After so much success and such a close connection with the club’s passionate fanbase, Jurgen Klopp has every reason to relish returning to Borussia Dortmund and experiencing the warm reception he is sure to receive. Yet the charismatic coach will surely not have wished for his first trip back to his former club as Liverpool manager to come quite so soon.
Only 10 months after ending his seven-year stay at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp will be back in front of the famed Westfalenstadion crowd as an opposition manager on Thursday in the first leg of a hotly anticipated Europa League quarter-final tie. Although it is set to be an emotional occasion, it could also provide a rude awakening as to how far his new team still has to go to reach the level of his rejuvenated former club.
Despite his obvious coaching acumen and infectious personality, the transformation of Liverpool was never likely to happen overnight following Klopp’s arrival last October. And that has been borne out. There have been plenty of encouraging moments, but it has generally been a case of two steps forward and one back. There have been thrilling wins over Chelsea and Manchester City, where Klopp’s famed counter-pressing style appeared to truly taking root within his new squad. But on both occasions, defeats to relegation-candidates soon followed, calling into question the true strength of the squad Brendan Rodgers left behind and fueling belief that it will take a summer transfer window for Klopp to make real progress.
That inconsistency was displayed in one roller-coaster match last month. Liverpool had dominated the first half at Southampton and could have been more than two-goals to the good at the interval. Yet in the second half they collapsed to go down to a 3-2 defeat that ended their realistic prospect of garnering a top-four berth. Their hopes for a Champions League place for next season now rest on winning the Europa League.
And that will be far from a straightforward task, particularly having been drawn against the club that looks the strongest remaining in the competition. When Klopp parted ways with Dortmund, after a memorable tenure that included two Bundesliga titles, one league and cup double and a run to the Champions League title, both coach and club appeared in need of a fresh start.
Dortmund had been battling relegation for the first half of last season, before regaining some form to sneak into seventh spot and the final Europa League place. This season, though, has been a very different story.
Under Thomas Tuchel, another of Germany’s shining new breed of coaches, Dortmund have maintained some of the thrilling hallmarks of Klopp’s team, while making subtle but notable tweaks. In particular, they are now far fonder of controlling possession and probing for gaps, rather than relying on pure speed in transition. This season they have averaged 60.3 percent possession in Bundesliga, up from 53.3 percent in Klopp’s last campaign.
The few new, largely unheralded arrivals, have proved a success, too, particularly young midfielder Julian Weigl. But Tuchel is also getting the best from players who were toiling under Klopp, notably Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian turned down Liverpool in order to join Dortmund in 2013, and is now finally justifying his hefty price tag, having contributed 20 goals and 17 assists in all competitions this term.
As a testament to Tuchel’s success, contrary to expectations that Bayern Munich would cruise to the Bundesliga title, Dortmund remain in the hunt, just five points back going into the final six games. They also swept aside Tottenham 5-1 on aggregate in the previous round of the Europa League, and, already a well-oiled machine, will unquestionably start as favorites to progress to the Europa League semifinals. Having so often upset the odds while in charge at Dortmund, Klopp is now tasked with doing the same against them.
D: Piszczek, Sokratis, Hummels, Schmelzer
M: Weigl, Sahin
Mkhitaryan, Kagawa, Reus
D: Clyne, Lovren, Sakho, Moreno
M: Henderson, Can
Milner, Firmino, Coutinho
Prediction: There is little doubt that Borussia Dortmund are currently a superior team to Liverpool. And, while Liverpool could benefit from Klopp’s knowledge of a very similar squad to the one he left behind, Dortmund are now much more unpredictable in terms of their tactical systems. The loss of Ilkay Gundogan, if he fails to recover in time from injury, would be a blow to Dortmund, but, fueled by the confidence of a 16-match unbeaten run, Tuchel’s side should secure a strong first-leg advantage.
Predicted score: Borussia Dortmund 2-0 Liverpool