Pressing, that’s all it is and what it’s always been about, at least for as long as many can recall. Borussia Dortmund have been pressing the opposition, trying to carve out opportunities by stressing the opponents. It’s often worked. While Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing was in no way revolutionary, it was highly effective and worked wonders for die Borussen as they won two consecutive Bundesliga titles and reached the final of the 2013 Champions League, continuously luring in bored and tired fans from all around the globe. Dortmund with Klopp’s gegenpressing became the hipster’s choice.
This success is the foundation of the current Borussia. All that Klopp built, it’s still there. While the staff has changed, many players are the same as they were back in the good old days. Most players remember how things were during the good old days. Mario Götze, Marco reus, Nuri Sahin, Marcel Schmelzer, Łukasz Piszczek among others were all part of the highly successful pressing side that Klopp built, players that are now key to another kind of Borussia Dortmund, where the pressing is non-existent. Dortmund’s struggles keep on getting worse and it might just be due to their search for a new identity. It’s an identity crisis and it’s grand.
They’ve forgot what they were before. It’s like when you fall in love. You can’t even begin to fathom how your life looked and felt before love struck. Klopp’s Dortmund has become the hallmark. The players know it, the coaches know it and the fans know it.
Pressing is the Dortmund identity. Herein lies a destructive problem. When one coach becomes so symbolic, it’s hard to move on. This has become ominous at Borussia, where three coaches have since struggled to keep tabs on the demanding identity. They aren’t allowed to create their own identity, they are not even given time. They’re judged on how well they can replicate Klopp. The two managers that followed Klopp tried to play an enhanced variation of Klopp’s pressing. Thomas Tuchel performed it very well, while Peter Bosz had some proper problems. Tuchel had no problems with the pressing. He knew what to do and executed it with good enough precision.
However, the appointment of Tuchel was made because he knew pressing. He knew the Dortmund style of play and he was therefore favoured. This ideological nepotism halted Borussia’s development, one can argue. But it also created an even tougher atmosphere. The appointment of Tuchel basically instituted the pressing and made it into Borussia’s identity. A choice had been made.
As stated, Tuchel did well with what he got. He was given a side that had just managed to scrape a European spot and that had lost a cup final to a sensational VfL Wolfsburg side, spearheaded by Kevin de Bruyne. Dortmund under Tuchel was at times exhilarating and vibrant, but the balance was at times off. Tuchel’s inability to create a defensive unit became his biggest weakness and while Klopp never was a defensive guru, he knew the ins and outs of defensive football. Tuchel struggled quite a bit and so did Bosz.
It’s fairly interesting actually, to analyse these two. There are similarities. Both seem to be tough to work with and under, both seem to have proper tactical struggles defensively and both played pressing football to a degree, before they arrived and at the club. It would be wise to assume that these two coaches were chosen due to just that they played and knew attacking and pressing football. The Borussia Dortmund identity became a demon, following the club wherever it went and the ever-expanding fanbase didn’t help either. These were and are fans that have started to cheer for die Borussen in times of attacking prosperity. Changing now would be unthinkable.
Alas, when Bosz was fired and Peter Stöger came in, many were surprised. Here they had appointed a coach that wasn’t known for fielding highly aggressive and pressing teams. Neither was or is he a coach that loves attacking football. Stöger is and always has been a big supporter of defensive unity and counter attacks, which he has shown on multiple occasions as manager at 1. FC Köln, a side that’s often among the minnows of Bundesliga football. This has therefore created an identity crisis at Borussia Dortmund. While the groundwork for the crisis had already been made, the brave appointment of Stöger becomes the final piece in a downward spiral. Stöger is a good coach but does not fit the new Dortmund way. There’s a clash in interest.
Players that have played under Klopp, Tuchel and Bosz now find themselves as part of another Borussia Dortmund, a club that doesn’t win 6-2 at home against the minnows, but that instead soars away with a solid 2-0 through goals in different ends of different halves by one or two prolific scorers. Three points, nevertheless, but three points gained in a much more tiring and boring way. It’s understandable that many miss the good old days of pressing. But the appointment of Stöger has made that obsolete. He has during his swift time at the club proved that Borussia Dortmund can win games in a staler way and he has also shown that Borussia Dortmund can defend.
It is an identity ’crisis’ nevertheless. There are many positives that can and will emerge from the appointment of a more cynical coach. However, there are also negatives. These negatives have started to show. Fans get easily bored. Those who started to follow Borussia during their Klopp glory days might feel that there’s a growing distance between them and the club. Maybe due to the change in identity or because their style of play nowadays is so much less appealing than it used to be. The big bunch of fans that hopped on the bandwagon in 2012/13 might hop off now and while some might claim that it’s a good thing, there are many negatives as well. Having a smaller fanbase makes it harder for the club to market themselves, it makes it much more difficult to sell merchandise and things alike. However, there are also problems regarding player purchase.
What if Borussia Dortmund let Stöger stay and he acquires a bunch of players that do not fit the old Dortmund style of play. Then there might be a clash in the dressing room between the more flamboyant and the more reserved. Or maybe, when a new coach is appointed he wants to play pressing football and then, the old foundation is gone.
Borussia’s identity is up in the air for many reasons and while there are many positives and negatives, one can only say this: A club with no clear direction is no healthy club. Borussia Dortmund needs to find and decide their way and they need to do it swiftly.
By Axel Falk.