European football expert Andy Brassell assesses where Dortmund find themselves after the departure of Jurgen Klopp as he prepares to return to the Signal Iduna Park
As far as opening clauses of sentences go, ‘if it wasn’t for Jürgen Klopp’ is a pretty useful one. If it wasn’t for Jürgen Klopp, Borussia Dortmund’s Europa League tie with Liverpool would be noteworthy, and even exciting, but it wouldn’t feel like some sort of epochal happening.
If it wasn’t for Jürgen Klopp, we probably wouldn’t feel that The Reds have a sniff in this tie. The gap between the two teams’ achievements this season could only really be bridged by some sort of emotional tidal wave, or by the law of the ex.
On the other hand - if it wasn’t for Jürgen Klopp, of course, maybe we wouldn’t even think of Dortmund as gossipworthy. It wasn’t the coach who negotiated the rescue package that plucked the club from the jaws of financial doom in 2005, of course. Yet Klopp achieved his own miracle, not just improving Dortmund’s on-pitch fortunes but sending then soaring into the stratosphere.
It’s worth reflecting on just what an achievement Dortmund’s 2011 and 2012 Bundesliga title wins were. Depriving Bayern Munich of the championship for one year is impressive. Doing it for two seasons in a row is outstanding. Leading a club which was on the brink of being banished to the amateur fourth-tier less than a decade before to such a feat is mind-boggling.
So while viewers and media internationally debated his ability to cling on to his job last season as Die Schwarzgelben flirted with relegation – they were bottom of the Bundesliga as late as February – it wasn’t even a discussion in Nord-Rhine Westphalia. Klopp’s hero status in this part of the world is not under question, and never has been.
Klopp’s successor Thomas Tuchel (who already stepped into his shoes once before, at Mainz) has done a splendid job in nursing Dortmund back to health, and into rude health at that. The new coach may not be the one-man hurricane that Klopp was on the touchline, but the habitual hipster’s choice of the last few seasons are sexy again.
Image: Matthias Schrader / AP/Press Association Images
Without disparaging Klopp or the extraordinary work that he did at Westfalen, players who previously looked stale have admitted that Tuchel’s fresh ideas have helped to revitalise them, and the team. Ilkay Gündogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are among those to have been transformed. A return to the Champions League is now mathematically assured after Saturday’s dramatic 3-2 win over Werder Bremen.
The question now is what sort of team Tuchel will be able to field when Dortmund retake their place at Europe’s top table. Gündogan, who is back to his best after a lacklustre campaign in Klopp’s swansong season, is about to enter the final year of his contract and is widely expected to leave, probably to join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Captain Mats Hummels would also be out of contract in 2017, while Mkhitaryan is drawing admiring glances from many of Europe’s biggest clubs.
The real prize, though, is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The quicksilver striker was one of the rare highlights of last season but has moved up to another level this term. The Gabon international scored his 36th goal of the season against Werder (23 of them in the Bundesliga) and has been heavily linked with Manchester United and Arsenal.
Encouragingly for the inhabitants of Die Gelbe Wand – the Yellow Wall, the name for the huge terrace behind the south end goal at Signal Iduna Park – Aubameyang appears in no rush to jump ship. “I didn’t extend my contract at Dortmund to 2020 for no reason,” he said in a recent interview with Kicker magazine. La Liga is a medium-term aim for Aubameyang, whose mother is Spanish, so Real Madrid is a more likely eventual destination.
Tuchel is also safe in the knowledge that he has a squad of genuine depth, that can probably ride out a departure or two. That was evident again on Saturday, with Shinji Kagawa and Adrián Ramos both scoring substitutes as Dortmund came back from 2-1 down – Ramos has now scored six Bundesliga goals despite only starting three times.
It is Dortmund’s versatility, both in terms of tactics and personnel, that makes them such a formidable proposition for Liverpool.