The inside story of how Borussia Dortmund transformed themselves back into Champions League contenders

Jack Pitt-Brooke

It was less than two years ago when three pipe bombs packed with metal pins exploded in a hedge as the Borussia Dortmund team bus drove past on its way to a game. Less than two years since Marc Bartra was rushed to hospital with an arm full of glass, and his shaken Dortmund team-mates were forced to play the next day. And it was only two months ago that the bomber Sergei Wenergold was sentenced to 14 years in prison for attempted murder.

The trauma and pain did not fade fast. The players were shaken by their brush with death. Roman Weidenfeller said the attack “changed his life”. There was a sense of bitterness too that the team still had to play Monaco the following day. Thomas Tuchel’s relationship with the club hierarchy, which was already strained, could not survive. He later blamed his departure on the bomb.

But if 2017-18 was a season of slow recovery, two managers, and a desperate last-day scramble to make it back into the Champions League, then this year has been the opposite. This has been the season when Dortmund got their swagger back.

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With 14 games to go in the Bundesliga, Dortmund are top, five points clear. If they hold on, it would be their first league title since Jurgen Klopp. And while Klopp could call on Robert Lewandowski, Ilkay Gundogan, Shinji Kagawa and Mats Hummels, this is a very different Dortmund side. They have far less star quality, most players at the start of their career or at the end. Their best players have been Jadon Sancho, who had never played senior football before he joined, and Axel Witsel, a surprise signing from Tianjin Quanjian. And yet here they are, back on top.

This Wednesday Dortmund travel to Wembley to face Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League last-16. They topped their group including Atletico Madrid and Monaco. But the fact they even made it into this year’s competition owes something to luck. Dortmund only finished fourth last year because Bayer Leverkusen failed to put enough goals past Hannover on the final day. Michael Zorc, Dortmund’s sporting director and the man who has masterminded this return to the top, looked back with some humour at how badly last season could have ended.

“Indeed the last season was a very tough one, where we struggled over the whole season,” Zorc said this week. “It ended up in the last match away at Hoffenheim, I was just looking on my mobile phone at how the match between Leverkusen and Hannover ended. Because we felt it was difficult for us to make it on our own and to score in Hoffenheim.” Dortmund lost 3-1 to Hoffenheim but still scraped through.

Zorc knew that the club needed “substantial changes”. The previous summer he had tried to replace Tuchel with Lucien Favre from Nice, so impressed were they by his work with Hertha Berlin and Borussia Monchengladbach, “but we could not get him out of his contractual situation”. So Dortmund had to get Peter Bosz from Ajax instead, and then had to sack him after six months. But this time, they got their man.

Dortmund celebrate scoring vs Hoffenheim (AFP/Getty)
Dortmund celebrate scoring vs Hoffenheim (AFP/Getty)

Those “substantial changes” had to mean new players too. “We had the feeling last season it was too easy to beat us when a team scored against us,” Zorc said. “We had the feeling we couldn’t make it happen that we would win the game. Therefore we chose some experienced, robust players; physically strong players but also with experience.” First Danish midfielder Thomas Delaney from Werder Bremen. Then Witsel, once of Benfica and Zenit St Petersburg, from China. Now a formerly flimsy team had the two midfield enforcers it needed.

Favre likes to play a patient passing game but his real strength lies in the little details. He teaches the players precisely how to shoot – he worked wonders for a young Reus at Gladbach – and that is why he is known as the manager who always beats his team’s predicted xG numbers, just as Dortmund are doing again this year. “What you can always see in his teams is that they have a clear structure,” Zorc said. “They like playing football, and he is able to develop players and make them better, especially young players, He loves to work with young players and that is his ability. He’s very detail-oriented. ‘You have to hold your hand like this, and not like this’. It is unbelievable. I’ve never seen it before and I have been in football for 30 years. Also how the players should shoot. He works in very little details and the players are following him, which is also quite important.” With Witsel and Delaney providing the base, and with Reus, Sancho and Paco Alcacer scoring the goals, Dortmund have found their balance again.

Lucien Favre has inspired Dortmund's revival (EPA)
Lucien Favre has inspired Dortmund's revival (EPA)

But still few would have expected Dortmund to be this good, this soon. The target in the summer was for Favre to return the team to second place. Zorc is very matter-of-fact about this. “Our target is to be always at least second in the Bundesliga table, because it’s difficult to beat Bayern Munich because there’s a big distance regarding revenue, and money you can spend for players, especially salary. But we also want to have a good performance in Champions League. Participate and to be competitive to be the best 12, 16 clubs in Europe. That is more or less our focus.”

Just take a look at UEFA’s club finance report, released last month for the 2017 financial year, to see the gulf between Bayern and Dortmund. Amid the relentless accumulation of the modern game, the richest are pulling away from the rest. Last year Bayern’s revenue was €588m, Dortmund’s was just €333million – 56 per cent of their rival’s.

Michael Zorc has overseen Dortmund's return to the top (AFP/Getty )
Michael Zorc has overseen Dortmund's return to the top (AFP/Getty )

Look at the total cost in transfer fees of the two squads and you see precisely the same percentage. Bayern’s squad cost €415m to put together. Dortmund’s cost €233m. On salaries Dortmund do at least spend more than half of what Bayern do – €178m to €276m – but the gap is clear.

There are other teams in football that overachieve, like Atletico Madrid or Tottenham Hotspur. But those two are both the projects of one charismatic manager, who has effectively built the team in his own image. If Diego Simeone or Mauricio Pochettino were to leave, no-one knows how his team would cope. Dortmund had their own charismatic manager but he left nearly four years ago. Since then nearly all of his players have gone too, and even their young replacements – Ousmane Dembele, Christian Pulisic – are gone or going.

Zorc and Hans-Joachim Watzke run Dortmund so well that the club has continued to pull off the impossible balance, riding out the departures of players and coaches, making money and winning on the pitch. Six years ago they lost the Champions League final at Wembley, the peak of their last great cycle. On Wednesday they return to the ground, on the upswing of their next great team.

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