Klopp faces biggest test yet as injury-hit Dortmund chase Europe salvation in Marseille
"Tragic," is how Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp described the injuries to midfielders Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin in the weekend defeat to Bayer Leverkusen.
"We not only lost the game, but also two players that we'll probably miss on Wednesday in Marseille," he reflected.
Klopp is facing one of his most difficult periods at the club. Dortmund have already confirmed that Bender will miss this week’s Champions League trip, while Sahin remains a question mark until matchday. It’s clear Klopp's injury headache has now reached migraine level. First it was the back four, and now his midfielders have succumbed.
Seven starting players are sidelined; Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer, Lukasz Piszczek (not yet at full fitness), Bender and Sahin, and that's not mentioning Marco Reus, who is battling through with a bruised calf. It's hard to believe the situation could get any worse, but it almost did on Saturday. Robert Lewandowski felt some pain in his right leg but came away unharmed after Emir Spahic’s red-card challenge.
During Monday's training session Dortmund experimented in defence with Kevin Grosskreutz, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, 18-year-old Marian Sarr and 21-year-old Erik Durm. Manuel Friedrich is ineligible to play and noticeably absent was Sahin, but an inexperienced Koray Gunter did participate. It's speculated Klopp will likely start Sebastian Kehl and Oliver Kirch in midfield on Wednesday, although Kehl too has only recently recovered from an ankle injury.
When asked about his plan for Marseille, Klopp admitted he could not think of a formation since he didn't know who he'd be able to field - and that's worrying for an ambitious team that lost its first back-to-back home games (league) in four years on Saturday. While Marseille are yet to pick up a point in the group, playing for pride in front of a home crowd won't make it an easier task for the German side.
The French side, however, are faced with hurdles of their own right now. Defeat to Nantes on Friday night saw coach Elie Baup sacked with l'OM fifth in Ligue 1. So both clubs will be looking to smooth out their rocky situations, but where Marseille’s cause is quite insignificant at this point, for Dortmund, losing just isn't an option. Part of the club's rebuilding and long-term goal of growing into a regular contender both domestically and in Europe depends on Champions League money.
Although a team is never out of contention almost halfway through a season, it seems the Bundesliga title has already slipped from the Ruhr team's hands now that Bayern Munich and Bayer have taken 10 and six-point leads respectively. But if they can make it to the winter break and resume again with key players back in contention, Die Schwarzgelben could still go far in Europe and the German cup.
This injury misery has cost the squad on many fronts, though. While it's true BVB lack the depth to deal with this number, in reality any team would suffer when its first-choice back four and defensive midfielders are crippled. The injuries have also robbed them of the ability to rest key players. There was a valid reason Klopp reached out to Turkish national coach Fatih Terim to ask if he could rest Sahin during the national break.
Some have called it a crisis. While dismissed by others, the latest injury additions indicate this may be an accurate description. How can Dortmund fulfill their Vollgasveranstaltungen (full-throttle football) with seven sidelined? In the past few matches they haven't played with the same verve, flow and fluidity - build-up has been slow. Against Bayer they sat deeper than usual and lost too many duels. Precision passing and link-up play has also deteriorated. Hummels' attacking contributions are missed, while Subotic's solidity cannot be replicated by Sokratis and Friedrich.
The exciting football that fans fell in love with has been wrenched down a few notches without choice.
In fact, the same formula that has brought so much success since Klopp took over in 2008 has also attracted negative attention. Some have blamed the string of injuries on Klopp's rigorous style of football, with his emphasis on running coming under the microscope in particular. But criticism of this kind isn't new. A few seasons ago when Dortmund won their first German title in nine years, Klopp was accused of creating an unsustainable system. Some believed his intense playing style was impossible to maintain and that players would eventually succumb to exhaustion. It's been several years now and the naysayers have been proven wrong.
The players' mental game hasn't hit rock bottom, however, and that really is vital for success at this critical crossroad. Klopp's unique ability to motivate and bring out the best in his players is now more vital than ever. His ingenuity to get the best out of average players like Grosskreutz is undeniable and brings into question whether any other coach could do the same.
The players too understand that the team is going through a rough patch, but one they must get through together. Lewandowski is confident Dortmund will get the result they so badly need against Marseille. Sokratis (sent off for late petulance at the weekend, to throw another spanner in the works) feels the same. That spirit and self-belief resonates at all levels of the club and gives them a truly unique dimension.
Even Dortmund president Reinhard Rauball has urged the team to stay calm: “One can fall but we have to decide to get up again," he declared. "We won't fall into panic."
So far the team has effectively disassociated itself from a psychological downturn. Swiss national coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who took BVB in 1997 to Champions League glory, believes Klopp is better than any to solve the puzzle. "I'm convinced that he will properly adjust his team and find the correct solution," said the 64-year-old. "But that one must replace an entire defence, so many key players... that is one difficult decision."
Tumultuous times will only add experience and steel to the players' characters. While they may not enjoy this season as much as the last, victory will feel so much sweeter if they can overcome the adversity. There is an unbreakable spirit at Dortmund, best epitomised by 'Iron Manni' (Bender), who played on with a bleeding and broken nose against Napoli on Matchday Five.
"Miracles exist time after time," Klopp pondered. "But for us, unfortunately, not so often in recent times."
But this wouldn't be the first time that Dortmund come back from a difficult position. The last time they did so was in April, when they scored two goals in stoppage time to beat Malaga and advance to the Champions League semi-finals. They have the quality to do it on their own, of course, but a bit of luck or supernatural intervention wouldn't hurt.