LONDON -- Roman Weidenfeller raised his hand one final time, to acknowledge the friendly applause from the Arsenal supporters. The Dortmund keeper and his teammates were politely clapped off the Emirates pitch after Arsenal's 2-1 win. Maybe the crowd sensed that Jürgen Klopp's young team had tried its best out there, that it had indeed "given all" as the 44-year-old manager put it. The Gunners supporters clearly enjoyed seeing such a young, committed side, eager to run and toil even when the game was long lost.
Whether the applause from the opposition had been so generous if Borussia had somehow managed to get a result in London is doubtful, of course: it's much easier to take a shine to gallant losers. Somewhat surprisingly though, a similarly benign attitude was discernible in the German media's coverage of the German champions' latest setback in the Champions League, too. With the exception of Spiegel Online, who wrote that "Dortmund (is) too small for Europe," most reports concentrated on the hard-luck element of the defeat, the early injuries to midfielders Sven Bender (broken jaw and ruptured knee ligament) and Mario Götze (dead leg) within the first 30 minutes.
Klopp told reporters "this should not be an excuse" but did stress the extent of "the shock" for his team as well as the tactical implications. "You only make substitutions at halftime if you are having a poor game," he said. "To make two substitutions in the first half is awful. Our plan was to bring on fresh players late on the match. Instead, some had to keep going even though they were spent" "They lost their organization a little bit (after the injuries)," agreed Arsène Wenger.
Too a man, the Borussia players felt that they had played a decent game. "The small details made the difference," said defender Mats Hummels.
Was it really just a case of unfortunate circumstances though? Three defeats in three away games in the competition cannot be explained away as a mere blip. Once again, Dortmund were not able to play like the team who tore up the Bundesliga season last season. A look at last year's group stage exit in the Europa League, when the club only managed one away win against Lviv, suggests there is a huge gap between domestic and international performance levels. A group that was seen as fairly straightforward after the draw has become almost impossible to get out of. Dortmund can theoretically still qualify -- they need to beat Marseille by four goals and hope that Arsenal will beat Olympiakos -- but chances are they won't even have the Europa League to look forward to come spring.
Wenger's appraisal ("they have the most potential in the group but can't bring it to bear") hinted at a deeper malaise. A lack of experience is certainly part of the problem. Only Weidenfeller and captain Sebastian Kehl had played in the Champions League before and a certain sense of naivety showed again on Wednesday, especially in the run-up to Robin van Persie's double strike. "It's been a learning curve for us," admitted Klopp. The coach would be able to point to the problems of Man City, another Champions League debutant, to support this thesis. Maybe it simply takes time and many games at this level. "We'll be able to use the knowledge we have gained next year," predicted Klopp.
But then again, the success of lesser sides such as Trabzonspor (Turkey), FC Basel (Switzerland) or APOEL (Cyprus) in this year's competition would suggest that the overall level is perhaps not quite as high this season. Dortmund, specifically, should have done a lot better against a poor Marseille side and the unspectacular Olympiakos.
Maybe Borussia and Klopp must look at its tactics instead. Against Arsenal, the visitors managed to close down space and pin back the Premier League side's midfield for the entire first half. It was an impressive defensive showing, pressing at its very best. But it came at a high price. Dortmund collectively ran so much in its attempts to get close to the ball the that its own attack game suffered almost as much as that of the opposition. Only two chances were created before Shinji Kagawa's last-minute strike put some gloss on the result. Dortmund is the fittest side in the Bundesliga but it works far too hard to generate goals, unlike Arsenal for example, who can rely on the individual class of the forward line to score. "Robin van Persie does not have to look for the goals, they find him," said Wenger. Dortmund, on the other hand, need to look very hard, all the time. This blue-collar approach works just about well enough in the Bundesliga where most sides eventually make mistakes. But in higher-tempo Europe, simply upping the mileage is not enough.
In fact, it's counterproductive, as far as scoring goals is concerned. "The lack of precision going forward" that Klopp cited can be explained as a function of the mental and physical effort the manager's game plan demands. This brings to mind Bastian Schweinsteiger's assessment after Germany lost 1-0 to Spain at the World Cup. "We spent so much time getting to the ball that we were too tired to do something with it when we had it," said the Bayern Munich midfielder after the eventual World champions' master-class in possession football.
A second but related problem is a slight lack of balance in terms of quality inside the squad. Dortmund has to rely a lot on the creativity of its midfield, perhaps too much. The fullbacks, Marcel Schmelzer and Lukasz Piszcek are solid but hardly the stuff that top European sides are made off. In London, they offered close to nothing going forward, a problem that put even more pressure on the likes of Kagawa and Kevin Großkreutz to take up wide positions on their own when not in possession. In addition, striker Robert Lewandowski is intelligent, selfless and clearly still growing as a player but Dortmund's 4-5-1 system could really have done with a more experienced and robust focal point at the front. The decision not to pursue the signing of Miroslav Klose in the summer, while financially sound, looks more and more like a lost opportunity.
The fundamental questions of tactics and personnel will have to be addressed in the summer but in the meantime, Dortmund's disappointment is tempered by a sense of perspective. The club's main objective, it is important to remember, is the consolidation of its domestic position as Bayern's chief rivals. A top four finish in the league is much more crucial than reaching the last 16 in the Champions League. Perhaps it will be even possible to push Bayern all the way for the championship again. To that extent, getting knocked out early in Europe migh just beneficial again, just like last season. Süddeutsche Zeitung certainly thinks so. "Borussia is back in the title race," was the Munich-based paper's upbeat verdict on the defeat in London. The next couple of matches, the Ruhr derby against Schalke on Saturday, and against Lucien Favre's high-flying Borussia Mönchengladbach the week after, will ultimately have a bigger bearing on Dortmund's fortunes than Wednesday night.