Dortmund's title defense sputtering
As if things weren't bad enough at the moment, Jürgen Klopp will have to face his nemesis at the Coface-Arena on Saturday afternoon: Stephan Mai. "Stephan who," you ask? Mai is not a player nor a manager but a TV reporter working for a regional channel in the Southwest of Germany. According to the local "WAZ" newspaper, Mai has attended 50 games that have featured Klopp either as a player or a manager (with Mainz and Dortmund) since 1993 -- and Klopp has not won a single one of them. The 43-year-old manager is apparently all too aware of this curious jinx. When his Borussia conceded a late equalizer to draw 1-1 at Kaiserslautern in February, Klopp angrily refused to give Mai an interview after the match, calling him a "Seuchenvogel" (literal translation: a pestilence bird), a harbinger of bad luck.
Mai didn't retaliate. Instead he meekly promised not to visit another Borussia away game that season. But unfortunately for the Dortmund coach, the TV reporter is expected to attend the champions' away game at Mainz this weekend, a game that Dortmund really must win to stave off more doubts and negative thoughts.
Seven points from the six opening games constitutes the worst start to a Bundesliga by a reigning champion for 27 years. Borussia is only 11th in the table, knee-deep in mediocrity country. League leader Bayern Munich is eight points ahead but that's not even the worst of it: Dortmund has already lost as many games now (three) as in the first 26 games of the last campaign. "The pressure is on," said Klopp after the 2-1 defeat at Hannover, a freaky match that his team had led and dominated before conceding two goals in the last four minutes to go home empty-handed.
Recent history suggests that the travails of Black & Yellows shouldn't come as a total surprise. Stuttgart (2007 champions) and Wolfsburg (2009 champions), who also won the league unexpectedly, both struggled in the season after, when the demands of the Champions Leagues brought new challenges. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dortmund's best game of the season, apart from a 3-1 win over a totally disheveled Hamburger SV on the opening day, has come against Arsenal (1-1) in Europe. They've rarely played very badly either, but it's fair to say that Klopp's men have struggled to reach the level of fluidity and quality that saw them leave all competitors in their wake in 2010/11.
The obvious question is: why?
Klopp suggested the problem was psychological. "We are lacking the greed and consistency," he said after the Hannover game. Left back Marcel Schmelzer seemed to concur: "It felt as if we didn't quite fight for it properly at the end. Everybody was simply hoping that nothing would happen. We all need to realize that we have to put in 100 percent for 95 minutes." That sounds as if the team was tired, but all official data suggests Dortmund is not running less than last season. Maybe the real difficulty is keeping your mental sharpness while playing such a labor-intensive game over a long period of time. "Our style is demanding, of course," admitted center back Mats Hummels. "But you mostly feel it when things don't go your way. When you're successful, you don't feel the load as much."
Lack of concentration is certainly a factor, as evidenced in the number of goals conceded from dead-ball situations so far. Three times Dortmund was beaten in such mundane fashion -- as many times as in 17 games last season. "It's unacceptable," said Klopp. "We have tall people in the box who can head out the ball. It's all about concentration." Can the same perhaps be said about their less than convincing goal-scoring attempts, too?
Dortmund 's average possession stats are still formidable at 56 percent, only Bayern Munich has kept the ball better. The team has created 34 clear goal-scoring opportunities, that's very respectable, the sixth-best figure in the league. But their conversion rate, at just over 20 percent, is the worst of all 18 top-flight teams. "The last bit of confidence is missing for us," said Hummels. Again, one could deduce that Dortmund's labor-intensive game is exhausting mentally but then they didn't have that particular problem last year. The main difference is perhaps more prosaic. In the absence of Paraguayan striker Lucas Barrios, who scored 16 goals and provided six assists last season, Dortmund has relied on Polish forward Robert Lewandowski. The 23-year-old Lewandowski is a very decent player but less happy to lead the line on his own the way the more street-smart Barrios did. He doesn't hold up the ball as well and as a consequence, Dortmund has to work harder to get into the box.
Some local experts also point to the enforced changes in central midfield. Dortmund captain Nuri Sahin defected to Real Madrid in the summer and his replacement, the promising but raw Ilkay Gündogan, is still coming to grips with playing for a big team. He's a decent enough player but doesn't have Sahin's strategic vision. Dortmund has lost some of its composure in the middle.
If you take into account that the increasingly important Mario Götze is currently suspended and that neither Shinji Kagawa nor Kevin Großkreutz have been able to replicate last season's performances, it's quite apparent why there's a distinct lack of goals.
The good news is that Barrios is back in training after a lengthy muscle injury but he's unlikely to see too much action before the next international break. Egyptian striker Mohamed Zidan is not exactly challenging for a starting place, so Klopp will have to concentrate on small, incremental changes and improvements instead. "It would be easier if we had to make drastic changes," said the coach. "Turning small screws is much more difficult."
Only time will tell whether Dortmund can adjust, regroup and recharge its batteries in the midst of a very demanding program. If it can't, you can expect to see the club's transfer policy coming under more scrutiny. Writing in an online column for Yahoo, former Germany keeper Oliver Kahn described this season as an "hangover after one year of an adrenaline rush;" the players, he felt, were suffering from higher expectations and pressure. Kahn believes the Dortmund board should have fought the mental fatigue by "buying new players who compete for places" but he also thinks that the lack of new stars amounts to "a vote of confidence" for Götze and Co. and holds out the possibility that the players will repay the faith. In other words, he's not sure either way.
From a purely financial point-of-view Dortmund was definitely wise to keep its powder dry. The club invested mostly inwardly: it raised the wages of key players to avoid a breakup. It was also careful not to spend too much on new, expensive recruits; consolidation is the watchword. After going nearly bankrupt six, seven years ago, Dortmund will not take risks with the balance sheet.
"We just have to stay calm now", advised goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, rightly so. Dortmund's fall from grace might look like full-blown crisis when juxtaposed with last season but that would be an overreaction. Borussia is still playing well enough to win games and it is only five points adrift of an all-important Champions League place. It should be able to make up that deficit over the course of season. Unless Stephan Mai starts attending all their away games, that is.