Munich - The engine is ticking over, but something is not quite right under the bonnet at Borussia Dortmund.
Following back-to-back defeats - the club’s first double negative since losing to 1899 Hoffenheim and current Bundesliga pacesetters FC Bayern München in the UEFA Champions League final last May - a once flawless ride is beginning to feel increasingly unsteady just when it is preparing to negotiate the mother of all hairpin bends in the weeks ahead.
Despite losing Mario Götze to podium rivals Bayern over the summer, BVB flew out of the starting blocks, winning their first six meetings in all competitions. The wheels began to blister, however, on Matchday 1 in the Champions League when, reduced to ten men, BVB went down to a 2-1 defeat at SSC Napoli. In the week that followed, they could only draw with 1. FC Nürnberg and needed extra time to in the DFB Cup. over SC Freiburg and Olympique Marseille proved little more than false starts, with defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 8 allowing Bayern to take pole for the first time this season.
Dortmund responded by pipping Hannover 96 to the post on Matchday 9, blindsiding Arsenal FC in the Champions League, popping the Revierderby champagne with victory over FC Schalke 04 and hot lapping VfB Stuttgart. It was almost vintage Dortmund, but there was still the distinct feeling that something, or rather someone, was missing. Profligate, naïve and ultimately losing efforts against Arsenal and VfL Wolfsburg proved that beyond any doubt.
Against the Gunners, Dortmund failed to make use of twelve attempts on goal, whilst conceding from the visitors’ first effort of the night. At Wolfsburg, a Marco Reus free-kick was BVB’s only return from twelve cracks at goal; yet the Wolves converted two from ten. Die Schwarzgelben have compensated surprisingly well for the departed Götze by bringing in Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but finding the ideal understudy for waylaid midfielder Ilkay Gündogan has proven far more problematic.
With a reputation for sweeping up the debris at the back and adding gumption and versatility to the attack, Gündogan’s presence alone has often been the difference between a good BVB performance and one, such as that in last season’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid CF, which writes sporting headlines the world over. Dortmund’s silent assassin, this is a man who sank a clinical penalty in front of a 86,298-strong crowd in the final of the Champions League at Wembley and orchestrated a resounding over none other than Bayern at the start of the campaign.
Big game player
Lumbar problems, however, have since restricted the Germany international to just one appearance, and while Dortmund are only four points behind Bayern, the holding midfielder's unique ability as an all-rounder has been missed. Formerly a No.10, he has managed to fuse the traits typically associated with both positions: namely solidity and creativity. The 22-year-old is also a dab hand under pressure and readily gets involved further up the field. Last term, he misplaced fewer passes in the league (12 per cent) than any of his team-mates, but it is on the European circuit where he regularly hits top gear.
Since joining the club from 1. FC Nürnberg in 2011, Gündogan has featured 14 times in the Champions League, with BVB winning seven, drawing three and losing four, compared to three wins, two draws and four defeats without him. In this season’s competition, Dortmund’s six-point return from four games means they must in all likelihood win their final two group matches to have a realistic chance of progressing to the last 16, but not before attempting to peg back Bayern in the Bundesliga on Matchday 13 - all without their prized midfield asset. It’s a big ask, but should they succeed, the reward of having a fit-again Gündogan behind the wheel in the New Year is about as big as an incentive as they come.