THE NEW SHERRIFF IN TOWN. Perhaps no coach in all of Europe embodied his club, its fans and its style of play more than Juergen Klopp did while he was at Dortmund (a mantle that may have since passed to Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid).
An exuberant, charismatic and persistently positive voice, one BVB’s players finally tuned out during the coach’s miserable seventh season at the helm, when Dortmund reached rock bottom in Germany on two separate occasions last year.
In April, Klopp announced he would step down at season’s end. The players responded by giving “Kloppo” -- who led the club to two German titles, a German Cup crown and reached a Champions League final at Wembley -- their best effort down the stretch. As BVB rallied, beating Bayern en route to reaching the German Cup final, and climbed back to seventh place, it was Klopp’s lowest finish as Dortmund’s coach.
Within days of Klopp’s announcement, Dortmund announced the hiring of Thomas Tuchel, a sought-after tactician, who only turned 42 on Saturday. Both coaches arrived at BVB after coaching Mainz, each of them is 6-foot-4, and both were defenders in Germany’s lower divisions, and while Klopp, a former television personality, owns any room, press conference (or bar) he enters, BVB’s new boss is here for the soccer, and Tuchel was already famous in Germany for his own unorthodox methods (which include cordoning off practice fields according to the shape and style of upcoming opponents).
Tuchel’s traits have been welcomed with open arms by BVB’s best players, many of whom had a foot out the door, as they’ve been reinvigorated by the humility, a fresh voice, and the detail-oriented nature of their new coach.
“Tuchel started with the simple things: Which foot do I control the ball with? Which foot does my teammate like to receive the ball with? These details seem small but can make our game a bit faster; I think our progress is clear,” said Ilkay Gundogan. “Defending so bravely and being so brave in possession feels good.”
One thing fans and neutrals alike will be glad to know hasn’t changed is the aggressive high-pressing that routinely makes the Black & Yellow one of Europe’s most entertaining teams. Tuchel’s high press isn’t altogether different from Klopp’s famed gegenpressing, and the tactician named Tuchel hasn’t put a foot wrong, yet.
SCORCHING SUMMER IN THE RUHR. Dortmund played eight competitive games in August, winning them all while scoring 30 goals and allowing just six. As the Schwarzegelben outscored four Europa League playoff opponents 17-5, won one German Cup match, 2-0, and the first-place team in Germany has already won its first three Bundesliga games while scoring 11 goals, and allowing just one. (Bayern is the only other team with nine points, but trails on goal difference).
Dortmund didn’t buy any perceived stars this summer (although the club looks to have found a young gem you’ll discover below), BVB did add midfielder Gonzalo Castro from Bayer Leverkusen, and goalkeeper Roman Burki’s addition was important, as Roman Weidenfeller’s struggled of late, but by far the biggest moves at the Westfalenstadion were the ones that didn’t happen.
Perhaps the fastest striker in Europe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was BVB’s best player last season, and “Auba” spurned Arsenal’s advances this summer. Mats Hummels was slated for Old Trafford but Germany’s best defender also stayed, Gundogan was tabbed for Real Madrid prior to a back injury that lingered for over a year, and thus was not in demand as he’d hoped, and BVB just turned down $77 million Manchester United offered for Dortmund-born Marco Reus, as United balked at BVB’s $92 million counter offer.
Last season, Aubameyang was the only one of these stars anywhere near his best, but not only did they all stay, the three first-team choices of Germany’s national team all appear to be back in top form, which is world class.
Shinji Kagawa has had an excellent start, while former starters, Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin, have been bumped to the bench, giving Dortmund more depth than in recent years. The club also added Adnan Janujaz on a season-long loan from Man United at the transfer deadline for attacking depth.
MANNA FROM HEAVEN. No one raised an eyebrow when Dortmund paid $3 million for Julian Weigl this summer, and why would they? The future German international, still just 19, was considered an investment in the future. But the future is clearly now for this baby-faced defensive mid whose slender frame suggests a stiff breeze might sweep him off the field, a misleading first impression.
Weigl never played Bundesliga soccer before arriving, but he’d already been named the youngest captain in the history of 1860 Munich, at just 18 years old. This defensive midfielder has been a revelation. Featuring in every game, starting six, Weigl has covered more ground and completed a higher percentage of his passes than anyone on the team.
Displaying remarkable maturity, his interceptions, instincts and no-nonsense passes constantly funnel the ball back to Hummels, who provides long deliveries in addition to his defensive duties, and at every opportunity, the youngster smartly shepherds it over to midfield partner Gundogan, who quarterbacks the offense, when Kagawa isn't doing so further up.
Weigl supplanted longtime starter Sven Bender, a more typical and rugged defensive mid, and he’s has already earned the trust of Tuchel and his teammates, as they realize this teenager has given Germany’s second-best team a better chance of slaying the monster in Munich.
With so many positive signs, the irrationally exuberant fans at BVB are already excited, but all these storylines have played second fiddle so far to the Ruhr Valley’s current most dangerous man -- as an unstoppable Armenian assassin, one who was probably the best player in all of Europe during August, seems to have permanently replaced the mild-mannered Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The "flop" label followed Mkhitaryan around last year, as he’s been maddeningly inconsistent since becoming Dortmund’s most expensive ever transfer acquisition, in 2013, when the club paid Shakhtar Donetsk around $40 million for a man with obvious speed, sublime technique and terrific dribbling skills, but his lack of confidence frustrated teammates and fans to no end.
Supposedly, Mkhitaryan was planning to leave, but the often-stoic enigma, who never responded to Klopp’s urging and cajoling, warmed to Tuchel immediately, and the results have been scary for the opposition.
In eight competitive games, Mkhitaryan has eight goals and seven assists while tallying a goal or an assist in every game. And, incredibly, Mkhitaryan has scored or assisted the winning goal in six of Dortmund’s eight games.
In truth, these stats don’t do justice to just how frightening Mkhitaryan has looked, it would not be overstating things to suggest Reus, who has six goals in all competitions, is now Dortmund’s third best attacker, behind Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang (who already has seven goals), on an lethal yet unselfish front line that enjoys playing together, and any team that can make such a claim is a team to be reckoned with.
This highlight reel for Mkhitaryan includes only this season’s first six games, and excludes the last two, but offers a glimpse of why the 26-year-old Armenian has BVB’s excitable fan base bouncing off the legendary Yellow Wall.
THREE REASONS BAYERN WILL STILL WIN.
1) Bayern Munich still has the most talent in Germany, by far, and any scenario involving Dortmund winning its first title since 2012 requires some capitulation by Germany’s all-time heavyweight champ.
But there are genuine concerns in Munich, and they include: players unhappy over roles/minutes, resentment of Pep Guardiola "Spanish-izing" this German institution, Guardiola’s lame-duck contract status, Champions League fatigue Dortmund won’t face, injury-prone key players, and, the pressure to win a record fourth-straight title, especially if Dortmund keeps it close.
2) Bayern made two key additions of its own, Douglas Costa’s speed and power on the left wing brings a new dimension, and he’s looked so phenomenal, it would be shocking to see Franck Ribery regain his starting spot, with the Brazilian winger, and Arturo Vidal in midfield, offering Bayern the balance Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez gave Barcelona last season.
3) It's Bayern Munich, duh.