Big Lang Theory: In praise of Borussia Dortmund


Barcelona's possession stranglehold and Manchester United's unrelenting attacks down the flank may not have a great deal in common, but they are arguably both interpretations - if only superficially - of a familiar thought: if we're attacking you, you're not attacking us. Attack, as they say, is the best form of defence. Every now and then, though, the opposite is also true. The success of the current Borussia Dortmund side proves that, if done correctly, defence can be the best form of attack.

The German side's high octane pressing game has made them the standout team in this season's Champions League, helping them qualify from what many assumed would be (and what, in the context of Roberto Mancini's career, may remain) the group of death. The sight of Dortmund's front four buzzing round opposition defenders has been thrilling, yet serves a purpose far more important than mere fan service. (That is to say, the pressing game is resolutely not the logical consequence of the luddite's demand that Dimitar Berbatov "get his arse in gear". Oh, Berba.)

By harrying a team's backline - which, as a general rule, is populated by players who are less comfortable on the ball than those who play further forward (insert pointed comparison between Gerard Pique and Lee Cattermole here) - Dortmund give themselves the opportunity to launch attacks from what are already advanced positions. When you snatch possession thirty yards from goal, your attack, as if by magic, starts thirty yards from goal. You're already in a position to shoot or play the final ball. The pitch is shrunk to a third of its size; you're basically playing five-a-side football, and you have all the skilful kids from the playground (Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Jakub Błaszczykowski). You're onto a winner, basically.

Clearly this approach takes commitment and no little energy, but Dortmund are blessed in these respects. Jürgen Klopp has clearly convinced his young side of the benefits of the system (consecutive league titles haven't hurt), while also proving himself a smart mover in the transfer market; the loss of Shinji Kagawa has barely been felt thanks to the marquee signing of Reus. True, Dortmund have yet to be tested by injuries to their stars this term, but Tuesday's victory over Manchester City demonstrated that they do boast strength in depth, with the likes of Julian Schieber, Moritz Leitner and Ivan Perišić all able to step into Klopp's system with the minimum of fuss.

A defensive strategy alone doesn't win you fans, of course. Dortmund's performances in Group D (particularly the 2-2 draw with Real Madrid and the 4-1 demolition of Ajax) highlighted the incision and verve of some of the most watchable talents in European football. Reus, a Foal at Borussia Mönchengladbach, is now a stallion, bewitching defences with his careering runs and non-stop movement. While many attacking midfielders earn praise for their ability to slow things down and make sensible decisions in the flurry of the modern game, Reus is a timely reminder of just how potent speed can be.

Pint-sized schemer Götze, who could easily have shrunk into his shell after the arrival a man who leapfrogged him in the pecking order for the German national team, has already chalked up six goals in all competitions - just one fewer than he managed in the entirety of last season. Dortmund's Polish contingent, while perhaps less glamourous than the two golden boys, are just as influential: Błaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek run the right flank with almost military swagger, and Robert Lewandowski is a good old-fashioned plunderer up front. 

It's an attractive cocktail, and one that, after a season of adaptation, has entoxicated in Europe this season. Roberto Mancini may whine about experience, but Group D was won with exuberance; both with the ball and without it. Dortmund stand as proof that anything can be dangerous if you do it fast enough - even defending.