While the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Marco Reus have taken all the plaudits, Borussia Dortmund’s squad players have been the unsung heroes of what has been an injury-laden season.
If there is one narrative underlying Dortmund’s season it is the never-ending streak of injuries and absences of key players. Influential players like Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Sven Bender, Ilkay Gundogan, Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski have all missed chunks of the season.
In their second-leg quarterfinal against Real Madrid midweek, Jurgen Klopp was without five players who started the Champions League final against Bayern Munich last season. The core that was responsible for their incredible run last year has been all but decimated by injury.
Klopp has had to compensate all season long with players few expected to have any kind of sustained long-term impact. With a handful of games remaining, guys like Sokratis, Erik Durm and Kevin Grosskreutz have been the cornerstones of Dortmund’s overachieving success.
In four days, Dortmund finished with a 5-0 aggregate scoreline against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the two clubs arguably considered the best in Europe this season. With all the absences and injuries, that would not have been possible without Dortmund’s squad players stepping up and elevating their game to the next level.
Klopp has done an incredible job adjusting to those absences and utilizing players the right way to get the best results. His player management and ability to adapt to changing circumstances has saved Dortmund’s season and set the foundation for future success.
Take Grosskreutz for example. With everyone fit, he would be the team’s primary utility player, the versatile type who will slot in for just about anyone in just about any position. He would not be particularly great at any of them but would get the job done.
This season, however, one would be hard-pressed to name a better right-back than Grosskreutz. Filling in for the ever-consistent and reliable Piszczek at right-back, Grosskreutz’s performances were one of the early highlights of the season.
And without Grosskreutz’s last-minute heroics against Marseille in the group stages, Dortmund would not have topped that group and gone on to reach the quarterfinals. With Piszczek back, Grosskreutz reverted back to playing his jack-of-all-trades role, but few will forget his performances in defense and some are even calling for him to start for Germany in Brazil.
On the other side, Klopp had to deal with the loss of Marcel Schmelzer, who until this season has had a relatively injury-free record. Enter 21-year-old Erik Durm. Prior to this season, Durm had zero first-team experience and played in the lower leagues.
Fast-forward eight months and Durm is now a big part of the World Cup discussion. The young left-back has developed rapidly in a very short amount of time. This week he played arguably his two best games against Madrid and Bayern.
Klopp took a big chance on Durm, a player who went from playing in the fourth division to the Champions League in under two years. The gamble paid off, and now Klopp has one of the most promising defenders in German football on his hands.
Similarly, Klopp insisted on the signing of Manuel Friedrich, a 34-year-old center-back who virtually came out of retirement to cover for the injured Hummels and Subotic. Friedrich exceeded all expectations, regained his fitness and filled in brilliantly when he was called upon.
But perhaps Klopp’s biggest coup of all has been the transfer and development of Sokratis. The Greek defender was brought in last summer from Werder Bremen to provide cover for Hummels and Subotic.
So far, Sokratis has made 36 appearances in all competitions and taken on a significant leadership role on the team. His presence has fortified what was a very fragile defense early in the season and made sure the team picked itself up from the devastating defensive injuries for much of the year.
In a more limited capacity, yet just as important in different parts of the season, players like Oliver Kirch, Milos Jojic and Marian Sarr have also been reliable performers when Klopp needed them to be.
Sarr, who just turned 19 in January and featured only for the reserves, was asked to start in Dortmund’s must-win game on the final matchday of the group stages in the Champions League. His performance was mature beyond his years, and in him Klopp has a great foundation for the future.
Kirch, who was a second-division player with just 88 minutes of Champions League experience, started against Real Madrid this past week and helped dominate a midfield of veteran world-class players.
Jojic, meanwhile, might be the biggest prospect of all. The 22-year-old Serb was brought in during the January transfer window and seamlessly slotted into Klopp’s high-tempo pressing game.
Like Kirch, Jojic took his opportunity to impress against Madrid this past week and was arguably the best player on the pitch. With Gundogan’s potentially recurring back problems, Jojic could be a direct replacement. If not, then Klopp has another dynamic technical central midfielder to mould into a world-class player very soon.
Klopp and Dortmund faced a situation this season that many big clubs would not have survived. Key player after key player went down, and just as they have done in the past when Lucas Barrios left, when Nuri Sahin left, when Shinji Kagawa left, they adapted and made the best of what they had.
Regardless of how the season plays out, the heroes of Dortmund’s successful campaign of adaptation have not been the high-profile players but the guys who stepped up to fill in and make sure they remained competitive in all competitions when every other circumstance dictated otherwise.
Follow Cristian on Twitter at @cnyari