Dortmund - They started the season as the one side believed to be capable of giving all-conquering FC Bayern München a real run for their money over the next few years, but for Borussia Dortmund, 2013/14 has thus far been a campaign defined as much by frustration and improvisation as jubilation.
Defensive woes for Klopp to deal with
Dortmund have navigated some turbulent waters over the past few months, both on the pitch and off it, the upshot of which is that the predicted tussle at the top with FC Bayern is yet to materialise. It still seems rather unlikely to do so, given the hefty points difference between the two great rivals going into the final third of the league programme. That said, if Borussia have indeed emerged from their season slump, they have done so in fine shape under the circumstances: DFB Cup semi-finalists, on course for another group stage berth in next season's UEFA Champions League and gearing up for a round of 16 second-leg meeting with FC Zenit St. Petersburg in this season's edition of the tournament.
It's not a bad return for a team that were, at one stage, deprived of their entire first-choice back four. Head coach Jürgen Klopp signed the then-clubless Manuel Friedrich to help plug the gap and after a shaky start, the former Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Germany veteran is starting to gel alongside Sokratis Papastathopoulos in central defence, even managing to get on the scoresheet in the recent 5-1 drubbing of his Greek teammate's former employers, SV Werder Bremen.
That notwithstanding, there is little doubt that BVB have suffered from the absence of the central defensive pairing so pivotal to their success in recent years, Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels. Serbia international Subotic has effectively been ruled out for the season after tearing cruciate ligaments in his right knee at VfL Wolfsburg on Matchday 12, while Hummels has perhaps been even more sorely missed at the heart of the back row.
The 25-year-old Germany international was sidelined for two months with an ankle ligament injury sustained in last November's friendly win against England and then promptly ruled out of action for a further two weeks after taking an unrelated knock to the same foot on his competitive comeback at Eintracht Braunschweig. Quite aside from his defensive attributes, Hummels boasted the best one-on-one record in the league prior to his injuries, winning almost 70 per cent of his duels. Hummels effectively operates as BVB's deepest-lying playmaker, adding a whole new dimension to their attacking options. As far as Klopp is concerned, the sooner his defensive coordinator is back in the fray, the better.
Back in the groove
Local hero and nominal left-sided attacking midfielder Kevin Großkreutz - versatility personified - and youngster Erik Durm have meanwhile done some sterling work at right- and left-back respectively, but the return of old hands Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer has evidently helped restore some of the team's accustomed dynamism down the flanks.
That was certainly the case in the Weserstadion demolition job, described by Klopp as "our best counter-pressing performance of the season." Given how vital the swift regaining of possession is to a Dortmund team in full flow, it was a significant remark from the charismatic head coach, whose charges had ended 2013 with a draw at 1899 Hoffenheim sandwiched between home losses to Leverkusen and Hertha Berlin. The New Year began on an only marginally more auspicious note, with a draw against FC Augsburg in front of the Signal Iduna Park faithful followed by a laboriously achieved victory at bottom-of-the-table Braunschweig. Klopp will have been satisfied with the three points, but results are only part of the proper Borussia package.
Klopp has spoken often enough about the philosophy he and his assistants seek to imbue in players meticulously selected for their attitude as well as their ability. In his eyes, "taking passion to the limit" is an inextricable part of the Dortmund experience, intertwined with the expectations of the largest regular home following in the world game. The players certainly make good on that, be they the likes of home-grown Großkreutz and Nuri Sahin, or big-money imports such as Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian attacking midfielder's own form-curve is on the rise in tandem with that of his team and, typical of a club where individual egos are put on hold, he is leaving no stone unturned in a bid to add consistency to the turbocharged brilliance he has already displayed in flashes this season.
New faces breaking through
Neither is there any doubt as to the continued commitment to the cause of Robert Lewandowski, his upcoming summer move to FC Bayern notwithstanding. The prolific Polish frontman is once again right in the mix in the race for the Bundesliga individual top scorer's cannon and Klopp, for one, was "never in any doubt" it would be otherwise with a player he has helped develop into one of the most coveted forwards in the world game over the past four years. And just as losing some of your biggest names to even bigger clubs is "all part of professional football," so the coach - and fans - can take solace from the fresh talents coming up fast in the slipstream.
Jonas Hoffman is one such talent. Signed from Hoffenheim in 2011, the 21-year-old midfielder has progressed by way of the reserves to become a genuine contender for a first-team berth this season. Alongside his unquestioned talent, Hofmann's attitude is also emblematic for Klopp's Dortmund. Asked on a local radio station about yet another serious injury blow for the club - Poland captain Jakub Blaszczykowski's cruciate ligament rupture at the end of January - the youngster responded: "It's a real shame that Kuba got injured, but for me, it opens up a door. If I show what I'm capable of out on the pitch, there'll be no reason to sign anybody else." Borussia's future, it seems, is in very assured hands.