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Relegation-threatened Borussia Dortmund must be wary of history

"Unprecedented" is the adjective football journalists like to use when a team's results don't fit existing patterns or firmly established narratives. We know of super powers, new powers, thwarted contenders, also-rans and minnows but not super powers who turn into minnows in the course of a few months. 

Borussia Dortmund's slide down the table to within a single goal of bottom spot in the first half of the season has been such an unprecedented, otherworldly outlier; a "black swan" event", to borrow the term from author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (Or a black and yellow swan, in this particular case).

In his book of the same name, Taleb argues that black swan events are actually much more common than people anticipate and that they, therefore, systematically underestimate the risk of such an event happening.

I cannot be entirely sure, but I've got a feeling that Pep Guardiola has read the book. The Bayern Munich coach surprised reporters at the training camp in Doha by stating that Dortmund's fate "could happen" to Bayern, too.

"In football, everything is possible. You can't relax," said the Catalan coach.

That line might stretch credulity to breaking point, as Bayern are 11 points ahead of Wolfsburg at the top of the table and could probably get away with fielding their "All Star XI" of 63-year-old Paul Breitner, Hansi Pflugler (54), Giovane Elber (42) et al in the odd home game without coming anywhere near a BVB-style collapse.

But again, that hyper-unrealistic scenario underlines Taleb's point. You have to consider the eventuality of things that appear impossible to you.

Dortmund have, after the initial shock, started to wonder whether their fall down the table has indeed been unprecedented or rather an extreme example of volatility that's built into the system.

Jurgen Klopp's side resume their Bundesliga campaign at Bayer Leverkusen on Jan. 31.

Are there are some historical parallels they can draw upon? Nurnberg infamously managed to get relegated the season after winning the Bundesliga in 1968 and were 16th after the first half of the season. But that was a long time ago, when financial power in football was far less important, and clubs' well-being far less assured as a result. (Dortmund have just been revealed as the 11th richest team by turnover, incidentally).

In an interview with on Wednesday, Borussia assistant coach Peter Krawietz came up with a much more recent and pertinent reference. "The situation is complex and historic," he said, "a similar thing happened to Bayer Leverkusen after the 2002 World Cup -- suddenly, nothing was fitting together anymore".

It's quite amazing that no one had thought before to mention Bayer's fate from 12 years ago, because their story echoes Dortmund's in quite a few respects.

At the turn of the century, Leverkusen had established itself as the second power behind Bayern Munich in the league and as a serial Champions League participant. In May 2002, only the artistic brilliance of Zinedine Zidane and young substitute goalkeeper Iker Casillas had stopped Klaus Toppmoller's fabulous side from winning the biggest prize of all.

Bayer had a strong squad, with stars like Michael Ballack, Lucio, Ze Roberto, Dimitar Berbatov, Bernd Schneider and Yildiray Basturk but, nine months after the final at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Leverkusen were 16th -- three teams were relegated that year -- and Toppmoller, Germany's Coach of the Year in 2002, was gone.

Curiously enough, they had survived the first group stage of the Champions League but Thomas Horster, Toppmoller's successor, lost all six games in the second stage before being dismissed for Klaus Augenthaler. Leverkusen barely avoided the drop with a win over Nurnberg at the end of the season.

Most of their regular starting XI had done extremely well at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea and, in Ballack and Ze Roberto, Leverkusen lost two key players to Bayern at the start of 2002-03 campaign. Sound familiar?

We can do even better than that, truth be told. Dortmund themselves had lived through an almost identical nightmare three years earlier. Having won the league in 1995 and 1996 and the Champions League in 1997, they were one point adrift of the relegation spot with five games to go in the 1999-2000 season before veteran coach Udo Latttek was brought in to save them. (In 2001-02, they won the championship again).

So do these things do happen, to Bundesliga clubs other than Bayern Munich, at least. No, that's not true, in fact: the Bavarians had a black swan season of their own in 1991-92 when they flirted with relegation and finished in 10th spot, a mere 12 months after contesting the semifinal of the European Cup.

General manager Uli Hoeness later described the dismissal of coach Jupp Heynckes midway through the campaign as the greatest mistake of his career. Soren Lerby and Erich Ribbeck, his successors, didn't last long.

Back in the present day, the Dortmund board seem to have learned the most important lesson of these past disasters: don't get rid of the coach in a hurry if you're convinced of his qualities. (Michael Skibbe and Bernd Krauss, the men who presided over the 2000 slump, didn't come into that category, in case you're wondering)

For a club in such a crisis, they've been able to keep remarkably calm. There's still a strong sense of togetherness as far as officials, coaching staff, players and supporters are concerned. BVB, as Krawietz explained, still believe in their methods and style, albeit with much better application.

The arrival of Austrian attacking midfielder Kevin Kampl from Salzburg has added instant momentum in that respect. The 24-year-old Slovenian international has been impressive in the winter training camp in Spain and crucially, he's been able to slot right into Klopp's demanding system because RB Salzburg were playing a similar style.

"He doesn't carry any baggage, he's used to pressing and counter-pressing," said the BVB coach.

A sense of optimism is discernible in the camp, even if Mats Hummels admitted that qualification for the Champions League has most likely become out of reach for them.

Guardiola said that Dortmund will get out of their rut "for sure" and, looking at the squad, it's hard to disagree. But Dortmund know from history that positive change, while probable, can never be taken for granted. Very strange things happen, all the time.

The best way to avoid them happening is to face up to the remote but not negligible chance of total failure. Dortmund, you feel, have taken six months to get to that point but now, they seem ready to chase that black swan out of the Signal Iduna Park.

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.


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