Shit happens. As much as you scheme and plan, measure and predict, train and prepare, the games still have to be played — and balls will bounce the wrong way, key players will get hurt, and opposing keepers will make incredible saves.
This season, nowhere has more shit happened than at the Westfalenstadion, the 80,000-seat home stadium of Borussia Dortmund. As the Bundesliga returns from its winter break this weekend, Dortmund sits in 17th place out of 18 teams. If the season ended today, the 2013 Champions League runners-up would be relegated. It’s a stunning fall for a team that finished second in both of the last two seasons and first in the two years before that.
So, it’s time to ask …
Is This the End for Borussia Dortmund?
It would be fitting if Dortmund’s end were historically abrupt, as their rise to prominence certainly was. Dortmund jumped from fifth in 2009-10 to back-to-back title wins in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Imagine if Liverpool had completed the job last season and then cemented the accomplishment by winning it all again this year — that’s what Dortmund did.
Just a year after winning the Bundesliga for the third time in 2002, Dortmund found themselves on the verge on bankruptcy, only to be saved by a loan from wealthy rivals (and star-player poachers) Bayern Munich. The club then struggled for the better part of a decade, until current manager Jurgen Klopp took over. Klopp immediately improved the team from 13th to sixth place and then to fifth before the back-to-back titles. While Dortmund’s form has been stunning over the past five years, their performance has also been slightly overstated. The club’s most iconic moment came in the 2012-13 Champions League final against Bayern Munich. It’s easy to forget, though, that without a water-into-wine miracle in the quarterfinals, that matchup never would have happened. Dortmund were down 2-1 heading into injury time against Malaga. They needed to score two goals to advance — and then this happened. Warning: lots of German yelling.
But how would we view Dortmund had they not pulled off that improbable self-rescue? This is not to say they weren’t a very good team; of course they were. You don’t finish first-first-second-second without some serious quality. But maybe part of Dortmund’s success was down to them peaking at a moment when Bayern Munich were struggling and then seizing a dying moment against Malaga? Sure, they napalmed Real Madrid in the first leg of the next round — and hung on through a tight second leg — but take away those few minutes of injury time against Malaga and none of this ever happens. It obviously did, but if Dortmund’s success was always such a high-wire act, then maybe — now that they’ve finally tripped — the depths to which they’ve fallen shouldn’t be so shocking.
The problem with this theory? Dortmund haven’t played anything like the 17th-best team in the Bundesliga. Nope, not by a long shot. Klopp’s side has taken the third-most shots in the league and landed the fifth most on target. Meanwhile, their defense has conceded both the third-fewest total shots and shots on target. Those are the shots numbers of a very good team — maybe one that has slipped slightly from its peak, but still at least a Champions League contender.
The shooting numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. While Dortmund shoots a lot, they’re actually a fairly average expected-goals team, generating only the eighth-highest total in the league at 25.37.1 (As always, all stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.) That relatively low expected-goals total is even more of a concern when you take into account that Dortmund has the second-most possession of any team in the Bundesliga. It’s not sterile possession either, as they’ve completed more passes in the final third than any team save for Bayern. But despite that, the numbers seem to suggest that they aren’t creating a ton of high-quality opportunities.
As they do in almost every statistical category, Bayern Munich lead the way with 37.80.
Dortmund’s shooting percentage is a comically low 6.2 percent, which is second worst in the league. Part of what’s driving that is their low percentage of shots on target — only 30.8, third worst in the league. That number, in turn, is driven by the 29.1 percent of their shots that get blocked — the second-highest number in the league.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a lot of shots and having a lot of them blocked. Bayer Leverkusen, for example, operate along those lines, but Leverkusen aren’t interested in keeping the ball and using possession the way Dortmund are. Dortmund complete 76.5 percent of their passes, while Leverkusen complete 67.9 percent. Taking it a step further, Dortmund successfully complete another action — say, another pass or dribble — after a completed pass 60.3 percent of the time; for Leverkusen, that number is an astonishingly low 48 percent.
In other words, Dortmund maintain possession, stringing together passes and moving the ball around. One completed pass leads to another one and another one after that. Leverkusen, on the opposite end of the spectrum, play a high-paced, helter-skelter game, frequently losing the ball then getting it back again. Bombing away and having lots of shots blocked is a natural result of that style. Sure, there may be defenders in front of you, but they can’t block everything. The whole point of Dortmund’s possession, in an attacking sense, is to create openings for quality attempts on goal — not to just hope a few get through. What’s the point of all that passing and patience if your shots are just going to get blocked?
Good-bye, Superstars; Hello, Injuries and Bad Luck
It’s possible that the talent drain at Dortmund is finally rearing its ugly head. Robert Lewandowski and Mario Götze are absolute superstars, and it was always going to be near impossible to replace their production. Facing packed defenses at Bayern Munich on a weekly basis, Lewandowski still gets only 25 percent of his shots blocked. His two replacements, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ciro Immobile, are at 32.3 and 32.4 percent, respectively. Only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is pulling his weight in that department, with just 22 percent of his 50 shots being blocked. On a related note, he’s Dortmund’s leading scorer, with five goals.
While part of the problem may be the movement of the forwards and their lack of ability to get open, there’s also the issue of a depleted midfield. It’s not just Götze’s departure, either. It’s Marco Reus, possibly Dortmund’s biggest weapon, getting injured. It’s Ilkay Gündogan taking what feels like forever to recover from back problems. It’s Sven Bender having knee surgery. It’s Nuri Sahin and Jakub Blaszczykowski barely ever being healthy enough to take the field. It’s 34-year-old Sebastian Kehl being forced to play major minutes in one of the demanding and energetic roles that Dortmund’s midfield requires.
In general, Dortmund has been absolutely crushed with injuries this year. Seventeen games into the season, only three players have been able to take the field more than 13 times, and only four outfield players have started more than two-thirds of the team’s games.
Alexandre Simoes/Getty Images
On top of the lackluster shooting up front and lack of hearty bodies in midfield, Dortmund has been horribly unlucky. They’ve scored only 18 times, 7.37 less than expected goals would have predicted. That’s the second-biggest gap in Germany. On the other side of the ball, they’ve conceded 26 times, 6.71 more than their expected goals-against tally, which is also the second-biggest gap in the Bundesliga. That’s more than 14 goals — or the difference between a minus-8 goal differential and plus-5, which would be the fifth-best in the league. This kind of divergence generally just doesn’t persist over long stretches of time.
Dortmund came into this season from a less-assured and less-elite position than it may have appeared, but that’s not why they’re in the relegation zone at the halfway mark. They’re suffering from a talent drain that has crippled their attack in subtle but damaging ways. That roster weakness has been exacerbated by injuries to stars and role players alike, testing the depth of a not particularly deep team. And to top it all off, their luck has all but disappeared.
As they head into part two of the season, at least some of that is bound to turn around. With 17 games left, it would still be absolutely shocking if Dortmund ended up being relegated. The prospect of them climbing up to fourth and qualifying for the Champions League, though, seems equally unlikely. Yes, it’s only 12 points, but they’d have to leapfrog 13 teams to get there. Then again, this club doesn’t need all that much time to conjure up some European magic. Just ask Malaga.