By Peter Staunton
Borussia Dortmund are reaching a critical juncture. They were in formidable form following the winter break until the weekend's 3-0 defeat at a shambolic Hamburg, having previously been jaded and depleted heading into the Christmas break.
The Klopp project was showing signs of going stale. After near unchecked progress under him, they have finally met stiff resistance in the Bundesliga - and not only from Bayern Munich.
That Dortmund could beat Bayern to two titles and Real Madrid to a Champions League final place is astonishing given the disparity in revenue. They have punched above their weight like no other club in modern times. But this season their form has been erratic, Jurgen Klopp's methods under closer scrutiny than ever despite the trainer signing a new long-term contract.
Dortmund are unable to deal with the injuries which have decimated their squad and their football is weary. That brings into focus the limitations of the game Klopp asks his team to play. The squad is ill-equipped to deal with the intensity asked of it throughout a busy programme of fixtures. The weaknesses in Dortmund's strategies are being exposed, namely transfer strategy and squad depth. One depends on the other but the once-dependable synergy is going askew.
The club just cannot normally afford to fortify their ranks with anything other than raw youth prospects like Milos Jojic and older squad players like Manuel Friedrich without first letting players go. Last summer's signings of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sokratis and Henrikh Mkhitaryan only covered the outgoings and of those only Aubameyang could be deemed a success.
|0||The amount of money Dortmund will receive from Bayern Munich for star striker Robert Lewandowski.|
|1||Klopp's men have only won one of their last seven competitive games against Bayern.|
|6||Die Schwarzgelben have been beaten six times in the Bundesliga already this term.|
|20||Dortmund are a staggering 20 points behind Bayern after just 22 rounds of the 2013-14 campaign.|
|37||Bayern paid €37 million to buy former Dortmund playmaker Mario Gotze out of his contract last year.|
And not only that but Bayern are capable of cherry-picking Dortmund's best talents as they see fit. Mario Gotze's transfer may have brought in big money for BVB but it was a watershed moment. If Bayern can come and take their pick of Dortmund's best young players without Dortmund being able to do anything about it then it emphatically illustrated where the power lies in German football.
"They have now retaliated," says CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke. "They want to destroy us. Not as humans because they don't like us, but to permanently switch us off as a direct competitor by taking our players so that we no longer constitute a threat for them." The imminent signing of Robert Lewandowski on a Bosman is a further blow. "We don't stand a chance when our players can earn twice as much elsewhere," is Watzke's frank assessment of the Pole's switching of allegiance.
Klopp's has upgraded on his key departures most years since he took charge; Shinji Kagawa made way for Marco Reus. Nuri Sahin for the superior Ilkay Gundogan. The money earned in the market when losing the best player was ploughed back into the team. This year they won't have that opportunity after making Lewandowski see out the terms of his contract - another folly and a lesson in how not to treat a star. They now have to dig deep for a replacement.
It's part of Dortmund's strategy to sell their most bankable asset in order to remain competitive. This is clearly a flaw. Business-wise it will mean that Dortmund's finances check out but every season they will lose ground on the field.
Who would bet that Reus and Gundogan, whose contracts are winding down, will stay at the Westfalenstadion for the rest of their careers? It seems the ground is already being laid for the departure of Gundogan while it's not a secret that Reus's contract contains the timebomb of a release clause which begins ticking in 2015. "You have to see a sale as an opportunity," Watzke told Sky Sports News. "Ideally, we manage it so that only one top player goes again this year, namely Robert Lewandowski."
Already they are losing a player a year but somewhere along the line will come the straw to break the camel's back. It will, in all likelihood, be Lewandowski, who remains a great fit in the lineup and will be the biggest loss to date. For no money either.
It was back to back titles and a Champions League final for Dortmund in their short, intense challenge to Bayern's dominance. The signs this season indicate that they are beginning to fade domestically. The football of Klopp has left his key players burned out. His most important players are not sticking around longer than three or four years at a time.
As recently as last season the two German giants could have been compared to Real Madrid and Barcelona, dominating the domestic landscape. Now Bayern are more like Celtic, the top flight their personal fiefdom. The problem for Dortmund is that while Bayern, Real and Barca are on unshakable terrain, in certain elements their empire has been built on a fault line.