There is a Borussia Dortmund shirt exhibition on at the moment, with 32 shirts displayed from 1966 to 2014. The venue is a Catholic church in Dortmund and above the entrance in the building are the words, in big black and yellow letters: “Church, football, trust in God.”
Dortmund has slumped to the bottom of the Bundesliga, and, with coach Jurgen Klopp struggling to find answers, some fans might want to start looking for divine inspiration.
How has this happened? How can a team that has been in the top two in Germany for the last four years, reached the Champions League final only 18 months ago and played Arsenal off the pitch as recently as September, lose eight games in its first 13 league matches, and be on a current sequence of one win in seven (and that, you may remember, was courtesy of an own goal from Borussia Monchengladbach’s Christoph Kramer with a 40-yard lob over his own goalkeeper)?
Dortmund has been unlucky with injuries, it’s true, but it was missing six first-team players from the Arsenal win, and that did not bother the club then. The short answer is that at both ends of the pitch, the team is not what it was. Firstly, the defense is missing center backs Mats Hummels and Sokratis, while Neven Subotic is recently back from nine months out with knee ligament damage, and it shows.
Defensive errors have crept in and all of the back five, including normally reliable goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, have made regular mistakes that have led to goals.
Then there is the loss of Robert Lewandowski, who followed Mario Gotze as the team’s jewel moving to Bayern Munich. There has been no direct replacement for him, and Marco Reus, the one player who gives it flair, invention and pace in attack, has only played four games so far this season while he deals with regular injury concerns.
The Reus story is compelling on and off the pitch: on it, when he plays, he makes his teammates play better, and the team lacks confidence without him. Off it, stories about his future have dominated the backdrop to the season, with Der Speigel reporting that, last December, Bayern president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge made a secret pact with Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke that if it allowed Lewandowski to join Bayern on a free transfer last summer (and not join Real Madrid for a fee last January, as was proposed), it would not enter the bidding for Reus.
“There is no issue with Reus and Bayern, and there have been no talks,” the player’s advisor Dirk Hebel told Bild.
Last weekend, Dortmund lost 2-0 to Eintracht Frankfurt and just as in previous defeats, it played decently, created chances but failed to take them. This time, though, after conceding the first goal, a nervousness kicked in. “More freak show material” was how Klopp referred to Frankfurt’s second goal, when Mathias Ginter headed a long ball over Weidenfeller to allow Haris Seferovic to gratefully tap home.
There seemed a change in the mood after this result: Klopp said he had no intention of resigning, though even answering such a question without a smart-aleck remark seemed out of character; sports director Michael Zorc admitted the team is in a relegation battle; defender/midfielder/winger Kevin Grosskreutz, who sums up Dortmund’s working-class ethos (last year he admitted he slept in a bedroom bedecked in the club colors), posted a long apology on Instagram, with a promise for better times: “It hurts my soul… we have failed as a team… We need you [the fans] for it… Borussia Dortmund will never go down!”
Is this the biggest challenge of Klopp’s career?
“No,” he told BT Sport when asked, referring to his fights against relegation at Mainz. “Our problem is not a problem. Our problem is the solution.”
But that was before Dortmund lost its last two games and slipped to the bottom. Dortmund will not sack Klopp, and nor should it.
“I don’t need a vote of confidence, I’ve had it a thousand times before. The team needs it now,” he told the German press this week. “It’s a little tough at the moment, and we’ve got to be ready for that. I am.”
Nor will he resign; not midseason (not his style) and, as most fans think, not at the end of the season, despite his comments to in the BT interview that he could see himself as a coach in England. He is contractually committed to Dortmund until 2018, and fans believe that the troubles of this season make it even more likely that he will stay to correct things for next year, that he wouldn't want to leave the club on such a low point.
Klopp is insisting this is not about him – “I have no emergency scenario of how to get out of here with my head held high to save my reputation,” he said – but we are at the point where we can no longer presume that Dortmund will start to climb the table.
It is still only 10 points away from fourth place and a Champions League qualifying chance, but this is not on the club’s agenda. Klopp’s future, and Marco Reus’, can wait for another day. Hoffenheim, in seventh, comes to Dortmund to play Friday night. The ambition is simply to get out of the bottom three. And that, if the previous 13 games are anything to go by, will be easier said than done.