-Iduna Park despite being woefully understaffed.
Jurgen Klopp's starting lineup was a strange one indeed and his tactical approach was in some ways unprecedented. The BVB manager took some considerable gambles by going with a team that made it look like he might have given up before kickoff. But it turned out that Klopp had some favorable cards hidden up his sleeve.
As Dortmund faced a veritable Everest to climb, the selection of Oliver Kirch and Milos Jojic in midfield and Manuel Friedrich in central defense seemed like a symbolic throwing in of the towel. Kirch was an ordinary player at relegated Kaiserslautern before joining BVB, and Jojic, although talented, had just 39 minutes of Champions League football under his belt prior to the match. Friedrich, meanwhile, was brought out of retirement in November when BVB had an injury crisis at center-back. His inclusion ahead of the omnipresent Sokratis Papastathopoulos was surprising, to say the least.
Yet Klopp also started six strong, first-team players. But they were in some cases used in positions that were new, at least under the BVB manager's tenure. Most notable was Klopp's decision to play Marco Reus centrally, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the right wing. Reus was the most advanced of three midfield players, with Jojic just behind and Kirch anchoring. And in the middle, the Germany international was exceptional.
Reus' performance on Tuesday should come as no surprise; during his 'Gladbach days, the 24-year-old was far more prolific in the center than on the wing. Although lacking in upper-body strength, his quickness and exceptionally direct style of play make him ideal for a central role. He thrives in tight spaces, can play one-twos and relishes the chance to run at defenders. Better for him to run through center-backs and toward goal than past full-backs and toward the end line.
Mkhitaryan, meanwhile, was a disappointment. It's not so much that he was unable to play on the wing that he missed three clear chances to score. Although it's unfair to pin the blame on one player, the ex-Shakhtar player knows fully well that had he converted the many chances he had in both legs, Dortmund would be through to the semifinals.
Fans may see much more of Reus in the center and much less of Mkhitaryan overall in the coming season. BVB will have to replace Robert Lewandowski's goals, and at present, there are no players linked with the club who have proven ability to consistently find the net in domestic and international competitions. Reus is best in the center and can contribute hugely to Dortmund's goals quota—even if that means relegating Mkhitaryan to the bench and using Jakub Blaszczykowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (or a potential summer signing) on the wings.
Dortmund's other huge revelation was Jojic, who in his first 90-minute outing for Dortmund was exceptional. Although his fitness (which will surely improve under Klopp) let him down in the closing minutes, the 22-year-old provided a combination of soft control, quality distribution in deep and advanced areas of midfield and muscle in defensive situations. That combination has been missing in the Dortmund midfield ever since Ilkay Gundogan sustained a back injury last August.
Jojic was not on the level of Gundogan at his best in the Real match, but the Serb's rapid integration into the BVB team speaks well for his future. Gundogan only adapted to a holding midfield role after about eight months. Although perhaps a slightly less advanced player during his time at Partizan Belgrade, Jojic has had to change his role, learn to play in Klopp's system and settle into playing at a much higher level than he experienced while in Serbia.
After just two months at the Signal-Iduna Park, he made a clear statement of his quality in Tuesday's match, getting the better of Champions League, World Cup and European Championship winner Xabi Alonso and the rest of Real's star-studded midfield.
Tuesday's performance also was crucial for Jurgen Klopp, who has become visibly frustrated more and more this season and on numerous occasion let his anger boil over. The spark that propelled them last season was rarely seen before Tuesday, and when it showed, it was not as consistent. Dortmund played with utmost determination, focus and drive for the full 90 minutes, their work rate simply overwhelming a Real side that looked passive by comparison.
Klopp's motivation and the team's outstanding collectivism (their constant swarming of any Real player who dared try to bring the ball through midfield was reminiscent of yesteryear) coincided with Kirch and Friedrich respectively playing perhaps the best games of their careers.
A year ago, Dortmund proved that star power was not everything in football, that a team can be greater than the sum of its parts. But their squad at the time had many young up-and-comers, some of whom would later be respected as world-class stars.
The gulf in class between the lineups of Dortmund and Real on Tuesday was undeniable, but the fact that players like Kirch, Friedrich and Kevin Grosskreutz were able to compete with a Real XI that cost a collective €350 million was pure vindication for Klopp. It was proof that when used properly, the system at Dortmund is far greater than the players in it.
Tuesday had no fairytale ending for Dortmund and defeat will be a bitter pill to swallow. But Dortmund vs. Real offered hope for BVB and their fans that for the longest time seemed to have deserted them.
Reus can and likely will play more in the center, and he in any case is a club hero who is capable of turning any game. Jojic is a star in the making, his potential signaling that there is hope for the Dortmund midfield whether or not Gundogan plays at the Signal-Iduna Park next season. And no matter who is available to play, Klopp can and will coach them to play on a level that can give any team a scare. This summer will be one of change at BVB, but fans can rest assured: Good things remain on the horizon.