Borussia Dortmund and their charismatic manager Jürgen Klopp have a refreshing approach to football that has made the football world sit up and take notice. Dortmund, or BVB, are fast-becoming the most talked about team in European football.
Dortmund's popularity owes much to their turbo-charged, exhilarating style of play. This article looks at the Bundesliga club's success story since Klopp became manager in 2008 characterised by his brave and innovative management style, and a training regime which incorporates unique, cutting-edge technology.
Football fans are eagerly awaiting the forthcoming Champions League semi-finals. In prospect are some genuinely mouthwatering ties involving four excellent teams. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund all play exciting, attacking football. As such, the task of predicting who will emerge victorious and progress to the showpiece final at Wembley on May 25th to claim the greatest prize in club football is extremely difficult.
The Klopp Effect
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all have a big history and an equally big reputation. By contrast, Dortmund are a fast-developing young side who are regarded by many as potential Champions League winners for the first time since their famous victory over Juventus in the 1997 final.
Their 45-year old manager Klopp is a forward-thinking and engaging personality who has masterminded the Bundesliga club's rise to the top of German football and to the threshold of becoming the best side in Europe. Klopp, who spent almost 20 years as a player and manager at Mainz before accepting the Dortmund job, is a man of vision. Under him the club have gained an increasing number of admirers by playing a style of football that is arguably the most entertaining in Europe at present.
Following his appointment in May 2008, Klopp quickly turned around the fortunes of an ailing Dortmund side who, since winning the Bundesliga title in 2002, had enjoyed little success and were beset by a series of financial crises. His record is impressive. In his first season Dortmund improved their Bundesliga final position from 13th to 6th and the following season to 5th.
In 2010-11 Dortmund really began to gel and excel, helped by Klopp's shrewd activity in the transfer market which included the signings of Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa (€350,000), full-back Lukasz Piszczek (free) and striker Robert Lewandowski (€4.5million). After the influential Kagawa became injured Klopp took the bold decision to promote Mario Götze, a highly promising 17-year old who had captained the Germany U17 side to a European Championship win. He quickly attracted rave reviews for some sensational performances and soon after received the first of his 22 full caps for Germany.
Die Borussen's fast, attacking football took the Bundesliga by storm and they won successive league titles. Their points total of 81 in 2010-11 was a Bundesliga record. Nuri Sahin was named best Bundesliga player for that season, while Götze marked his arrival in the team with 6 goals and 15 assists. The next season saw Dortmund make further progress by achieving a league and cup double after a stunning 5-2 DFB-Pokal cup final victory over Bayern Munich. The only disappointment in that memorable season was a poor showing in the Champions League which saw them eliminated in the group stages.
Whilst Dortmund have played second fiddle to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, currently lying 20 points adrift of their rivals, their performances in the Champions League are a completely different story. Klopp was determined to avoid a repeat of last year's disappointment. After key midfielder Kagawa signed for Manchester United, his replacement was Borussia Monchengladbach's former Dortmund player and current Bundesliga player of the year Marco Reus. Although this was an obvious masterstroke of a transfer, how Dortmund must have regretted having to pay €17m for a player they released in 2006, allegedly because he was physically too slight.
With Reus on board Dortmund have been a revelation in this season's Champions League. They are the only unbeaten side in the competition and finished top of the so-called ‘group of death’ which included Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax. They beat both Madrid and Manchester City at home and narrowly failed to win the away ties.
A Young Team
Dortmund are a young team with an average age of 24. Their squad contains several products of their youth academy. The side includes German internationals Hummels, Schmelzer, Bender, Gündogan, Owomoyela, Grosskreutz, Götze and Reus. Their two oldest players are captain Sebastian Kehl, a 33-year old German international defensive midfielder and 32-year old goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller. But there is plenty more youth in the BVB squad including many emerging German under-21 talents including Hornschuh, Leitner, Schieber, Sobiech, Ginczek, Koch and Bittencourt.
Dortmund's foreign contingent includes a trio of Polish internationals, striker Lewandowski, attacking full-back Piszczek, and Jakob 'Kuba' Blaszczykowski, the current Polish captain. The Serbian international Subotić has formed a commanding defensive partnership with Hummels. Nuri Sahin, the Turkish international and former Dortmund academy player, has returned to the club on loan from Real Madrid to strengthen the midfield.
The Dortmund side contains many young, wonderfully gifted players. Perhaps the best examples are attacking midfielders Götze and Reus, widely regarded as two of the best players Germany has produced in a generation. Götze displays electrifying pace and natural ability in his passing, movement, vision, dribbling and shooting. His almost telepathic link-up play with Marco Reus has really grabbed the headlines. Reus also has terrific pace and technique and a wonderful ability to score or create goals. German legend Franz Beckenbauer has described Götze and Reus as the world's best midfield duo. That is high praise indeed. Striker Lewandowski is a perfect example of the modern number 9. He has an impressive scoring record for Dortmund and possesses great pace, technique, mobility together with an ability to hold the ball up and bring others players into the game.
Style of Play
Reflecting Klopp's strong commitment to playing fast, free-flowing football, Dortmund work hard and press teams high up the pitch. Although their pressing style resembles that of Barcelona, they attack with greater speed and intensity than the Catalan side whose priority is to retain possession of the ball and build up attacks in a more measured way. Klopp believes that open, exciting, attacking football is what Dortmund's loyal fans expect and deserve. How refreshing to hear such a positive attitude towards football and fans.
And Dortmund fans show up in numbers. Attendances at their imposing Westfalenstadion last season averaged an impressive 80,521 per game, the second highest in Europe behind Barcelona's average of 84,119.
Dortmund work tirelessly with and without the ball and rapidly press and close down the opposition to try to regain possession. People have begun to wax lyrical about the technical brilliance of their play. The build-up play in Dortmund's recent opening goal against Malaga in the Champions League quarter-final is one example. The speed of passing and movement that led to Reus's mid-air, back-heeled flick to put Lewandowski through to score was sublime.
Although Klopp is renowned for his commitment to play open attacking football, he is no 'one trick pony'. His shrewd tactical ability was demonstrated against Real Madrid in the Champions League group stages earlier this year. Allowing Madrid the majority of ball possession, the Dortmund players closely pressed Madrid players like Xabi Alonso to limit his ability to pass and bring others into the game. Klopp and his players did their homework to learn how to anticipate Madrid's play and successfully eliminated or restricted both the supply to and goal-scoring opportunities for the highly dangerous Cristiano Ronaldo. Whether Klopp will employ the same tactical manoeuvres in the semi-final against Madrid or have another trick up his sleeve is an intriguing question.
After performing well in beating the highly-fancied Shaktar Donetsk in the last 16, Dortmund escaped defeat by the skin of their teeth against a very good Malaga side in a remarkable quarter-final. BVB's two stoppage time goals which secured their passage to the semi-finals made this the most breathtaking encounter in European football for years.
Footbonaut - Dortmund's Secret Weapon
In addition to Klopp's technical and tactical acumen, there may be another explanation for the brilliance we have seen in some of Dortmund's play. Last year the club incorporated into their training a highly sophisticated computerised ball feeding machine called Footbonaut, as a means to improve players' reaction time and develop aspects of technique such as ball control, spatial awareness and peripheral vision.
This is briefly how it works. A player stands in a circle in the middle of a 14 square metre synthetic grass pitch. Balls are fired at him at varying heights and speeds by one of eight specially programmed ball machines. The player has to make split-second decisions to control the ball and kick it at one of 64 targets, or panels, which light up to indicate where the player should aim.
Footbonaut has been described as an intense form of training that could not easily be replicated in a normal training environment. According to the designer of Footbonaut Christian Güttler, after 15 minutes using the machine a player will have received and passed as many balls as he would do in a normal week of training. Players' performance and development can be closely monitored with data produced by the machine which has been in full use at the club since March 2012. It has also been used to assist the rehabilitation process for injured players.
Footbonaut reflects Dortmund's initiative and forward-thinking as a club. Earlier this year Klopp proudly told Spanish newspaper El Pais that Dortmund are the only team in the world that uses this technology. It also fits perfectly with Klopp's philosophy of playing football with pace and precision. He requires his Dortmund players to think and move at high pace and intensity. Klopp also said in the El Pais newspaper interview, "we want to be very, very quick with our heads and legs. Everything at full speed." Klopp astutely realised that Footbonaut can assist this process by programming players' brains to react quicker, almost instinctively, in the same way as mastering the art of driving a car or playing the piano.
Many people predict that Borussia Dortmund can win the Champions League this year. The semi-final games with Real Madrid on 24th and 30th April will be watched with immense interest by football fans across Europe and around the world. Will we see a repeat of Madrid being stifled and subdued by the Dortmund phenomenon? But, whatever the outcome over the two games, we can be assured of an intriguing contest with more exhilarating football. The glorious and, for other teams, frightening prospect is that Die Borussen are still some way from reaching their full potential. These are exciting times for German and European football.