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 Posted by Michael Cox
Aug 21, 2014

Dortmund building Arsenal-like empire

Borussia Dortmund head coach Jurgen Klopp is expecting a tough test from Bayer Leverkusen in their season opener.

It would be an exaggeration to describe 2014-15 as a genuinely new era for Borussia Dortmund, but they're set to embark upon another phase in their exciting adventure as one of Europe's most revered sides. To be specific, this is the third phase -- and potentially the most interesting so far.

The first phase was simple -- it was Dortmund's sudden transformation into Germany's most complete side. In 2010-11, Dortmund took a huge leap from fifth the previous campaign and become the Bundesliga's best team almost overnight, without much warning or a significant intermediary step.

Jurgen Klopp created a solid, organised and well-drilled team in a solid 4-2-3-1 system, which owed as much to the discipline of hard workers like Jakub Blaszczykowski as the invention of Shinji Kagawa. Dortmund successfully defended their title, and consistently defeated Bayern Munich in head-to-head encounters.

Phase two was an altogether more depressing experience, and basically involved Bayern overthrowing Dortmund -- and, equally significantly, poaching their best players. This happened towards the end of the following campaign, 2012-13, at a time when Bayern were re-establishing themselves as the best side in Germany, and shortly before they defeated Dortmund in the European Cup final. Bayern's shock move for Mario Gotze, Dortmund's most valuable player -- if not necessarily their most important player -- put Dortmund in their place, and to a certain extent overshadowed their preparation for that final at Wembley.

Worse was to come -- Robert Lewandowski's move to Bayern was only confirmed this summer, but had been on the cards for more than a year. Dortmund had reached the final of the European Cup, to a large extent, because of Gotze and Lewandowski's brilliant interplay -- not to dismiss Marco Reus' impact from the left. It wasn't simply that Dortmund were losing that duo, it was that Bayern were gaining them.

Last season was still part of phase two. Dortmund compensated for the loss of Gotze with the signings of both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, getting a "two for the price of one" deal. It was difficult to adapt to the new system, however. Not only were the newcomers becoming accustomed to a different league, they were becoming accustomed to an altogether different standard of football -- Mkhitaryan was previously in the Ukrainian league, Aubameyang had never played in the Champions League.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggled in their first season at Dortmund, but look to be much stronger in their sophomore campaign with the club.

They needed time to adjust, and therefore last year felt like something of a transition season. But it was still unequivocally phase two, because Lewandowski was still there, and while Dortmund were developing the talent of Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang ahead of their second season, they knew any relationships fostered with Lewandowski were, in the long term, useless.

So this is it -- the third phase, the post-pillaging stage, the time when Dortmund have the opportunity to put pressure upon Bayern once again. For 2014-15, questions remain about Klopp's best XI, but in a way that's the positive thing -- for the first time, Dortmund have a genuinely complete squad and plenty of attacking options.

The summer's transfer activity sums this up nicely. Lewandowski is the only major departure, with short-term centre-back solution Manuel Friedrich released, and perennial backup midfielder Julian Schieber sold to Hertha Berlin.

There are a variety of exciting additions. Versatile, pacey forward Adrian Ramos is an excellent signing from Hertha, having hit 16 Bundesliga goals last season, while Ciro Immobile had an even better 2013-14 campaign, scoring 22 in 33 for Torino in Serie A. South Korean Ji Dong-won is little more than a Plan B, but Dortmund have essentially replaced one striker with three.

None guarantee the goals of Lewandowski, the obvious favourite to finish top goal scorer in the Bundesliga with Bayern. But there are more possibilities -- Immobile looks likely to play the role of Lewandowski, the central striker who becomes involved in build-up play. Ramos is happier going the other way, and can start either up front or from wide positions, always offering a goal threat. Ji, still only 23, is capable of being molded into something different.

Elsewhere, Klopp has recruited the highly promising Matthias Ginter from Freiburg. Not only is he better than Friedrich, he's 14 years younger and capable of playing in midfield, too. Oh, and he just won the World Cup. Again, while he offers support for the exciting centre-backs and central midfielders, he's also a more interesting tactical option.

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Klopp has sometimes played a fluid system that switches between a three-man defence and a four-man defence midway through attacking moves, with Sven Bender often a slightly uncomfortable makeshift centre-back. Ginter could mean Dortmund become increasingly more fluid, and Klopp can show off his tactical acumen to a greater extent.

Of course, last season Dortmund were severely troubled by injuries, which some attributed to the combination of a heavy pressing approach, and the fact that Dortmund had such a small squad. It's difficult to ignore the fact Dortmund's two title victories came when they weren't competing in the Champions League in the new year, and as Juventus found and Liverpool might discover this season, it's difficult to compete upon two fronts when you've been accustomed to concentrating on the league.

No one needs to explain that to Klopp, of course, but it's worth remembering that Dortmund fell down last season because they found it difficult to compete over the course of a 34-match league campaign. Although they lost to Bayern in the league, they competed well and were only overwhelmed when Pep Guardiola turned to his bench, which seemed almost unfair at a time when Dortmund could barely put together a starting XI.

Dortmund rarely encountered problems against the league's minnows, either. The problem was against top-half sides -- they only did the double over one top-half side, Mainz, in 2013-14. Frequently, they weren't outclassed, but just lacked a surge of energy, a dangerous substitute, or a tactical variation. In 2014-15, with a more complete squad and hopefully fewer injuries, they should be able to overcome these challenges.

Of course, the most important thing for Dortmund, as they experience these new phases of being a top-level club, is their key man is still there. Klopp will become Dortmund's longest-serving manager this season, and is quickly becoming something of an Arsene Wenger character in terms of reinventing his side after the loss of key players, investing in youth and coming back equally as strong. It would be remarkable if Dortmund won the league, but they should sustain a challenge.

Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He is based in London and writes the Zonal Marking blog about football tactics. He also writes postmatch analysis for the Guardian and contributes regularly for FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter @zonal_marking.

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