The occasion Die Borussen faithful have been waiting for with bated breath is here – well, almost! Nearly a decade has passed since the last time Borussia Dortmund lifted the Bundesliga trophy under the tutelage of Mathias Sammer. Last time around, Dortmund had to wait till the final day to clinch their sixth title, by beating their rivals by a hair’s breadth. With only four more games in hand, Dortmund are presently eight points ahead of 2nd placed Leverkusen and are favorites to take the cherry. If Leverkusen drop points in their next Bundesliga game and Dortmund does not, they will win the trophy with three more games to spare, a fair testimony to their dominance throughout the season.
A couple of decades back Dortmund became a household name in the nation and the continent alike. In 1993 they reached the final of the UEFA Cup. However, their title hopes were severely dashed by Juventus, who won the tie by a staggering aggregate of 6-1. Dortmund took the loss in their stride and won the Bundesliga title in back to back seasons (1994-95, 1995-96). Success stuck to Dortmund like white on rice for another season, the season of 1996-97 when Dortmund qualified for their first ever Champions League final. It was Juventus again that stood between glory and the German outfit. And Dortmund defied all odds and made revenge sweeter by thumping Juventus 3-1 in the final to win their first ever European trophy. Dortmund then went on to beat the Brazilian club Cruzeiro 2-0 in the Intercontinental Cup final in 1997.
Since their last Bundesliga success in 2001-02, their fortunes have been on the skid. Poor financial management led to a heavy debt load and the sale of their Westfalenstadion ground. Failing to qualify for the Champions’ League group stage added to their misery. In 2005, the club nearly reached bankruptcy when it’s share prices plummeted 80% in the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. The players had to bear the brunt by taking a pay-cut of 20%. But things changed slightly for the better when the leased stadium was renamed after an insurance company to Signal Iduna Park and the sale of Rosicky and Odonkor. In a period when staying in the top flight seemed almost unattainable, the appointment of Jürgen Klopp as the club’s new manager turned things around.
Jürgen Klopp, a master tactician, joined Dortmund in 2008 after an eight-year managerial spell with Mainz. During his tenure at Mainz, Klopp helped them earn their first ever Bundesliga appearance, as well as qualification to Uefa Cup in 2005-06. In his first season, Klopp brought back glory to Dortmund when they defeated Bayern in the final of DFB Super Cup. Dortmund finished 6th in the first season in Klopp’s managerial debut. In his next season his young team finished 5th in the league, earning them their first European qualification in years. This year, the team is enjoying a breakthrough season and all credit goes to the young master tactician.
In The Guardian, Raphael Honigstein commented: “After a decade in which having a strong “footballing identity” was seen as a must, Klopp’s approach tantalisingly hints at a post-ideological future when there will only be micro-tactics left. Big game-plans might be less decisive than the ability to find the best possible solutions in every situation.”
Tactics and strategies help us to deal with complex situations. The game itself has evolved a lot to become lot more complex and faster than what it was 30 years ago. Most of the teams are built around a strategy in which the manager wants his men to follow. Bayern try to dominate possession in a way so as to control most part of the game. That was Van Gaal’s way of simplifying the complexity of the game. So is that of Barcelona where the players are made to practice hard to feel the guilt of losing possession. If the opposition does not see much of the ball, the chances of them putting forth any challenge are slim.
This is where Klopp has been visionary with his concept football where a lot depends on the mental aspect of the game. Rather than sticking to one single plan, the approach is to adjust the formation in line with the demands of the game and opposition at hand. Of course, the basic tactical skeleton would remain same, but the players will swap positions according to the situation (4-2-3-1 Attacking, 4-2-3-1 Deep and 4-2-3-1 Asymmetric). A game plan, in which the protagonists are expected to take the decisions, be creative in their own way, make adjustments in accordance with the situation, to support each other and to co-create and remain synchronized in both offensive and defensive duties. Being strategic does not mean to tell others what to do. A large part of it is to define where not to tell them what to do.
Klopp’s scheme of concept football has been inherited from legendary Volker Finke’s vision when the latter was the coach of Freiburg. The institutions of Life Kinetic – exercises in coordination and movement, was also a part of Klopp’s agenda, “It doesn’t look like it has anything to do with football, but it teaches you the connection between awareness and motion sequences, between brain and body.” Finke helped a lowly regarded team with limited quality resources to qualify for Bundesliga’s top tier and managed them to finish third in the next season with his version of concept football – a thoroughly drilled, collective movement at a high tempo. During that time Freiburg were known as Breisgau Brazilians for their wonderfully pleasing and technically superior style of football that saw them pass the ball both artfully and precisely. Finke used to say, “I don’t want team leaders. That’s a line of thinking that buries other players’ strengths. The only kind of discipline that the team needs is that the players use their heads and make decisions by themselves.”
Klopp’s team has also not been built around any one single player. With experienced players like Kehl and Owomoyela out injured for the significant part of the season, Klopp made full use of a team with an average age of just above 23 years. The players were quick to grasp Klopp’s vision and they stuck to their task. The first two years of failure helped Klopp understand the holes in his system and he came back strong by making the defense stronger, with every player contributing collectively to defend. The same applies for midfield and they attacked in unison too. Midfielders like Sahin(8 goals), Kagawa(12 goals), Großkreutz(9 goals) and Götze(8 goals) have all pitched in with goals in addition to Barrios and Lewandowski’s numbers. The midfield quintet is quick, fluid and interchangeable forcing the oppositions keep guessing the strategy. There is so much pace and movement that they are as likely to be pinging crosses in or pushing into the opposition box as often as the more advanced wide players.
Of course, having the correct set of players did help Klopp’s cause. When Kehl was injured, Sven Bender stepped in his place and has since then featured in most of Bundesliga’s team of the week, earning him a place in the German national team as well. When Kagawa was injured after returning from the Asia Cup, precocious whizkid Götze replaced him in the playmaker’s role and Dortmund never felt Kagawa’s absence. Kuba grabbed the opportunity to fill in Götze’s shoes in the right flank and has done pretty well since then. In the same lines, veteran fullback Owomoyela’s absence was never felt thanks to the exploits of Piszczek.
The standard tactics used by Klopp is an attacking 4-2-3-1 with a fast paced pressing game and a high backline. The move begins in defense with Hummels playing as the libero and connecting well with the midfield. This game plan includes a short, probing passing game. Both Bender and Sahin play the role of holding midfielders, with Bender sticking to a more of a ball winning midfielder and Sahin used to connect with the attacking third of the midfield. Kagawa play the modern playmaker’s role as well as an auxiliary striker, whereas the wide players are deployed as inside forwards, allowing the full backs to overlap.
In 4-2-3-1 Deep variant, Sahin play as a deep-lying playmaker, whereas Bender remains a ball winning midfielder with more defensive duties. Kagawa plays the role of an attacking midfielder and provides support for the lone target man, Barrios. The wide players maintain the width. This strategy has a quick counter attacking and direct passing associated with it.
As for the asymmetric approach, it is a compromise between attack and defense or in other words, right-heavy or left-heavy. This involves a mixed passing game. Bender remains the defensive ball winning midfielder while Sahin plays the box to box midfielder’s role. Kagawa play as a trequartista to an advanced forward in Barrios. Now it all depends on the strength/weakness of the oppositions to decide the position of the wide midfielders. If the oppositions have weakness in their left flank, Dortmund will play a right midfielder as a winger to put more pressure on the oppositions vulnerable left flank, but the left midfielder will play the role of a wide midfielder, working in tandem with the left fullback.
One example of Klopp’s unparalleled ability as a strategist was his implementation of an unfamiliar 4-3-2-1 strategy against his former club Mainz, when the two clubs met in the first half of the season. The team had only 45 minutes to get accustomed to the strategy, which was solely imposed to counter the fast pressing football of Thomas Tuchel’s men with an even more pressing football by giving no room for movement in the middle of the park for the Mainz players. The team showed a solid maturity in grasping the concept of 4-3-2-1 and they inflicted the then pacesetters Mainz a defeat by the margin of 2-0. It was not only one of the pinnacles the team had reached under Klopp, but most importantly also a reminder of even greater things to come.