On Saturday, Dortmund host arch rivals Schalke in the Bundesliga. Even in normal times, such a fixture is highly anticipated, highly pressurised. On this occasion, with Dortmund in a downward spiral of disastrous defending and depressing defeats, the pressure is even higher.
‘The derby is a special game for us,’ Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke told Bild this week.
‘I expect courage, decisiveness and fighting spirit from our players. It is a huge chance for us to reverse the current trend.
Dortmund urgently need to reverse their current trend. They have lost four of their last five games in all competitions, the only exception being a 1-1 draw at home to APOEL. Since September, the team have only won once, beating third division Magdeburg in the cup.
The swashbuckling destructiveness with which they started the season has mutated into a disastrous lack of organisation, a vicious circle of demotivation and a complete failure to impose themselves on games.
Less than two months ago, Dortmund were five points clear at the top of the Bundesliga. They are nine points off the top, and have dropped down to fifth.
Peter Bosz’ tenure is now hanging by a thread. Having started so brilliantly, its implosion in the last six weeks has been remarkable. While some were ready to forgive an attack-minded coach for a few poor defensive performances, there can be no excuses for Dortmund’s appalling coordination at the back. The defending is not so much slapstick as clownish in the Stephen King sense. It is a horror show.
Bosz has to bear the responsibility, and should there be no improvement on Saturday, it seems clear that he will have to pack his bags. Dortmund have not fired a manager in mid-season since 2006, and are loath to do so again.
Thus far, the bosses have preferred to criticise the players rather than the coach, but there will come a moment where they have no choice but to fire the Dutchman.
‘We have to win against Schalke, also for the sake of my position,’ said Bosz this week. He knows that he is on borrowed time.
This derby is particularly important, not just because of Dortmund’s doldrums, but also because of Schalke’s recent resurgence.
While Borussia have imploded, the normally far more crisis-prone Schalke have been quietly rising up the ranks.
Under young coach Domenico Tedesco, Schalke seem to have regained some of the stability and pragmatism that has so often deserted them in recent years. Unbeaten since September, they have emerged out of nowhere to take second place in the Bundesliga table, albeit six points behind Bayern Munich.
Such is the contrast between the two clubs’ fortunes, that some are beginning to talk of a changing in the guard in the battle for dominance of the Ruhr.
‘Blue is the new yellow’ read the front page of kicker on Thursday morning.
A few days earlier, Schalke chief-executive Clemens Toennies had told kicker that he aimed to ‘overtake Dortmund in the long term’.
While Dortmund’s financial clout remains significantly greater than Schalke’s, there is a sense that the wind is changing.
With the loss of super scout Sven Mislintat, the ignominious departure of Thomas Tuchel and the current woes, there is a feeling that Dortmund are approaching the end of an era.
Schalke, with Klopp’s old friend Christian Heidel as sporting director and 32-year-old coaching prodigy Tedesco in the dugout, feel like the project of the future. These are vague notions, which Schalke have been careful to play down in the last few days, but they are gaining traction. Victory for Schalke on Saturday would certainly increase the sense of a power shift.
Schalke, though, are wary of that narrative. ‘Dortmund’s current situation won’t be decisive,’ goalkeeper Ralf Faehrmann told kicker.
‘The derby always has something of a cup game or a knockout game to it.’
That is certainly true for Dortmund this time around. Win in the derby, and the nightmare of the last two months may quickly be forgotten. A timely reminder of who rules the Ruhr could be exactly the spark Dortmund need to get their season back on track. Lose, on the other hand, and the coach will almost certainly be fired.
Dortmund would fall six points behind Schalke in the table, and potentially 12 points behind leaders Bayern. They could even drop out of the top six. That is the nature of Saturday’s derby. There is no middle ground. It is all or nothing.