How Jürgen Klopp built an empire out of ruin at Borussia Dortmund

How Jürgen Klopp built an empire out of ruin at Borussia Dortmund

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It is not in the DNA of Borussia Dortmund supporters to expect league titles; not in the way followers of, say, a particular Bavarian club might. Certainly, Dortmund fans routinely throw themselves at the feet of the fußball gods, begging for their beloved team to emerge from each campaign with the Meisterschale held aloft, and celebrate every subsequent triumph like the consummation of a life’s most cherished dream.

But Dortmund have never exhibited the kind of long-term domestic prolificacy that engenders entitlement and therein, perhaps, lies the secret that explains why those who do succeed in yellow and black are never forgotten. In the habitual absence of glory, Dortmund hearts grow fonder than most.

Regional titles aside, Dortmund toiled for almost half a century prior to winning their maiden German championship in 1956, before a second soon followed a year later. After their third title, in 1963, BVB were forced to endure a further three decades before being crowned as their country’s finest once again. Quickfire championships claimed in 1995 and 1996 were followed shortly after by the club’s sixth in 2002, yet as the first decade of the new millennium neared its close, Dortmund fans began to dread another barren spell.

Beyond their Bundesliga triumph of 2002, thrust into the brave new post-Sammer era, Dortmund were locked in a sad and sedate decline that a swift succession of managers could do nothing to halt. Bert van Marwijk, Jürgen Röber and Thomas Doll each came and went as a seventh-place league finish in 2005/06 regressed to ninth a season later, preceding a fall to 13th the season after that. Following their latest backwards step, the men atop the BVB hierarchy turned their attention to the staunch and spirited Arrigo Sacchi disciple earning quite the burgeoning reputation and pulling up roots some 180km south of Dortmund at Mainz. Enter Jürgen Klopp.

The recruitment of Herr Klopp and the immediate upswing in Dortmund fortunes was no coincidence. During even his earliest days in the BVB dugout, Klopp eagerly set upon orchestrating a multi-faceted revolution of both squad personnel and their intrinsic playing style. In close collaboration with the club’s renowned scouting and player recruitment setups, Klopp stacked his squad with a very particular calibre of player, notably recruiting from lesser leagues and drawing astutely from his club’s youth academy.

In the space of three seasons, the likes of Jakub Błaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski were purchased for a pittance from Poland; Neven Subotić, Mats Hummels, Sven Bender, Kevin Großkreutz and Łukasz Piszczek were procured for similarly small sums from an assortment of German rivals; Lucas Barrios and Shinji Kagawa were smartly imported from Chile and Japan respectively; while Mario Götze was promoted from within. The eclectic assemblage entrusted with forming the foundations of Klopp’s Schwarzgelben empire was beginning to assume form.

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The beguiling brand of football sermonized by Klopp to his Dortmund players, new and old, was that which the coach had so successfully implemented at Mainz; the idiosyncratic style that had so prosperously served him in transforming die Nullfünfer from a provisional side battling relegation to the third tier into a side worthy of an 11th-place finish in the Bundesliga within just four years.

The style, like many on-field philosophies, hinged upon two key tenets: what to do with possession and what to do without it. With the ball, lightning-quick transitions from defence to attack and slick passing interchanges were necessary to progress up the field with the demanded urgency, counter-attacking with pace and purpose. Without the ball, a culture built around gegenpressing, or counter-pressing, would see speed and organisation implemented with the aim of regaining possession as soon after it has been lost, and as deep into the opposition’s half, as possible. Linked symbiotically, these two principles would feed one another, forming an aggressive, exuberant, albeit exhausting, fast-paced system.

In his first campaign with die Borussen, Klopp steered his team to sixth, and if the seven-place leap up the league wasn’t proof enough of Dortmund’s revival under their new manager, their claiming of the 2008 DFL-Supercup was. As beaten finalists of the previous DFB-Pokal, Dortmund were granted the opportunity to seek revenge over the Bayern Munich team that had denied them a domestic cup triumph just three months prior. Klopp’s charges overcame Jürgen Klinsmann’s and Dortmund ran out 2-1 winners.

The season that immediately unfolded saw Dortmund climb another rung, climbing the Bundesliga ladder to finish fifth, a late stumble the only barrier between BVB and a return to the Champions League. Then came Klopp’s third season with Dortmund – the fated season that stunned a nation and altered the trajectory of both club and coach for good.

Since Dortmund had last conquered Germany, Bayern had ruthlessly set upon their rivals, claiming title after title for their own. But die Roten were far from unbeatable, best evidenced by the exploits of Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart and VfL Wolfsburg, who had each taken their own brief turns in momentarily derailing the Munich monopoly. Though nobody could have known it yet, Bayern would labour to a third-place finish in 2010/11. If Dortmund wished to do more than make eyes at the Meisterschale, it would be Jupp Heynckes’ resurgent Bayer Leverkusen they’d be made to overcome.

Klopp’s men fell at the first hurdle. Home to Leverkusen in the season’s curtain-raiser, 70,000 in yellow and black watched on at Signal Iduna Park as die Werkself arrived and not only outworked Dortmund but outplayed them. Two goals in three first-half minutes placed Dortmund’s credentials under close scrutiny and found them wanting. Pre-season talk of a title tilt for Klopp and co. suddenly seemed premature at best and fanciful at worst.

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With the blessing of hindsight, though, Dortmund’s opening day loss proved to be the best thing that could have happened to them. Confronted by the question of just how desperately they longed to succeed, and a reminder of how tirelessly they’d be pushed to work in order to make good on their dream, the early Leverkusen loss shook Dortmund into life. And thus began an extraordinary run of form.

To the sound of their own delayed starting pistol, Dortmund flew out of the traps. Seven wins on the spin saw Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Schalke, Kaiserslautern, St. Pauli, Bayern and Köln all stunned, der BVB scoring 20 goals and conceding just four in the process. A draw at home to Hoffenheim temporarily scuppered the side’s momentum, halting their triumphant run, but Klopp’s side immediately rose again, stringing together another seven-game winning streak, with Mainz, Hannover, Hamburg, Freiburg, Gladbach, Nürnberg and Bremen left in their wake.

Mortals after all, in their final fixture preceding the winter break, Dortmund succumbed to a 1-0 loss away in Frankfurt. But this blip could do little to arrest their ascent and, named as the league’s Herbstmeister, Klopp’s team beckoned the rest period wielding a ten-point gap between themselves and their nearest rivals.

In the second half of the season, given the phenomenal pace they’d set throughout the autumn and the energy spent in aid of its exhausting upkeep, Dortmund proved unable to replicate their early-season form. Fortunately, so did every one of their rivals. In response to the 43 points accumulated in the Hinrunde, the Rückrunde saw Dortmund collect 32 more. It was Bayern who saved their best form for the spring, their performances earning 36 points, one more than Leverkusen’s 35. Yet, despite besting Dortmund over the course of the season’s latter half, neither team could catch Klopp’s. In fact, in honour of their blistering early-season form, neither could come to within seven points of them by the season’s end.

A few short moments after 5pm, on 30 April 2011, as a last blast of the referee’s whistle affirmed Dortmund’s 2-0 victory at home to Nürnberg, it also brought confirmation of Leverkusen’s simultaneous collapse away at Köln. With two games to spare, Dortmund’s eight-point lead would prove insurmountable. Roman Weidenfeller sprinted off his goalline, desperate to amalgamate himself into the celebratory yellow mass expanding outwards from the centre of the pitch.

Klopp, brandishing a grin as wide as the Ruhr, turned and threw his arms around his long-time friend and collaborator, assistant manager Željko Buvač, as the two toasted a job well done. On the field, linking arms, a coalescence of merry players and staff bounced. In the stands, an undulating sweep of jubilant scarf-baring fans bounced. Desperate to shake from its foundations and make for the skies, the Westfalenstadion bounced, too. Dortmund were champions Germany again.

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With such success, the job now facing Klopp had mutated in both nature and scale. His first mission had been to make Dortmund competitive again. This he had done and then some. With the addictive taste of success – and, no doubt, quality German bier – still sweet on their tongues, Klopp and his team were now left with no option but to go again – to win again. And so arose the matter of just how Klopp would approach his tricky second album.

Klopp’s critics, perhaps grasping at straws, pointed to the manner in which he last managed – or mismanaged – success. At Mainz, he had proved an overwhelming success, masterminding a promotion to, and a most unlikely assault on, the top tier of the likes few in red and white had ever dreamed possible. Yet Klopp could only spit and curse as he was eventually awoken from his humble dream with a jolt. Relegated after three years in the Bundesliga, and left two damned points short of an immediate return, Klopp vacated his post.

The challenge facing him this time around, though, comprised an altogether different proposition and Klopp had learned much in the years adjoining his mission at Mainz and his halcyon days in Dortmund, arming him effectively against repeating any such fall from grace. Many fancied die Roten to come back swinging, and history supported their hunch, but few questioned Klopp’s propensity to master them again. His club’s latest title defence began among home comforts, with Hamburg their opponents.

Goals from Großkreutz and Götze swept Hamburg aside, sidestepping an awkward opening day defeat reminiscent of seasons past and ensuring first impressions looked nothing but positive for the boys in yellow. Yet, suddenly, the seemingly irrepressible Dortmund machine began to cough and splutter, rocking alarmingly from side to side, and the wheel studs began to rattle.

Dortmund defeated Nürnberg on home soil on matchday three but their win came bookended by a loss away to Hoffenheim, a stalemate away to Leverkusen, and successive defeats at the hands of Hertha Berlin and Hannover. The season was barely six fixtures old and already, bewildered and gazing forlornly upwards at Bayern Munich in top spot from ten places below, Dortmund were eight points off the pace. Though assertively hyperbolic, Goal reporter Vasil Kotsev, in his post-Hannover match report, assessed Dortmund’s title aspirations as “hanging by a thread even at this early stage of the season”. Their idiosyncratic yellow hue, often a picture of bright ebullient optimism, appeared to assume a more anaemic shade with each passing week.

In an immediate and almost unbelievable inversion of fortunes, the loss to Hannover proved to be Dortmund’s last of the league season. From the jaws of another demoralising defeat, this time away to his old mates at Mainz, an Ivan Perišić equaliser and late Piszczek winner struck the heart of Klopp’s squad like a shot of epinephrine. Sick from three defeats in five games, this win steadied Dortmund stomachs, restored their appetite, and let them loose to wreak havoc upon all who had been so foolish as to write them off after just six matches.

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Galvanised, of the 28 games between their Hannover loss and the culmination of another crowning Bundesliga campaign, Dortmund won 23, drawing the other five. Together the many Dortmund goal-getters plundered 73 strikes in those 28 games; meanwhile, the ranks tasked with keeping them out at the other end limited their domestic rivals to just 19. Dortmund didn’t simply return to the title race, they stamped down hard on the accelerator, drew level with Bayern just long enough for the Bavarians to catch a glimpse of Klopp cackling in the driver’s seat, before speeding past in cartoonish fashion. They propelled themselves harder and faster than they or any rival had before, ultimately screeching to a halt on the final day having orchestrated a record-breaking 81-point tally, completing the course eight clear of Heynckes’ hopping mad giants.

With a stylish yet stoic blend of strength in Hummels and Subotić, permanently stationed in front of the mighty Weidenfeller and flanked by the marauding rigour of Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer; anchored by the quality and reliable versatility of Sven Bender, İlkay Gündoğan and Sebastian Kehl; empowered by the creativity and unbound verve of Götze and Kagawa; given intelligent width and a wealth of invention by Błaszczykowski, Perišić, and Großkreutz; and fronted magnificently by the modern man’s embodiment of a perfect striker in Lewandowski; Klopp’s Dortmund were everything they had so boldly claimed to be in the previous season and more. 

Not content with their season’s spoils, despite retaining their Bundesliga crown in a manner never before witnessed by those of a yellow and black persuasion, the club’s exploits in the DFB-Pokal secured a third and final meeting of the season with Bayern Munich in the competition’s showpiece finale. At Berlin’s iconic Olympiastadion, in mid-May, Klopp’s athletes did more than meddle with their powerful foes from Munich. 

Dortmund conspired to put on an Olympic-standard showing, storming the Bayern defence to the sound of five goals – Lewandowski blessing the occasion with a hat-trick – conceding just twice for their troubles. The country’s capital left in a triumphant visage of yellow and black, Klopp’s Dortmund lifted another piece of silverware and in turn sealed the first and only German double, of league and cup, in their storied history.

Klopp failed to see his work as being done on that day; the day he made history with Dortmund. In fact, further history awaited just over yonder season’s horizon. In the following year, as Dortmund expanded their ambitions beyond German borders, Klopp helmed an enthralling gallop across Europe, certifying der BVB’s status in the hearts and minds of once-thought neutrals everywhere as the team of choice. Leading them into a to-date unique, all-German Champions League final, Dortmund’s inimitable leader brought them to within 90 minutes of only a second European Cup. Tragically for Klopp, he could only watch on from the Wembley sidelines as his team begrudgingly surrendered to an immense and subsequently treble-winning Bayern side. 

There was no shame in defeat; there never was during Klopp’s time at the Westfalenstadion.

By the final knockings of his time in Germany, Klopp’s tenure had, in the eyes of some, lost a little of its lustre – its gloss weathered in no small part by the storm kicked up by Bayern’s emphatic revival under Heynckes and later Pep Guardiola. However, his achievements had long since been set in stone, and it had been longer still since the name Klopp and the word legend had become undisputedly, irreversibly synonymous to the fair fußball-loving folk of Dortmund.

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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