“If somebody thinks we have to win the league next year, because second place is nothing and third place means a shitty season,” he said, “then this someone is not to be helped. Time is ripe for realistic expectations.”
And yet when the final whistle blew on Borussia Dortmund’s 2-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday, it confirmed a second successive title. Given that, seven and a bit years ago, investors met at Dusseldorf airport to discuss liquidating the club, is a remarkable achievement.
There are men behind the scenes who deserve great credit for turning the club around, of course, but few doubt who is really responsible for turning stability into success: Klopp. He had achieved minor miracles at Mainz, a club with next to no budget, in his seven years there — even if they were relegated in his penultimate season. When he failed to achieve promotion at the first attempt, Klopp refused a new contract and sat back and waited for offers. His talents were obvious: he had made Mainz a hard-working, hard-pressing, surprisingly offensive side. But there were those who doubted him. With his long hair, stubble and rimless glasses, he was different. And he was emotional, fizzing around his technical area.
His tv punditry was brilliant enough to win broadcasting awards, but it also led many to wonder whether he wasn’t perhaps a little extrovert, too much of an individual. Bayern Munich considered him in that summer of 2008, as he turned 41, but decided instead on a marquee name, naming Jurgen Klinsmann instead.
“As we now know,” said Bayern president Uli Hoeness, “that was a mistake.” It wasn’t just that Klinsmann proved all smiles over substance; it was that Klopp demonstrated he didn’t just talk a good game. More than that, his personality, his notion of how football should be played, fitted exactly with the vision of Dortmund fans.
“There are some regions where you have to play and live the game in a certain way,” Klopp said, “where you have to charge, where you can’t sit back and just knock the ball about. There are some places where, when you do that, people will say, ‘well, if that’s your football, I’d rather have no football at all’. And this here is one of those places. Here, you have to give the people a certain kind of football, the kind that is close to my heart: intense to the last minute, highly emotional. Football you will remember.”
He set about restructuring the team, raising funds by selling off some of the club’s best-paid players. In his first year in Dortmund, he sold the team’s best goal-scorer, Croatia Mladen Petric; in his second year, he sold the second-best goal-scorer, Switzerland’s Alexander Frei. When Dortmund lost to Bayern in the 2008 Cup final, the average age of their team was 28.6. Three years later, for a key league game against Bayern, it was 22.2. “While it was clear we would have just a certain budget because the most important thing was to consolidate the club financially,” Klopp said, “we have been able to get the players we wanted.”
Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Lucas Barrios, Shinji Kagawa and Robert Lewandowski have all arrived for fees of under £4m; all became regulars. But, it wasn’t about individuals – it was about pace, and pressing, and movement off the ball. Playing flowing, attacking, exhausting football, Dortmund finished sixth in Klopp’s first season and fifth in their second before winning the title. Perhaps they haven’t quite achieved the same fluency this season — and there have been some odd defensive lapses, as in the 4-4 draw against Stuttgart at the end of March — but they have found an astonishing consistency; they haven’t lost in the Bundesliga since the end of September.
Players, inevitably will leave, as the attacking midfielder Nuri Sahin did at the end of last season, joining Real Madrid, but Dortmund seem able to handle that, as they handled Kagawa’s lengthy injury the previous season. This is a success based on the team rather than individuals.What makes his success especially fascinating is that Dortmund is probably one of the few clubs where he would have been allowed to work as he has; a ‘big’ club, but one that, thanks to the financial meltdown, had no pre-established stars to get in his way. Andre Villas-Boas, for once, knows how hard it can be when they do.