Dortmund faces its biggest crises since the days of Udo Lattek
Udo Lattek, who died this week aged 80, was more accustomed to lifting trophies than the more prosaic business of keeping teams in a league. Among his winnings as coach of Bayern Munich, Borussia Monchengladbach and Barcelona were eight league titles and a unique hat trick of all three major European trophies -- the European Cup, the UEFA Cup and the Cup-Winners' Cup.
He eased into retirement in 1993 but was willing to answer an SOS call from Borussia Dortmund in 2000. European champion just three years before, Dortmund was in meltdown. Michael Skibbe and Bernd Krauss had both been sacked during the season and with five matches left the club was one point above the drop zone.
Lattek, with a certain Matthias Sammer alongside him in the dugout, was given the mandate of maintaining Dortmund's place in the Bundesliga. He oversaw two wins, two draws and only one defeat in those five matches and Dortmund finished 11th, five points clear of relegation. It was a far cry from Lattek's biggest achievements, the European Cup with Bayern in 1975 and so on, but it was just right for Dortmund.
This season the team is facing similar circumstances. The club has played 19 Bundesliga matches, winning only four, and sits bottom of the table with a two-point gap to Hertha Berlin. The side faces Freiburg in a six-pointer this weekend (live, Saturday, 9:30 a.m. ET) -- the only one of that relegation -- threatened trio BVB managed to beat in the first half of the season.
Nonetheless, there will be no Lattek-type figure summoned to bail the club out this time around, at least not for the time being. Jurgen Klopp is the man who put Dortmund in this mess and so he will be the one charged with leading the team out of it.
"There is no chance I will resign," Klopp said this week. "I am convinced of our mission in the second half of the season. We need to build on the good."
Klopp was speaking after the midweek home defeat to Augsburg -- a team of modest means and stature but one which are excelling and disrupting the order of German football under Markus Weinzierl. The result was not a shock, form wise, with the Bavarians playing brighter, more inventive football this season and demonstrating a hunger and a fearlessness that has been hard to identify in their Dortmund counterparts this term.
The Augsburg loss typified Dortmund's season to date in many respects. The team had plenty of the ball but could not conjure a meaningful goal-scoring opportunity. At the other end, BVB made mistakes and was harshly punished. The goal Raul Bobadilla scored was shambolic. Halil Altintop sauntered past Sokratis, Nuri Sahin and a prone Mats Hummels before the ball rebounded to the Argentine.
Dortmund, this season, is incapable of taking the chances it makes while seemingly giving up more goals on chances against it than any other team in the league. The side has only scored 18 in 19 matches and conceded 27. Dortmund has been able to field its first-choice defensive shape -- Lukasz Piszczek, Neven Subotic, Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer -- on only two occasions throughout the season so far.
Injuries have also blighted the club further up the field with Sven Bender, Ilkay Gundogan, Nuri Sahin and Marco Reus all missing matches throughout the season. Klopp has scarcely had a full squad all season and, in a unit as tight as Dortmund's, that has proven fatal. Money is simply not spent on deepening the squad. As such, there is filler in the first team. Signed initially to replace Shinji Kagawa, Reus was among Klopp's brightest purchases but a sequence of ankle injuries have rendered him peripheral. Without him, Dortmund cannot cope.
Even with Reus in the lineup, however, Dortmund is nothing like the efficient side of one or two seasons ago. Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos have proven hopelessly inadequate replacements for Robert Lewandowski. Failing to cover the Pole's loss has been Dortmund's gravest mistake. After low-balling Lewandowski in contract negotiations, Dortmund opted to let his terms expire and he moved on to Bayern Munich. While he has not set the world alight at the Allianz Arena, the gap he left in Westphalia is too big to fill.
Lewandowski alone epitomized the attacking intent of Dortmund from his pressing, his link-up play, to his ability to create and score goals. Those attributes are all sorely lacking in Dortmund this season. Klopp was too big a believer in his own capabilities to acknowledge the fact that Lewandowski made his team. As one colleague put it, Klopp hand-crafted a team and tried to make replacements like for like. That was hopelessly, arrogantly naive. Reus and, initially at least, Henrikh Mkhitaryan carried the burden left by Mario Goetze but Lewandowski was a star departure too far.
"If we want to shoot and if the shot looks like a cross then we have obviously done something wrong," Klopp said after Augsburg, a game in which tame effort after tame effort from the likes of Immobile and Mkhitaryan ended up in the arms of Alex Manninger. There is nothing complicated about putting the ball in the net but it has proven beyond Dortmund's batch of forwards this season. In a campaign as tight as this, that is a crucial fact.
"We have to be more efficient," Hummels told the DFB this week. "We have created 270 chances this season, yet we sit last in the league table. I don't know what's up. This is a unique situation."
Dortmund has conceded first in 12 matches in the Bundesliga this term. The team has suffered eight one-goal defeats. Those are matches that could have been drawn or won through the excellence of Lewandowski. There is nothing radically different about the approach of Klopp and Dortmund this season but goal scoring is their one major drawback. Klopp's flaw is to rely on the same type of game, with different players, to perpetuate success.
Bundesliga teams have figured out that Dortmund likes to take the lead, sit back and hit on the counter. That is the team's number one method for winning games. It cannot, however, put itself on the front foot as the "Gegenpressing" this season has not looked as sharp or aggressive. Mkhitaryan and Immobile cannot, or will not, press as intensely from the front as Lewandowski did. For survival, Klopp must now come up with a second way of playing.
Augsburg was a defeat too far for Dortmund and its loyal supporters in the Yellow Wall, Europe's best terrace. Captain Mats Hummels and under-fire goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller were summoned by fans to explain themselves after the game in a dramatic moment which finally jolted widespread acknowledgement of Dortmund's crisis.
"Our situation has not improved," Hummels said. "I understand the fans' frustration. We all feel the same. We didn't put in a lackluster performance, but we did not play well either. We always score fewer goals than our opponents and sit last after 19 games. It would be a disgrace if one of the players were to get angry with the fans for their reaction."
There is no doubt about it, Dortmund's slump has mutated into a genuine relegation battle. The knock-on effects of a drop into 2. Bundesliga are almost too big to quantify, despite Watzke this week attempting to play down its consequences as a minor setback. There were also rumors that Dortmund applied for a license to play in the second tier next season as well as the first.
First off, there are player exits to consider. Reus looks like he is going anyway. Ilkay Gundogan too. Hummels and Bender are not going to stick around in the 2. Bundesliga while Mkhitaryan has already declared his intent to leave. Klopp would surely be gone too. That is probably one reason why Watzke has yet to pull the trigger on the coach. Dortmund knows that, whatever happens, some club in Europe will pay to extricate him from his contract. It would make no financial sense to dismiss him now. And that is how Dortmund thinks.
The club already stands to lose millions in television revenues through the Bundesliga's complicated sharing system as well as the absence of Champions League football. Watzke has said in the past that Dortmund's levels of sustainability were only possible through perpetual qualification for the Champions League. The team made some $91.8 million in broadcast revenues according to the 2014 Deloitte Money League. A huge percentage of that will go. All the club will be left with are the players who are proving inadequate for this fight -- Schmelzer, Kevin Grosskruetz and Sebastian Kehl.
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