It is frightening the rate at which our childhood heroes are retiring from football – slowly descending away from the turf, slipping out from the present and into a deep-sea of nostalgia that is as lucid as it is warm in our abiding memories of them.
Before Friday’s exhaustive 1-0 win over TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, Borussia Dortmund lay bottom of the Bundesliga with eleven points from thirteen games. They stood twelve points off Champions League qualification, twenty-three off leaders Bayern Munich and tempered ever so cautiously with the stomach-chrurning possibility of Bundesliga relegation.
Rewind eighteen months. Borussia Dortmund have reached the UEFA Champions League final by means of decapitating favourites Real Madrid after a 4-1 home win in which Robert Lewandowski scored four goals at the Signal Iduna Park. Rewind two and a half years. Dortmund have won the Bundesliga for the second consecutive year, blowing Bayern away with a blend of high-pressing, fluid football centered around the footballing philosophy of one man, Jurgen Klopp.
Return to the present day. After three months of the Bundesliga calender, Dortmund, finishing second last season, who had won the previous two titles before that, lie bottom of the table. A club said to have redefined the mould of a modern European elite is now the runt of German football. Whereas not so long ago in the not so distant past clubs scrambled to decode and copy the Dortmund model, the system that was to be the way of the future for European football now exists a wiltering carcus being picked at helplessly by the dregs of German football.
The utter shock alone of looking at the Bundesliga table to see Borussia in eighteenth place is reason enough to send a person’s mind into a spiralling pit of endless questions. How could this have happened? How did this happen? Who is to blame? Is this the end of Dortmund as we so briefly knew them?
Difficult enough as the thought of Dortmund facing the possibility of relegation from the Bundesliga is to consider, the answers to such questions are equally as difficult to answer. Is there one single outstanding reason why Dortmund have lost over 61 per cent of their league games this season, no. Can Dortmund salvage Champions League football for the 2015/16 season, it is difficult to say.
Although Dortmund are suffering their worst start to a league season in the club’s history, the Bundesliga – for all its wonderful infrastructure and high attendances that make it one of Europe’s top leagues – is still quite forgiving. Due to the inconsistency of the club’s that lie atop of Dortmund, if they were to go on a three or four game winning streak they could easily find themselves comfortably mid-table.
Given this lack of competitiveness that has held the Bundesliga back from other top leagues in Europe as the Premier League and La Liga, Dortmund’s crisis could be brief. Saying this, it does not seem likely whatsoever that Dortmund will go on a three or four game winning streak – they are bottom of the table remember
And the simple fact of league football that the team which earns the least number of points will be bottom is of no exception to Dortmund. Borussia are bottom because they have been horridly poor so far this season.
All teams suffer their due of injuries throughout the league season, however in the case of Borussia Dortmund, one would not be wrong in assuming that there was a hoo-doo inflicted upon the muscles, limbs and bones of those playing in yellow and black. The list of injured players currently stands as; Jakub Blaszczykowski (muscle), Sokratis Papastathopoulous (broken leg), Ji-Dong-Won (knee), Marco Reus (ankle) and Ciro Immobile (illness). (Mats Hummels and Adrian Ramos have recovered in the past couple of days). This exceptional number of first-team injuries has undoubtedly impeded Dortmund. Given Dortmund do have an extensive squad filled with high-caliber depth in most positions, it is bizarre the consistency with which their players become injured. BVB have not been able to field their strongest eleven in well over twelve months – the injuries arguably starting with that of Mario Gotze in the lead up to the 2013 UEFA Champions League final.
Star players leaving
This is not a primary reason as to Dortmund’s poor form but it is a contributory factor. With their star players leaving the club season after season, Borussia are constantly left scrambling to fill a void. Starting with Nuri Sahin at the end of the 2010/11 season and following on with the departures of Shinji Kagawa in 2012 as well as the aforementioned Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski both to Bayern in successive summers. The admiration that has gone the way of Dortmund has largely been because of their resilience to perform year after year in spite of these inevitable departures, combined with a significantly lower budget to those teams competing against them in European competition.
New signings not performing
The void of panic from Borrussia with the departures of their top players can ultimately be put down to signing good replacements combined with the merits of a bolstering youth academy. The departure of Kagawa and Sahin created an opportunity for the rise of Gotze and Lewandowski. Following on from this, Gotze’s transfer to Bayern was greeted with a remarkable reason from Marco Reus – the forward scoring 21 goals in the 2013/14 season. (Reus had been bought for only £15 million from Borrussia Mochengladbach two years previous.)
But this season, combined with the low standards of last summer’s new recruits, the lack of impact from the replacements has left the club in its worst state since Jurgen Klopp took charge in 2008. Serie A’s top goalscorer last season Ciro Immobile has managed only two goals so far this campaign. Although plagued by slight injuries, the Italian has looked sluggish for Dortmund, especially given the high hopes pinned on him after his 22 goals for Torino last season. Partnered with Immobile with the task of replacing Robert Lewandowski is Adrian Ramos, formerly of Hertha Berlin. He has also underperformed on his 16 goal tally last season, managing only five goals in sixteen appearances so far this season.
Shinji Kagawa has dipped in performance since his debut goal against Freiburg in mid-September after re-signing for the club after a two-year spell at Manchester United while Nuri Sahin has failed to hit the peaks he showed at his first stint at the Signal Iduna, himself a brief journeyman at Real Madrid and Liverpool. Although Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrik Mkhitaryan have performed well in periods, neither have stood the challenge of replacing the furniture of Gotze and Lewandowski.
Many have gone as far as to blame the very man at the helm at Dortmund. Overseeing his project for over six years now, Klopp has won two Bundesliga titles, one DFB Pokal, two German super-cups as well as guiding Dortmund to the UEFA Champions League final in 2013.He is seen as the architect as well as the builder of all that is the modern Borussia. When he took the job six years ago, Dortmund were facing serious financial difficulties and faced the possibility of bankruptcy. Going through three managers in the 2006/07 season, they finished seventh, while the following season were lucky to avoid relegation, finishing thirteenth.
Klopp is unique as a manager in both his public persona, personality and ideas about the game of football. One of the first managers to successfully implement a modern system of high-pressure orientated football, Klopp won acclaim worldwide for his focus on attacking football and integrating younger players from the club’s youth system into the first-team.
Under Klopp, Dortmund effectively play a system known as Umschaltspiel. In this, Dortmund move the ball from defence to attack in lighting-quick fashion, deploying counter-attacks that break with players that have pace and the technical ability of critical decision-making when passing the ball to team-mates.
All of this has reaped wonderous and seemingly endless rewards for Dortmund, and upon reflection, the current predicament that Dortmund find themselves in is the only notable difficulty that Klopp has had to face in his six-year reign. And behind the poor results many have turned against the manager. Not the fans of BVB, who have backed Klopp since his arrival, but critics of Dortmund see their recent form as a result of burnout. With the sheer amount of energy and robust physical endurance and stamina required for a player to play the Dortmund system, the energy levels and physical condition of Borussia’s players are under scrutiny.This as well as a lack of a Plan B in terms of tactics has seen Klopp take his share of the blame, but the loyal collective of Dortmund fans are certain that Klopp can ride the wave and get the project back on track.
In a recent interview, Jurgen Klopp confessed that those working at Dortmund do in fact know the issues that need to be mended, but that finding a remedy is another issue altogether. “Our problem is not the problem, our problem is the solution”, he said. A telling quote of a man shrouded in mystic and allure, one cannot deny that Klopp keeps his cards held close to his chest. It is also another thing to deny the man that built the enduring legacy of a modern European elite a chance to remedy a mistake. “Usually in football, you are responsible for all faults you make.”
“If it was only a question of luck and a change of coach would make a difference, you only have to call me and I won’t stand in the way. But as long as no-one comes to me and says ‘we have someone who can do better’, I simply can’t leave. I am not standing in the way, but I simply can’t go until there is a better solution. The responsibility is too big.”
Pep Guardiola has always liked 3-4-3. First implemented in disguise, it was at Barcelona that the Spaniard first adopted the formation. Although his Barca side were better known for playing with a 4-3-3 in order to accommodate their passing brand of football, Guardiola, the tactician that he is, secretly applied a 3-4-3.
Similarities between his Barcelona past and his Bayern present are not uncommon. Aside from the obvious blue and red blaugrana kit that Bayern will be sporting this season, similar tactics have been adopted. This can be seen most predominantly in both tactical formations and playing style.
Whilst at Barcelona, Guardiola would often (initially) set his side up with four defenders, three midfielders, and three forwards. However during games this would be altered greatly. With right back Daniel Alves coming into midfield and Eric Abidal at left back staying put, Barcelona were transformed into a four man midfield. This four man midfield was ideal for maintaining possession, with more bodies in the centre of the pitch. With more bodies Barcelona could pass the ball more freely, with more players in close proximity to the man with the ball (eg: Busquets, Xavi, etc).
All of this was of course set up with an attacking state of mind. When defensive duties came into call, Alves, if it was Alves who made up the extra midfield player, would revert back to the base formation of 4-3-3, with Carlos Puyol shifting left to make up a centre back pairing with Gerard Pique. Sounds simple. Take it a step further if Lionel Messi (as often does) drops deep into the ‘hole’ in midfield. This creates a five man midfield, with three defenders and two attackers.
Guardiola set up in this manner as a means to keep possession of the ball. Keeping possession was a crucial aspect of the tika-taka style of play implemented by Barcelona during the Guardiola years. And many of his previous Barca traits can be seen in his new project at Bayern.
In their 1-1 draw with Schalke 04 Bayern too adopted a 3-4-3 formation. The movement of David Alaba to left midfield from left back, thus creating a four-man midfield, parallels that of Daniel Alves at Barcelona. With new signing Xabi Alonso dropping deep between Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber, Philipp Lahm was pushed forward in attack to right midfield. Although initially set up with Mario Gotze behind the duo of Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski, it was clear that Lewandowski would operate as a lone striker, with Gotze pushed out to left wing and Müller playing in the ‘number 10’ role behind Lewandowski.
Similar to his Barcelona side, Pep Guardioa’s Bayern also adopt two different systems during play: one for going forward and one for defending. Against Schalke Bayern alternated between a 3-4-1-2 going forward and a 4-3-3 in defence. When tracking back, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm fell into a simple four man defence with Jerome Boateng and Holger Badtsuber moving inwards to centre back. Likewise the three man midfield of Alonso, Gotze and Rode would fall back to defend directly in front of the defence, applying pressure to the Schalke attack. Similarities can be drawn player to player (eg: Alonso at Bayern to Busquets at Barca; Mario Gotze to Andres Iniesta) but this is not like for like in the way that the formation adaptation is.
The system itself did not succeed against Schalke. With Robert Lewandowski isolated up front, and no chances being created for him by the likes of Mario Gotze and Thomas Müller, Bayern lacked serious penetration in the final third. The game passed newboys Sebastian Rode and Juan Bernat by, whilst Xherdan Shaqiri provided a typically frustrating performance, with odd glimpses of good play. Late in the second half Schalke added more aggression to their play in search of an equaliser to Lewandowski’s opener. Encouragement for Bayern could be seen in a model Philipp Lahm performance and Xabi Alonso’s like-for-like fill for Toni Kroos. With Arjen Robben, Thiago Alcantara, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Frank Ribery all due back from injury, Bayern should be looking more familiar both in terms of lineup and performance, in the coming weeks.
It is said to be the mark of a good manager to have a distinct style of play, but that a great manager learns to adapt, and evolve, depending on his players and resources available. Pep Guardiola appears to be taking a half and half approach to this at Bayern. Although players with different skill-sets are available to him at Bayern, Guardiola persists with his passing style, although not as rigorously as was carried at FC Barcelona.
This new passing style was evident from Bayern’s first game under Guardiola. Bayern had never been previously accustomed to playing the ball around at the back in slow, steady buildup play, so to speak. But with Pep at the helm it appears that the manager has taken his own style with him to Munich. Not evolving so much as implementing his own style to his team.
This is not necessarily a criticism, however the similarities are there to be seen.
In his first season at the Allianz Arena, Guardiola managed to win the league and cup double, securing the Bundesliga title in record fashion with seven games remaining. However, when taken into account that his predecessor Jupp Heynckes had won the treble the year before, Guardiola’s achievement is not an improvement. Bayern’s 5-0 aggregate humiliation at the hands of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid was a clear low point for Bayern and Guardiola alike.
-It was later revealed the deep and psychological impact that the loss had taken on the team. With Bayern having wrapped up the Bundesliga in late March, claiming the UEFA Champions League title was the essential priority.
And so it seems that no less than winning the European Cup in his second season in charge will do for Guardiola. When announced as the successor to Jupp Heynckes in January 2013 and with Bayern’s treble winning season, it appeared that the addition of Guardiola to the ranks was a step forward for the German champions and a sign of progression. A surge of Bayern Munich domination was set to be unleashed, but again it seems that last seasons failure to bring home the UEFA Champions League, greatly diminished this.
With the addition of Mario Götze and Thiago Alcântara last season, as well as Xabi Alonso, Robert Lewandowski, Pepe Reina and Mehdi Benatia to the squad this season, Bayern’s squad depth is second to none across all other European competitors. Bayern have themselves contributed to the growth of ‘super clubs’ across Europe recently. Similar to Chelsea FC, Real Madrid CF and Manchester City, Bayern have built their club on the basis of high quality squad depth. The top football clubs of 2014 must exist with an eleven of world class players as well as a bench suited with players capable of making an impact.
The growth of super clubs such as Bayern creates fierce competition for places, most notably with goalkeepers. Bayern too have followed in the trend of having two established “number one’s” in Manuel Neuer and Pepe Reina competing for a place in the teamsheet. Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City too share this healthy dilemma.
Pep Guardiola’s goal this season, simple in clarity, is the UEFA Champions League or nothing. With Bayern expected, as they have done for the past two seasons, to claim the Bundesliga title, this season’s European Cup must be going back to Munich, and into the hands of Pep Guardiola.
There have been many great treble-winning teams in history. Manchester United of 1999, FC Barcelona of 2009, Inter Milan of 2010, and now most recently, Bayern Münich of 2013. After recently confirming their technically four trophy season with a 3-2 victory over VFB Stuttgart they now stake their name in a very exclusive club of teams to accomplish the feat. Led by Jupp Heynckes, Bayern have achieved arguably their greatest ever season in modern times winning the Bundesliga title, the UEFA Champions League along with the German Super-Cup and the domestic Pokal Cup. All done in a devastatingly dominating manner of clinicalness, power and pristine play on the ball. However, can this Bayern side filled with world class players as well as coaching staff be compared to the great sides that have gone before them? Or can they build on the now laid foundations to create the greatest side ever witnessed in world football?
The ascendancy of Bayern this season could well have been aided by previous failures. Losing two UEFA Champions League finals in the space of three seasons can have serious effect on professionals hungry for the taste of success. Especially those loyal players such as
captain Philipp Lahm or central midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. As well as not having won the biggest prize in world football in twelve years Bayern, who are classed as one of Europe’s heavyweights have had nothing to show for their work. The rise of Borussia Dortmund claiming two Bundesliga titles in a row as well as acquiring a Pokal Cup also meant that Bayern’s place as the top dogs of German football was slipping away. A spot that they had been holding comfortably for the decade. Something had to change.
This change came in a number of different ways however none as formidable as the appointment of previously interim manager Jupp Heynckes as the successor of Louis van Gaal in July 2011. It can be seen that Heynckes had taken advantage of some of van Gaal’s work in implementing previously winger Bastian Schweinsteiger into a more central, holding position as well as taking young stars in Thomas Müller, Holger Badstuber and Toni Kroos into his starting eleven. However his first season in charge did not achieve the hype that surrounded it losing out in the Bundesliga title race to Borussia Dortmund as well as suffering a semi final loss to eventual winners Schalke 04 in the DFB Pokal not to mention a second UEFA Champions League final loss in three years. Changes would once again have to be made.
And they were. The acquisition of €40 million rated Athletic Bilbao midfielder Javi Martinez, highly rated Swiss wide playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri, Brazilian defender Dante, along with forwards Claudio Pizarro and Mario Mandžukić brought Münich’s spending total to over the €70 million mark. However these signings proved crucial in the season to follow. These key signings along with the development of Austrian left back David Alaba and the re-development of wide men Frank Ribéry and Arjen Robben as to aid the defense set up created a masterpiece for which Jupp Heynckes to work with.
In the duration of the 2012/13 season Bayern maintained the lowest goals conceded within the top European leagues whilst scoring 98 goals along their way with only one loss coming at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen, winning 4 trophies, whilst also breaking the Bundesliga point record with
a total of 91 from 34 games played, and claiming the league title in record fashion with 6 games to spare. Impressive, but they weren’t quite finished there. They also claimed the domestic German cup as well as the UEFA Champions League for a fifth time to name but a few. Perhaps a highlight of this overwhelming supremacy coming at the expense of FC Barcelona when the German outlet obliterated the Catalan giants favourited by many to claim the European title, 7-0 on aggregate. A UEFA Champions League semi final record.
However how do this state-of-the-art Bayern side contend with past dominants of the game? The teams of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Barcelona regime under Pep Guardiola or the Real Madrid of the 1950’s. Can this Bayern side surpass all previous greats and encrypt their name into the modern day history books? They most certainly think so. With a long term plan in mind with the appointment of previous Barca boss Pep Guardiola as manager and the purchase of highly rated German future star Mario Götze as well as the likely addition of fellow Borussia Dortmund forward Robert Lewandowski, ‘Die Bayern’ look set for the long hall as the empirical side in world football.