Bundesliga strugglers Borussia Dortmund have problems at both ends
DORTMUND, Germany -- Judging by the crowd alone, you wouldn't realise this was a crisis for Borussia Dortmund.
The Yellow Wall assembled an hour before kickoff of their club's 2-2 draw with Wolfsburg on Wednesday night were as passionate as ever throughout the game and then waited behind to hail the players with two enduring ovations. With the Bundesliga's winter break looming, this is the last time Dortmund and their superb home support will see one another for over a month.
Yet the team are now in a perilous situation. These supporters are accustomed to watching a title challenger, and so this game must have felt somewhat peculiar: At kickoff, Dortmund were joint-bottom of the table, while Wolfsburg were in second.
A victory might have proved the turning point for Dortmund. It follows that, if they can beat Bayern Munich's closest "challengers", there's no reason they can't surge up the table. Instead, the game was another example of their frustrating failings.
Despite flirting with relegation, Dortmund haven't completely collapsed. Between the penalty boxes they continue to excel at the concepts which turned them, briefly, into Europe's most revered club.
Jurgen Klopp's side press excellently inside the opposition half and keep a high defensive line when possible, while their attacking transitions are very smooth with wide players darting forward to provide an immediate outlet on the break.
This season, only Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen have attempted more shots, and only those two sides have conceded fewer shots. Theoretically, based on those stats alone, Dortmund should be third. Instead, they're third-bottom.
That their problems persist at both ends is an example of what has been a common theme in recent times. A few years ago, football seemed to be about wrestling control of the midfield zone through patient passing, before gradually turning that dominance into goals. Any concessions on the counter-attack were treated as an inevitable consequence of trying to play football in the manner of Barcelona.
Now, an increasing number of top-level matches seem ludicrously open. Manchester United's 3-0 win over Liverpool last weekend was a case in point: Brendan Rodgers' side was equal in the midfield zone but massively inferior in two areas: finishing and goalkeeping.
Dortmund's problem is exactly the same. They're still shooting and they're not conceding many shots. But they're shooting poorly and dealing with opposition shots atrociously.
On Wednesday, for example, Dortmund had enough chances to score five and Ciro Immobile's performance summed up the inefficiency. Although the Italian smashed in Dortmund's second, a fine right-footed finish from the edge of the box, he'd already missed plenty of decent opportunities.
Few were actually bad misses: Wolfsburg goalkeeper Diego Benaglio performed well and, in a couple of situations, Immobile was shooting in the only manner, and direction, possible following a brilliant piece of chest control, or a swivel having brought down a long pass. Still, it was not clinical. Immobile finished Serie A top goal scorer last season, yet in the Bundesliga he seems merely a hard worker, someone who is persistent rather than purposeful.
He's not the only problem: Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are injured and Adrian Ramos hasn't settled as Klopp expected. Yet Robert Lewandowski's departure to Bayern Munich was the major difference between last season and this, so his replacement in the No. 9 shirt inevitably receives the most scrutiny.
Immobile boasts neither the Pole's coolness in front of goal, nor his ability to link play and encourage midfield runners forward which is one reason why Dortmund have only scored 17 times in 16 games.
At the opposite end, the problems are equally worrying. Experienced goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller made some serious errors earlier in the campaign and has been dropped, with the inexperienced Mitchell Langerak replacing him.
His first concession to Wolfsburg was terrible, however: Kevin De Bruyne casually side-footed a free kick over the wall, which bounced a couple of yards away from Langerak. He got down quickly but the ball squirmed agonisingly under his body and into the net, with the Australian beating the turf in anger at the unnecessary error.
"It was a disappointing goal to concede," said midfielder Sebastian Kehl, and his message for the second was similar: "It's really a shame that we conceded the equaliser in the way we did."
The same old story.
Langerak can't be blamed for the second goal but the defending was awful. Wolfsburg centre-back Naldo took full advantage of some terrible marking -- Kehl and Mats Hummels were tricked by a simple block-off -- to power home a classic bullet header and silence the Dortmund supporters.
It's the type of goal Dortmund rarely conceded during their peak under Klopp. "It was stupid to concede an equaliser from a corner," complained the manager after the game. "That shouldn't have happened. But that's the way things are for us at the moment."
Yet Dortmund's organisation in open play was impressive. Klopp has previously spoken about pressing being "the best playmaker there is" and that was obvious throughout as Dortmund disrupted down Wolfsburg's passing in advanced positions. Both goals, and a few other chances, came following pressing high up the pitch, often from Ilkay Gundogan, who played in a No. 10 role and used his energy to lead the charge.
Granted, though, there should be more guile in deep midfield positions. Opponents have learned Dortmund are better when attacking quickly, rather than when attempting to break down a deep defence. That's obvious without a tall target man like Lewandowski, with quick players like Immobile and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had netted the opener from the Italian's left-wing cross.
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But Dortmund aren't doing an awful lot wrong -- it's just in the penalty areas where they're lacking. "The match was absolutely positive in many areas. We can build on it," Klopp insisted afterwards.
Maybe Klopp's biggest problem is that there is no overall structural issue but a simple failure to complete basic tasks at both ends and it's difficult to improve that through coaching. The manager can be blamed for neither pointless goalkeeping errors, nor for constant wasted chances.
Dortmund's final game before the winter break is on Saturday. Ominously, they travel to bottom-placed Werder Bremen in possession of the worst away record in the entire Bundesliga, with just four points from eight matches.
The patience of the supporters and their faith in the management is hugely admirable but a defeat at the weekend will leave them in the relegation zone after half the season. Therefore, Dortmund's struggles can no longer be considered a mere blip.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.