It’s inconceivable. Less than three years ago, Borussia Dortmund was its second consecutive Bundesliga crown. A year later, it was a second place finish, both domestically and in the Champions League final. And last season, Dortmund came second yet again. It’s inconceivable, then, that Jürgen Klopp’s side, ahead of Saturday’s Klassiker, is now 10th, 31 points back of first.
But that word, to evoke a famous cinematic trope, may not mean what you think it means. For Dortmund to even dream about unseating Bayern on a long-term basis, it would have to create a perfect house of cards: perhaps a two of spades — or, say, healthy players — tenuously resting against a five of inspired coaching; those two propped up by a jack of gambling on the right signings; all of which are stopped by dual aces of luck and fortune. Even then, a change in direction from the winds that blow through a Bundesliga season might flatten the house, sending a team back to its mid-table foundations.
What’s most unfortunate for Dortmund, though, is that its main opposition is playing with a stacked deck. Bayern Munich is a powerhouse, in every sense of the word. The team’s built on a strong foundation of money, supported by pillars of players that have been at the club for years, with a squad that’s enhanced each summer by clever signings that fit the coach’s philosophy. And, of course, those enhancements are supervised by arguably the best manager in the sport.
It’s certainly not inconceivable, then, that Bayern is 10 points clear at the top of the standings. A demolishing by Wolfsburg here, a solid victory by Borussia Mönchengladbach there – this is the equivalent of mere breezes dancing around the Allianz Arena’s triple-paned windows. To truly usurp Bayern, a club would need season after season of title-contending performances, even beyond what Dormtund’s already done. Although it looked as if BVB, with back-to-back titles and consecutive second-place finishes, was on its way, the side left itself vulnerable, with one setback allowing it to slip from challenger to punchline.
What Dortmund hasn’t been able to recover from is the loss of Robert Lewandowski. Perhaps the club was a touch arrogant in its thinking, as losing Mario Götze to Bayern the summer before hadn’t brought the house crashing down, but Lewandoski has proved different. He’d been Dortmund’s top scorer three years running, but more than that, he was the man Klopp built his side around. Pull him away, and suddenly Dortmund is left with a lanky hole no Ciro Immobile or Adrián Ramos can fill. The club was aware, of course, that it would be necessary to bring in new faces to replace the Pole, and perhaps after the success of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang the year before, it wasn’t worried about finding replacements.
But perhaps, too, Dortmund didn’t think about the fact that it already had a player available to step into Götze’s boots. When he left, Marco Reus began to grow, forming a productive partnership with Lewandowski and making it seem as though losing Götze didn’t truly matter. But when Lewandowski left, Dortmund didn’t have a ready replacement. It had to scramble to find alternatives. In absence of the same deep pockets Bayern possess, this meant looking around for decent forwards who were approaching the end of their contracts. Dortmund’s gambles have yet to pay off: three goals in 17 appearances for Immobile; two in 16 for Ramos. Reus’s injury woes have added to the problem, making it more difficult for the new boys to find their groove. Now, they’re on the bench, with Aubameyang back to playing the Lewandowski role, linking up with Reus.
Of course, it’s not just Reus that’s spent part of the season on the treatment table. Injuries have hit hard and all over the pitch, but any side determined to challenge for trophies year after year must have contingency plans in place. It can’t be hobbled by injury, wedded to a single tactic, or unable to find and recruit quality talent. But Dortmund keeps pressing on with the same old ideas, confident that past successes will lift the team out of its current hole.
Bayern, meanwhile, didn’t need to change a thing after running away with the title last season, yet a few choice transfers during the summer made the squad even stronger, bringing in players more suited to Pep Guardiola’s style. And Pep himself refuses to remain stagnant, sending out head-scratching lineups that somehow wind up being exactly what Bayern needs to dominate the opposition. And despite sitting more than 30 points above Dortmund, that’s exactly what we’ll expect from Bayern on Saturday – a little jiggle in the game plan. The hosts, however, are almost certain to stick with their high-pressing, high-tempo style.
And so we end up with a Klassiker that will showcase, in 90 minutes, the difficulties in trying to topple Bayern. Yes, it can be done over the course of a match. And yes, it can even be done over the course of a season, maybe even two. But to truly oust Germany’s hegemons, a club must stay ever vigilant: essential players must be retained, and those allowed to leave must be replaced by carefully considered talent. A manager must be willing to adapt and modify tactics. The bench must be deep, and injuries rare. Money must flow. And even with all those factors present, the challenger is going to need to rely on Bayern making not just one, but a series of mistakes.
And that’s what’s truly inconceivable.