‘What the hell’s wrong with you lot?’ spat one fan from the Yellow Wall – Borussia Dortmund’s 25,000-strong all-standing terrace – towards a hapless-looking goalkeeper. Dortmund had just fallen to a 0-1 home reverse against a 10-man FC Augsburg, and star turns Roman Weidenfeller and Mats Hummels were forced to suffer the ignominy of climbing over the fence to explain themselves to their own fans. Unbelievably, this was Dortmund’s eleventh defeat in twenty Bundesliga matches, and come the final whistle the Ruhr club found themselves two points adrift at the bottom of the league. The same league they won back-to-back just under three years ago.
To a certain extent, Dortmund’s collapse isn’t so difficult to explain. The all-too predictable loss of Robert Lewandowski to Bayern Munich, has hit like a hammer blow to a team that’s failed to integrate high-profile replacements like Aubameyang, Ciro Immobile and Adrián Ramos in any meaningful way, and missing star player Marco Reus to yet another long-term injury.
Yet, even still, to be out of the top two in February constitutes a failure for Germany’s second-best team. To be bottom of the Bundesliga at this stage in the season would have been unthinkable. Yet, there they are.
Dortmund’s start to the season was characterised by a failure to put games to bed. They contrived to suffer home defeats to teams like Leverkusen, Hamburg and Hannover, despite dominating possession and creating more chances. Losing games they should be winning has become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the pressure of a season beginning when they couldn’t buy a win has started to show in their play.
Their famous high press, which manager Jürgen Klopp calls ‘the best playmaker in the world’ has stopped working. Physically jaded by injuries, the team cannot maintain their intensity over the course of 90 minutes. No longer hassling opponents in the usual way, they’ve started to defend deep, and play the ball long in the hope of finding a goal from just about anywhere. In short, they’ve started to play like the relegation candidates they’ve become.
Dortmund’s mentality has adapted very quickly to the danger of relegation. Even Klopp, one of Europe’s most coveted managers, seems bereft of his usual energy and charisma. After the Augsburg defeat last weekend, the Westfalenstadion fell into jeers and derision, and Klopp stood, mouth agape and mannequin-like, his stomach unable to digest what his eyes had just witnessed. The players were forced to bear the brunt of their fans’ reaction, their manager choosing to hide in the shadows. No wonder Dortmund are playing without any direction. They’re not being given any.
What’s happening to this great club shows how easy it is for the mighty to fall. Unfortunate combinations of injuries, uninspiring signings and sheer bad luck have left them staring down the barrel of a gun. The old cliché ‘too good to go down’ hangs around their necks like an albatross. Unless Dortmund can find their feet, and revert to the style that made this team so special, they face a reality they could never have imagined: life outside of the Bundesliga.