The way people talk about Borussia Dortmund this season is like a joke one would tell at a party. The first time the joke comes up, it's pretty funny and gets a good laugh. The joke even holds up after someone tells it a second or third time, but eventually the bit gets tired.
That moment for Dortmund occurred just before the winter break, losing to the decaying Werder Bremen, 2-1, to end a miserable Hinrunde performance. The defeat pushed Dortmund's record to 10 losses in 17 matches, leaving them a paltry 15 points, tied for last in the Bundesliga. The Winterpause break itself, one of the longest midseason layoffs in Europe, could not have come sooner for the confounded club.
"To finish the first half of the season in 17th place felt like going on a holiday on a bed of nails," said long-time manager Jürgen Klopp, whose job could be in jeopardy for the first time in his six-and-a-half years in Dortmund. With the second half of the Bundesliga season about to kick off, jokes have to be put aside to answer a haunting question: is Borussia Dortmund a serious relegation candidate?
This was a similar position that Hamburger SV -- quickly becoming the cockroach of the Bundesliga -- was in a year ago, trying and failing to stop their downward spiral into the relegation zone. Ultimately the Rothosen retained their top-flight status in the relegation playoff against SpVgg Greuther Fürth, making the most of a structural advantage that most other top leagues in Europe are not able to enjoy. On the surface, Dortmund's situation appears to be more salvageable given the world-class talent dressing in yellow, separating them from the rest of the bottom-feeders they are currently associated with. However, something has ripped a chunk of the club's identity out of its proud, puffed chest.
Throughout the first half of the Bundesliga season the side, once scrappy and resilient, looked lost and easily dejected, something once unfathomable under the charismatic Klopp. Dortmund were unable to when conceding first and could only conjure two equalizers after falling behind. They are not much better when they score first, dropping points in three of the seven matches after picking up the early advantage.
The mere fact that "Dortmund" and "relegation" are in the same sentence is baffling, given that they have finished either first or second in the Germany top flight in each of the four years leading up to this season. They were the first candidate to dethrone Bayern Munich for the domestic title this season, but Dortmund sit 30 points behind their Klassiker rivals, making them no longer capable (or worthy) of dismantling the Bavarian empire that rules the Fußball lands.
The irony of their table position stems from their success elsewhere. Dortmund topped their Champions League group, emphatically disposing Arsenal, Anderlecht, and Galatasaray to go into the knockout stages with a plus-10 goal difference. They also breezed through the first two rounds of the German Cup, something that Champions League hopefuls Schalke 04 and Augsburg cannot say. That irony casts an even more uncomfortable narrative around Dortmund's Bundesliga campaign, leaving more people scratching their heads trying to form an explanation.
Injuries have certainly played a part, with Dortmund losing Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and Marco Reus in critical stretches of their campaign. Players who helped construct the club's success returned to action, including Jakub Blaszczykowski, Sven Bender, and Ilkay Gündogan. The search for form turned into a constant and chaotic struggle that has not given the Schwarzgelben the run of consistency they need.
Klopp tinkered what he could in the fall, trying to make Schnitzel out of sausages to manufacture some semblance of progress. He went so far as dropping tenured No. 1 Roman Weidenfeller to the bench, committing to Australian backup Mitchell Langerak for the last five matches before the winter break. He tested several different formulas, attempting to overcome the frailty of transfer acquisitions Ciro Immobile and Shinji Kagawa, but the personnel that he has to work look unable to execute his plans.
No part of the field has seen more change than his defense, rotating partnerships bubbling into a toxic formula when their opponents get into scoring positions. Klopp deployed 17 different defensive personnel groupings (including six different centerback partnerships alone) in 24 matches before the winter break, using just four combinations more than once. With the constant change, individual shortcomings unsheltered a club once able to mask single deficiencies as a collective unit. While fitness management is a prominent factor in the various assortments of defense, Dortmund must find consistency, establishing their best defense -- and sticking to it.
But it's the players up top who will most help Dortmund climb their way back up the table. Their attack has stagnated without Robert Lewandowski roaming the final third. Having a healthy Reus and newly-acquired Kevin Kampl will add a fresh look, but the Slovenian international has a lot of pressure on his shoulders to acclimate to the Bundesliga on a short timeline. The only players that can remove that burden are Mkhitaryan and Immobile, who have to finish better when the inevitable scoring chance arises for Dortmund. Their contributions are critical early in the key fixtures Rückrunde campaign with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang just returning from the African Cup of Nations.
The Winterpause might be long, but that month to regather and refocus could be what the club needed to go on the unbeaten run that would pull them to safety. "We are not naively optimistic and know that the pressure situations won't be any less," said Klopp. "But when we look at our situation, we know we can control it."
That control could be lost quickly if Dortmund do not start 2015 the way they need to against Bayer Leverkusen and Augsburg. What was once a comical narrative could flip to a tragic one, a story of how one of the best runs in German football came to a catastrophic end.